By Gawon Bae, CNN
Minutes before the Tottenham Hotspur squad landed in Seoul on July 10, hundreds of fans gathered at Incheon airport began screaming in surprise.
South Korean Tottenham star Son Heung-min made an unexpected appearance from his vacation to welcome his visiting teammates to his home country for a pre-season tour.
Home fans reacted to everything Son did – even an innocuous hand gesture.
“Welcome to Seoul,” the South Korean striker said happily to his teammates as they exited the arrivals terminal to begin their summer tour.
What Tottenham described as a ‘special’ greeting may not be this new experience for their 30-year-old striker.
When Son returned home with his historic golden shoe in late May, fans greeted him at the airport, shouting, “Heung-min, we love you!” as cameras flashed and captured the nation’s most adored athlete.
From Chuncheon to North London
Son started playing soccer as a child in Chuncheon, located about 46 miles northeast of Seoul, under the supervision of his father.
He was chosen as one of six members of the Korea Football Association (KFA) FA Youth Project in 2009 to join the youth academy of German team Hamburg, where he eventually joined the first team and made his professional debut at the age of 18.
Son made a name for himself in the Bundesliga, first at Hamburg and then at Bayer Leverkusen, where he became the first Korean to score a hat-trick in a major European league.
In 2015, the South Korean star made a big move from Leverkusen to Premier League regulars Tottenham just three days before the summer transfer window closed.
Since then he has broken records set by his role models Park Ji-sung, the first Korean to play in the Premier League and only Asian player to win the UEFA Champions League, and Cha Bum-kun, who played more than 300 games in the Bundesliga for Eintracht Frankfurt and Leverkusen from 1979 to 1989.
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In May, Son surpassed Cha’s record of 17 goals as the most goals scored by a Korean player in a season in a European league. He also became the first Asian footballer to win the Premier League Golden Boot with 23 goals this season, level with Liverpool’s Mo Salah.
Having made his 100th international appearance in June, the striker also plays a vital role in the national team.
Son won gold at the Asian Games in 2018 and paved the way for South Korea’s famous 2-0 victory over Germany in the group stage of the Russia 2018 World Cup, placing the winner additional time in an empty net.
South Korea’s love for ‘Sonny’ and Spurs
Prior to Son’s transfer to north London, Tottenham was known in South Korea as the team for which 2002 World Cup hero Lee Young-pyo played. But the team was nowhere near as recognized as Manchester United, a team the country loved because of Park.
When Park retired in 2014, Korean football fans and the media were looking for the “Next Park”, a player who could lead the Korean game.
Although a few other Korean footballers joined the Premier League after Park, none reached the level of success of the Red Devils midfielder.
Son was the 13th South Korean to join England’s top league when he completed the £27m ($41.56m) move to Spurs, signing a five-year contract with the club in 2015.
As he moved to North London and began to establish himself as a top player, Tottenham also became the most watched and supported foreign team in South Korea.
Football fans or not, Koreans are in love with their sensational goalscorer and his club.
Attending a Spurs game has become a staple for Koreans when traveling to Europe, Son shirts are flying off the shelves in the Asian nation, and if their hero scores a goal, news broadcasts cover it extensively.
Despite the eight or nine hour time difference (depending on summer time), people are still up to watch Tottenham play. Live streams of Spurs’ 2021/22 season final against Norwich City – where Son scored a brace to secure the Golden Boot – at midnight on a Monday Korea time had a view of almost 5.5% across the country, according to Nielson.
Son’s popularity led to the establishment of four official Spurs supporters’ clubs across South Korea, including Gangwon-do Spurs, the province of his hometown of Chuncheon.
People were delighted when Tottenham announced their pre-season tour of Seoul – the club’s first visit with Son and the full squad – and it wasn’t too long before tickets for both Spurs matches are not sold.
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In addition to Son’s historic accomplishments, fans say they are in love with his humble character.
Having returned to playing under the guidance of his father, himself a retired footballer, Son still credits his father for his success.
In his book ‘What I Thought While I Played Football’, the footballer said his father often told him ‘to be humble’. His son’s father, Woon-jung, told Korean media in June that he still believed his son was not a world-class player, even after winning the Golden Boot.
When Son posted a Golden Shoe appreciation message on his Instagram, fans gushed in awe: “He speaks well,” “You are world class,” and “I’m so proud of you as a Korean”.
That admiration was on display on a soggy Wednesday night in Seoul, when 64,100 fans packed the capital’s World Cup stadium to watch Spurs take on the K League side.
After a resounding 6-3 victory where the home hero scored a brace, ‘Sonny’ thanked the fans for coming out late on the rainy night, making them fall in love with him all over again.
And with one more friendly for Spurs in South Korea when they take on Sevilla at 8pm local time on Saturday, it’s likely Tottenham will win even more fans in the country of their Asian superstar.
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