S. Korea captain Son Heung-min prepared for ‘thorny path’ to 2026 FIFA World Cup

November 15, 2023

As he gears up for his fourth World Cup qualifying tournament, South Korea captain Son Heung-min said Wednesday he isn’t sure if he will stay on the national team throughout the three-year process.

But what he was certain of was that it will not always be smooth sailing for the Taegeuk Warriors.

“The journey toward the World Cup is quite long and isn’t always easy,” Son said at a press conference at Seoul World Cup Stadium in the capital, venue of South Korea’s World Cup qualifying match against Singapore at 8 p.m. Thursday. It will be the first Group C match in the second round for both nations. South Korea will then face China in Shenzhen, China, next Tuesday.

Son Heung-min, captain of the South Korean men's national football team, speaks at a press conference at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on Nov. 15, 2023, the eve of a World Cup qualifying match against Singapore. (Yonhap)
Son Heung-min, captain of the South Korean men’s national football team, speaks at a press conference at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on Nov. 15, 2023, the eve of a World Cup qualifying match against Singapore. (Yonhap)

“There will be times when we don’t play as well as we want to and we end up on a thorny path,” Son added. “As one of the more experienced players, I will have to keep things steady for the younger guys. I really want to play better in these qualifiers than in the past. And I think we have a team that’s capable of doing just that.”

The 31-year-old made his senior international debut in December 2010, and has accumulated 114 caps so far. He has played at each of the past three World Cups to varying degrees of success. South Korea didn’t win a match while taking an exit from the group stage in 2014. They stunned the defending champions Germany in the final group match in 2018 but still didn’t make it to the knockouts. Then last year, Son captained South Korea into the round of 16 in Qatar.

Son wouldn’t comment on whether he will play in his fourth consecutive World Cup in 2026, with the United States, Canada and Mexico as co-hosts.

“I am just trying to do the best I can at the moment,” he said. “I don’t live in the future or the past. My primary focus is on how I should prepare for the next two matches during this training camp. Since we have a lot of young players here, I want to share my experience with them.”

Though South Korea, ranked 24th, will be heavily favored against 155th-ranked Singapore, Son said, “In football, there’s no such a thing as an easy match.”

“In World Cup qualifying, it’s always important to get off to a good start,” Son added. “There are always upsets in football, and I think that’s why people love this sport. We want to make sure we don’t fall victim to an upset here in Korea.”

Singapore will most likely park the bus in their own zone and try to outnumber South Korean attackers in the dangerous area. South Korea have often struggled against tight defenses, though Son said beating a defensive-minded Vietnam 6-0 last month in a friendly match should help South Korea this week.

“When teams set up a low block and play defense from start to finish, it’s never easy. The key is to create and capitalize on chances early,” Son said. “If we play responsibly, then hopefully we’ll be able to score in the early going and have an easier time the rest of the way. I believe in this team’s ability to do that.”

Son’s teammates will look to their veteran talisman to provide some offensive punch, too. He currently sits third in the Premier League scoring with eight goals for Tottenham Hotspur, and will once again be the focal point of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s attacking schemes.

“My job is to create space that will allow my talented teammates to maximize their talent,” Son said, citing the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers winger Hwang Hee-chan and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Lee Kang-in. “The coach gives us a free rein on the field. He always stresses fundamentals, but we’re free to do our own things within his tactical framework. And having the talent to do that is one of our biggest weapons.”