‘He has such a significant presence’: South Koreans sweat on Son’s fitness

Just as the English public became wearily familiar with the bone structures of the foot with metatarsal injuries to David Beckham before the 2002 World Cup and Wayne Rooney four years later, South Korean fans are learning all about facial fractures and eye sockets. Diagrams, X-rays and reports of how long it took other players with similar injuries to return are the order of the day as Son Heung-min recovers from surgery after his head collided with the shoulder of Marseille’s Chancel Mbemba while in action for Tottenham in the Champions League last week.

Antonio Conte spoke for an entire nation on Sunday. “I hope for him he will recover very well and play in the World Cup,” the Spurs manager said. “I am confident, confident that he can come back quickly and play the World Cup for South Korea.”

The surgery seems to have gone well. “We’ve been informed by Tottenham that Son Heung-min had completed a successful procedure,” an official with the Korea Football Association (KFA) said. “But since the surgery just took place, it’s too early at this point to discuss his status for the World Cup. The national team’s medical staff has remained in contact with Tottenham regarding Son’s injury.”

So starts the saga that is set to drag on at least for some time yet but the uncertainty isn’t about whether Son will be in Qatar. “We fully expect Son will go,” a high-ranking KFA official told the Guardian. “We just have to see if he can play.” The 30-year-old is so important that his place is almost certainly assured regardless of his condition when the squad is named on Saturday or, indeed, for the first game, against Uruguay 12 days later, or Ghana and Portugal after that.

Son is singing from the same hymn sheet. “Playing for your country at the World Cup is the dream of so many children growing up, just as it was one of mine too,” he wrote on Instagram on Wednesday. “I won’t miss this for the world. I can’t wait to represent our beautiful country.”

“I think the national team should not be without Heung-min,” said Ki Sung-yeung, who played with Son at the past two World Cups. “Heung-min’s name just by itself can put pressure on opponents.” Ki, who played for Celtic, Swansea and Sunderland, has spoken to Son and reported back. “He is ready to try even while wearing a mask.”

Just the possibility of the Premier League Golden Boot joint-winner coming off the bench late in games against tiring opposition would make a difference to Korea and, perhaps, their opponents. And even if that fails Qatar still beckons. It helps that coaches can select 26 players instead of the usual 23, meaning there is room for a special passenger. “He has such a significant presence on the national team, and there should be ways he can help the team as a reserve,” the well-known television commentator and columnist Park Moon-sung said. “He can also be a cheerleader on the bench for some younger guys.”

If it comes to that, so be it. Son is not only the star but popular and respected in the team. The coach, Paulo Bento, already in a pre-tournament training camp with South Korea’s non-Europe-based players, has been photographed looking suitably serious and contemplative. There are questions as to what plan B will look like, a recognition that Korea’s attacking strategy has relied on the Spurs man. Bento, whose last game as a Portugal player came against South Korea at the 2002 World Cup and who will be hoping that his last game as a Korea coach does not come against Portugal in the 2022 tournament, has selected the team’s only world-class player, talisman, attacking fulcrum and an increasingly deadly free-kick expert at every opportunity.

The problem is that Son is needed more than ever because other attackers are not exactly firing. His friend and fellow Chuncheon-born forward Hwang Hee-chan has struggled with Wolves after a good start when joining in August 2021. “The Bull” doesn’t play so much these days and has scored once in the past 12 months. Hwang Ui-jo got an impressive 11 goals last season as Bordeaux were relegated and then joined Nottingham Forest. On loan to Olympiakos, the 30-year-old also has played little this season and scored even less.

No pressure, then, on Son, but it was ever thus. The burdens of playing for his country look to have weighed heavily at times. The relatively poor start to the season was not going to change anything for South Korea. In the past, blistering club form has not always translated into something similar for his country, so an under-the-weather Son was not necessarily a major issue. It goes without saying that an injured Son is different however.

Perhaps it is all setting up for a moment to treasure. Son has yet to really have that magical moment in his national team colours, one that everyone will remember, and lead them to the knockout stages. His past two World Cup appearances are not memorable. Brazil 2014 was a huge disappointment, at a team level at least, and the 2-0 win over Germany in Russia failed to cover the cracks of a disappointing campaign.

It may well be that after poor form, injury and surgery the stage will be set in Qatar, ready for Son to return just in time to deliver glory. If not, at least a lot more people will have learned about the complex bone structures of the face.