Son Heung-min willing to represent S. Korea at Olympics: coach

May 24, 2021

Tottenham Hotspur’s South Korean star Son Heung-min famously helped his country to the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games. Three years later, the national football icon would like to do the same at the Olympics in Tokyo.

To hear Kim Hak-bum, head coach of the South Korean Olympic football team, tell it on Monday, motivation or drive to compete for the country at the Summer Games is not a concern for Son.

The only — and perhaps the largest — obstacle at hand is whether Son’s Premier League club has the same willingness.

Unlike other FIFA-sanctioned matches or tournaments, clubs aren’t obliged to release their international players for the Olympics. The Summer Games in Tokyo are scheduled to begin in late July, just before the start of the new Premier League season. Given Son’s importance as one of the club’s top scorers, the Spurs are unlikely to make Son available.

Still, that doesn’t mean Kim won’t give it a try.

“(Son) is willing to play at the Olympics, but that willingness alone may not get the job done because European clubs tend to view their players as assets,” Kim said at a press conference Monday, after announcing his roster for a pair of Olympic tuneup matches against Ghana in June.

The Olympic men’s football tournament is typically open to players 23 or younger. Because the Tokyo Games were postponed by a year, the age limit has been raised to 24 for this year, covering players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997. Each team is allowed to pick three players over that limit and Son, 28, is on the top of Kim’s list.

That list also includes Bordeaux forward Hwang Ui-jo, who led the 2018 Asian Games with nine goals and has thrived in France.

“We’ve been in touch with these candidates (for overage spots), but I don’t know what the odds are that I’ll be able to get all the guys that I want,” Kim conceded. “But we do have Plan Bs in case things don’t go our way.”

Son and Hwang will add scoring punch up front. If they can’t make the Olympic squad, then Kim will have to choose from a pool of under-24 attackers, some of whom will get looks at the June matches against Ghana.

“They have to be aggressive and be able to help out on transition defense,” the coach said. “Defense starts from offense. Everyone has to get involved on defense, and I’ll try to check if the players are durable enough to handle that.”

Kim’s team will play Ghana on June 12 and 15. His training camp will overlap with that for the senior national team, which will play World Cup qualifying matches on June 5, 9 and 13.

Kim and the senior team coach, Paulo Bento, each made some concessions in selecting players: some Olympic-eligible players were named to Bento’s squad, and U-24 players who would have been good enough for the senior team were called up to Kim’s roster instead.

Still, the process left a lot to be desired for Kim, who said he wasn’t pleased how the senior team still took precedence over the Olympic team.

“Executives at the Korea Football Association tried hard to mediate, but it didn’t change the fact that the senior team came first,” Kim said. “I think it’s due to the cultural difference. In Europe, Olympic football teams are nothing. But in Korean football, the Olympic tournament is really important. I told Bento (who is Portuguese) as much.”

The two upcoming matches will be the final opportunities for Kim to see players in action before finalizing his 18-man roster. Take away three overage places, and under-24 players are competing for 15 roster spots.

The current squad features a trio of Europe-based players in Lee Kang-in (Valencia CF), Jeong Woo-yeong (SC Freiburg) and Lee Seung-woo (Portimonense).

Kim insisted no one is assured of a spot at the moment, regardless of their club affiliation.

“I don’t think players based in Europe have any advantage over others,” Kim said. “I’ll monitor players from all angles.”

Kim acknowledged that there are some players that he couldn’t pick for the matches because of injuries and added he will give them additional looks in club action once they recover. Otherwise, the final roster will be built with players from the current squad.