24/06/2024

Good guy Son Heung-Min quite adept at playing the villain -- as Singapore found out in painful fashion - ESPN

El pasado Martes 11

Good guy Son Heung-Min quite adept at playing the villain -- as Singapore found out in painful fashion - ESPN

For his reputation of being one of football's good guys, Son Heung-Min was quite happy to play the villain against Singapore.

For his reputation of being one of football's good guys, Son Heung-Min was quite happy to play the villain against Singapore.

SINGAPORE -- Son Heung-Min has a reputation for being one of the nicest footballers around.

The Tottenham and South Korea captain most often shows it in his interactions with supporters, even waving to them when he is on the field during a break in play, and also behind closed doors in the way he always tries his best to stop for as many fan -- and even media -- requests as he can.

But one does not achieve what he has in his career -- having now established himself as one of the world's best players -- without having of a mean streak in him if necessary.

As Singapore, in painful fashion, found out on Thursday, Son should be provoked at one own's peril.

Perhaps in a bid to try to unsettle the opponents' talisman right from the get-go to give their team any sort of advantage, or maybe simply in jest, the home fans at Singapore's National Stadium decided to jeer Son from his first touch a minute or so after the opening whistle.

If attempting a bit of gamesmanship to get under his skin in a bid to give the hosts any sort of advantage was indeed the motivation behind the boos -- and frankly there aren't many fathomable reasons why a player of Son's character would receive such a preconceived reception even before a ball had been kicked -- then it spectacularly backfired.

And it was rather unfortunate for the Singapore players that they bore the brunt of the backlash when it had not been them -- a few firm but fair challenges aside -- that had displayed the hostility.

After Lee Kang-In and Joo Min-Kyu both scored inside the opening 20 minutes, Son would produce a virtuoso display after the break to inspire the South Koreans to an emphatic 7-0 win over Singapore -- a result which sealed their place in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup with a game to spare.

Ultimately, with Europe-based stars like Son and Lee leading the charge, and even being able to leave a Premier League man in Hwang Hee-Chan in reserve, South Korea simply had too much quality for the Lions.

The party had begun as early as the 9th minute when Son's first warning shot that forced Hassan Sunny into a smart save was eventually recycled for Lee's sublime opener, as he left Hariss Harun for dead with a superb piece of skill before lashing an unstoppable drive into the back of the net.

Joo soon doubled the visitors' advantage with an unmarked header after Safuwan Baharudin completely lost his direct opponent, but it was from an electrifying four-minute period early on in the second half where the tie was effectively ended.

In trademark fashion in the 53rd minute, Son would tear down the left wing before cutting in on his right foot and clinically firing into the bottom corner -- a feat he would repeat in near-carbon copy fashion just three minutes later.

In between, Lee somehow found the time to add a second of his own after Singapore gave away possession almost straight at the restart from Son's first goal.

Rarely one for the unnecessary, Son soon decided it was time to entertain the crowd -- especially the visiting South Korean fans who had made a concerted effort to drown out the boos with cheers for their skipper -- as he displayed his full range of tricks, before coming excruciatingly close to a hat-trick but for another excellent stop by Hassan.

By the time Son was brought off in the 87th minute, those earlier jeers had turned into a rousing ovation all throughout the arena -- akin to that famous UEFA Champions League night between Manchester United and Real Madrid back in 2003 when the Old Trafford faithful could not help but applaud Brazil legend Ronaldo after his hat-trick, even if it resulted in elimination for their own team.

At that time, more joy had come for South Korea as further efforts from debutant Bae Jun-Ho and Hwang completed the rout.

For Singapore and their hopes of pulling off a remarkable upset, Son had played the role of villain to perfection.

Yet, it did not take long for Son to revert to his more regular role of football's resident nice guy.

"They (the Singapore fans) did what they needed to do," Son told ESPN, when asked after the match if the initial boos had perhaps provided any extra motivation.

"For me, it's still a joy. Even if I got booed, (and) there were also some bad words said, still I enjoy it. I also have a lot of fans in Singapore, which I appreciate.

"When (two teams) play against each other, it's like a war. As a fan, you can't support opposition players -- which I totally understand.

"They (Singapore) had fantastic fans today (Thursday). I want to say (I have) massive, massive respect for this kind of support and the environment it created in the stadium."

Was Son -- a Premier League, Bundesliga and Champions League veteran with over 700 professional games to his name -- ever likely to be put off by the kind of hostile reception he is so used to?

Not quite, if you ask teammate Hwang In-Beom, who said: "As you can imagine, he's a big player -- one of the best in Europe.

"I don't think that kind of pressure and environment was bothering him. He's played in the Champions League and the World Cup.

"I think he handled it very well. And for the Singapore fans, I can imagine they were also happy to see him playing even though they tried to boo (him)."

Indeed, even if they had indeed given him the villain treatment originally, the local faithful were eventually won over -- as most are -- by a good guy like Son.

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