Injured star Son Heung-min named to S. Korean World Cup squad

November 14, 2022

The injured South Korean football star Son Heung-min was named to the country’s World Cup squad Saturday, as the football-crazed nation waits with bated breath to see if the beloved captain will be able to compete in Qatar.

Head coach Paulo Bento unveiled his 26-man roster in Seoul on Saturday, 12 days before South Korea’s first Group H match against Uruguay in Qatar. South Korea will also play Ghana on Nov. 28 and then Portugal on Dec. 2.

Son, the reigning Premier League Golden Boot winner for Tottenham Hotspur, underwent surgery on Nov. 4 after suffering multiple fractures around his left eye in a collision with an opposing player during a UEFA Champions League match. Son took to social media Wednesday to declare he will be prepared to play at the World Cup wearing a protective mask if that’s what it takes.

Bento himself had confirmed Thursday, the day before South Korea’s final tuneup against Iceland, that he would select Son, making Saturday’s announcement a mere formality. Bento also said then that the national team would do its best to help Son get ready for the big tournament.

Bento said he has remained in contact with Tottenham’s medical officials, but he wasn’t yet certain exactly when Son would be available to train with the team.

“We need to wait. We need to analyze this situation day by day,” Bento said at a press conference announcing his squad. “We have time to decide. The most important thing is he recovers as well as possible and he feels comfortable. And then, we will take the final decision.”

To guard against Son’s absence, Bento is taking the 21-year-old forward Oh Hyeon-gyu to Qatar, though he didn’t make the team. If everyone on the 26-man roster stays healthy, Bento said Oh will remain out of the list. Should Son or another attacking player can’t go due to an injury, Oh will be the insurance. Teams will be allowed to make last-minute roster changes in case of injuries.

“He’s a player with good technique. He’s physically strong with good mobility,” Bento said. “What we observed in our context made us take this decision.

The team features three goalkeepers, nine defenders, 12 midfielders and two forwards.

Among other notables, RCD Mallorca midfielder Lee Kang-in was selected despite Bento’s long-held reluctance to play the 21-year-old.

Bento was booed when he kept Lee on the bench in a friendly against Cameroon on Sept. 27.

Fans had been calling for more international action for Lee, a precocious talent off to a strong start in his La Liga season but who, prior to his September call-up, hadn’t played for South Korea since March 2021.

Bento had previously defended his decision not to play Lee as a strategic choice without offering further explanation.

With the World Cup roster having been expanded from the typical 23 to 26 this year, Lee received his spot in Qatar, but it remains to be seen whether or when Bento will put him on the field.

“His strong point is technical quality. He has improved certain things compared to (earlier matches). That’s why he is on the list,” Bento said. “Regarding when he will play, I couldn’t say at this moment. In the games, we will see what will happen. I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the World Cup.”

In goal, Kim Seung-gyu of Al-Shabab FC and Jo Hyeon-woo of Ulsan Hyundai FC are back from the 2018 tournament. Whereas Jo was the No. 1 man in Russia then, Kim has since snatched the top job under Bento. Song Bum-keun of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will be the third-string goalkeeper.

On defense, Kim Young-gwon of Ulsan and Hong Chul of Daegu FC are the two carryovers from 2018. Jeonbuk’s Kim Jin-su, nursing a hamstring injury, still made the team even though he did not train with South Korea in the most recent camp. Kim had missed out on the squads for each of the past two World Cups because of injuries.

“We should (manage) his injury in the right way. It’s not an easy problem. We don’t have too much time,” Bento said. “We must talk with our medical department in order to see how he’s in this moment, and when we can integrate him in the collective training session.”

The midfield corps features four returnees from 2018 with Son, Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Lee Jae-sung of Mainz 05 and Jung Woo-young of Al Sadd, though Son and Hwang were both listed as forwards four years ago.

Song Min-kyu of Jeonbuk, who had been on and off the national team in recent months, made the squad the day after scoring South Korea’s lone goal in their 1-0 win over Iceland.

“He finished the season well and what he showed in the training camp, not just in yesterday’s game, was more than enough for us to take the decision to call him up,” Bento said, adding that Song had been a bit unlucky in the recent past because of minor injuries.

The two forwards this year are Hwang Ui-jo of Olympiacos FC and Cho Gue-sung of Jeonbuk, both first-timers.

Hwang has fallen on hard times with his new club in Greece, following a strong stint with FC Girondins de Bordeaux. He has been the most prolific scorer for South Korea on Bento’s watch, dating back to the fall of 2018.

Jung Woo-young and defender Kim Tae-hwan are the senior members of the team at 33, and Lee Kang-in is the youngest at 21.

Of the 26 players, 18 have never been part of the World Cup. Seven of the 26 players are 25 or younger, and two players will turn 26 next week. Five players are over 30 years old.

Three players — midfielder Son Heung-min, defender Kim Young-gwon and goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu — made the World Cup team for the third straight time.

Bento said, despite obvious challenges ahead, he was not concerned about his squad and he was simply “happy” to be playing in the World Cup.

“Our goal is clear: to compete as well as possible in order to achieve the best possible results,” Bento said. “It’s time to be professional, be humble and enjoy the biggest competition.”

South Korea beat Iceland 1-0 Friday with players from leagues in South Korea, China, Japan and the Middle East. The coaching staff and those named to the World Cup squad from Friday’s match will travel to Qatar early Monday. Players based in European leagues will join the national team in Qatar next week.

South Korea will be playing in their 10th consecutive World Cup. They have been to the knockouts twice previously: the semifinals in 2002, when South Korea co-hosted the tournament with Japan, and the round of 16 in 2010 in South Africa.