He is revered like a superstar, an icon, a superhero – and behind the mask, Son Heung-min carries the weight of a nation’s hopes. The South Korea captain is a footballer who transcends the sport in his home country.
“He is more famous than Beyonce,” one supporter told BBC Sport. Another said: “He makes people proud to be Korean.” When South Korea take on Brazil in the last 16 of the World Cup on Monday (19:00 GMT kick-off), Tottenham forward Son is the man those back home will look to for inspiration.
His picture is on the side of a skyscraper in Doha throughout the World Cup, just a few buildings down from Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Before each of South Korea’s group matches, there were fans bearing Son’s name on the back of their shirts everywhere you turned. “Of course Son is our favourite player. We know he will score,” three friends told BBC Sport before their 0-0 draw with Uruguay.
A family all wearing matching Son shirts had travelled from Asia to Doha to watch him during the group stages. On the Metro, Doha’s newly built local transport system, fans carried cardboard cut-outs of Son’s profile – one titled “a Sonny day” – before their 3-2 defeat by Ghana.
When his name was read out for the first time during the warm-up at their opening match against Uruguay at Education City Stadium, there was a crescendo of noise coming from the South Korea fans, with many on their feet in excitement as his face was shown on the large screen.There were a few days when many in South Korea feared Son would not play at the World Cup after he suffered a fracture around his left eye in Tottenham’s Champions League match against Marseille on 1 November.
That would have been a mighty blow to fans, who gave the 30-year-old an incredible homecoming when he arrived in South Korea with his Premier League Golden Boot award in May. But the striker recovered in time and joined the squad in Qatar wearing a black protective mask, fitting in with his tag as a ‘superhero’.
Son has delivered on so many occasions for his national team, netting 35 goals in 107 appearances, and nobody has scored more goals for his country at the World Cup (three). His 35 international goals place him joint fourth, alongside Kim Jae-han, in South Korea’s all-time leading scorers.
Son is yet to get off the mark in Qatar but supporters invariably stand up and cheer in anticipation when he has the ball at his feet. His crucial moment so far came in stoppage time against Portugal when he carried the ball to the edge of the box and slid in Hwang Hee-chan to score a winner and send South Korea into the last 16.
Son fell to his knees at full-time, taking off his mask as tears rolled down his face, overcome with emotion. It is just the third time South Korea have reached the knockout stages of the World Cup.
And while last-16 opponents Brazil are favourites, South Korean fans believe they have a chance with their star man in the side. Son is aiming to become only the second player from his country – after former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung – to score at least once at three World Cups.
While Brazil have many superstars there is no doubt who South Korea’s is, and Son will have the hopes of a nation on his shoulders once again as he seeks to lead his side into the World Cup last eight.