With his devastating pace, dazzling stepovers and deadly finishing, Heung-min Son has made Wembley his playground. Long before Son shone with Tottenham Hotspur, however, the South Korean was lighting up the Bundesliga. bundesliga.com looks back on the 26-year-old’s spectacular rise to prominence.
The son of a former footballer and coach, Son left his school and his home early in order to make his dreams a reality. At the age of 16, he followed his parents’ advice by arriving in Hamburg in 2008 along with two of his fellow countrymen.
Watch: Heung-min Son: Made in the Bundesliga
The move was part of a deal struck between the German club and the South Korean football association, and Son was determined to make the most of it. Combining schoolwork in Germany with playing alongside the likes of future German international Shkodran Mustafi, Son told Hamburger Abendblatt that he had become bored by a strict training regime in his homeland and found conditions much better in Germany.
While his two compatriots soon returned to South Korea, Son lasted the course. By the summer of 2010 - his first year with the first team – the teenager was outscoring established stars like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mladen Petric in pre-season.
“His movements and his turns are outstanding,” the then Hamburg manager Armin Veh said. “At 18 years of age, Son can already do so much that others at 30 years of age can’t.”
A dream debut for a rising star
Son was soon handed a first professional contract but he broke his foot – shortly after scoring the winner – in a friendly against Chelsea that same summer.
He did not have to wait too long, though, to make a memorable Bundesliga debut. Still only 18, the Chuncheon native needed only 24 minutes to make his mark against Cologne in October 2010.
Timing a run to perfection, he showed his trademark speed of movement and thought by racing on to a pass over the top. He then calmly lifted the ball over home goalkeeper Miro Varvodic and slotted into an empty net to give his side a 2-1 lead. Although the Red Shorts ultimately lost 3-2, the lively winger had already made a lasting impression.
“After one training session you can see that he’s something special,” his Hamburg teammate van Nistelrooy told Bild soon afterwards.
“Son is the future – HSV will have a lot of fun with him. He is young, has a good head on his shoulders, and at 18 years old is already decisive in the Bundesliga. It’s already outstanding, how he has established himself - but he will still develop further.”
Son scored three goals in 14 appearances in his first Bundesliga season, and was rewarded with a new contract in November and by making his senior international debut a month later.
During the following campaign Hamburg became embroiled in a relegation dogfight, however, and a tougher phase of their star teenager’s apprenticeship began. After suffering from injury and a loss of form, though, Son returned to score two vital goals in April – including a winning one against Hannover – to ensure Hamburg would remain in the top flight.
Emboldened by that experience, Son would make the 2012/13 campaign his best yet. He netted twice in a 3-2 victory over defending champions Borussia Dortmund in September 2012, and a few months later he replicated that effort in a 4-1 away win over Jürgen Klopp’s title holders. Son would end the campaign with 12 goals and two assists as Hamburg finished seventh.
Loving life at Leverkusen
Inevitably Son was being compared to Bum-kun Cha, the first South Korean to play in the Bundesliga. Cha won the UEFA Cup with both Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen in the 1980s, and by the end of his career in Germany he had netted 98 goals in 308 top-flight matches.
In June 2013 - shortly before his 21st birthday - Son would follow in Cha’s footsteps by signing for Leverkusen, who reportedly paid €10 million for his services.
“Heung-min Son is quick, agile, technically strong and has a fantastic shot,” Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler said at the time. “He will help us achieve our goals in the Bundesliga, DFB Cup and Champions League.”
One of the best players ever to play for Hamburg would not disappoint at Leverkusen. The South Korean struck a hat-trick in a 5-3 win over his former club in November 2013, and he hit double figures in the Bundesliga in his two seasons with Die Werkself.
Son helped them to a top-four finish twice, and also shone on the European stage. He netted five Champions League goals in the 2014/15 season, and might have scored more had Leverkusen’s run not ended with an agonising penalty shootout defeat against Atletico Madrid in the last 16.
Spurs came calling in August 2015 and it’s easy to see why. Players like Son - tireless, lethal on the counter attack and comfortable using either foot – are hard to come by. Son’s positive attitude was evident from the start of his career too, when he maintained that he didn’t have a favourite position.
“It doesn’t bother me where I play,” he told Hamburger Morgenpost in 2010. “The main thing is that I’m involved. I can play on the right, on the left, through the centre or behind the front man. What the coach says, I’ll do.”
Such flexible attackers are worth their weight in gold, and Son is targeting some as well.
“In Korea, they say that you should dream bigger than big,” he told FourFourTwo this year. “All football players want to win awards like the Ballon d’Or, and that is one of my dreams.”
While South Korea's early 2018 FIFA World Cup exit has likely hindered that ambition, it was another German defence - Joachim Löw's - who were the latest to be burned by Son's box of tricks; that it was a former Bundesliga star (41 goals in 135 top-flight outings), who scored the goal that confirmed Germany's exit was somehow fitting.