A tale of two cities: Insight on two of Korea’s brightest youth prospects – Part I

A tale of two cities: Insight on two of Korea’s brightest youth prospects – Part I

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be too much in common between the port cities of Hamburg and Gwangyang. The former, a bustling metropolitan city nestled cozily on the bank of the River Elbe, exudes the kind of celebrated and storied history that you would expect of centuries of Teutonic culture and affluence. The latter, in contrast, lacks all of the panache of a sophisticated European hub but, like many Korean cities on the southern end of the peninsula, marries a surprisingly attractive blend of industrial grittiness, rich cultural heritage, impressive technological infrastructure and bucolic scenery.

Springtime for...Gwangyang?

In footballing regards, too, both cities present different and unique takes on the modern professional football team that mirror their own idiosyncrasies. Hamburger SV, having an immense historical paper trail dating back to the late 19th century, is the epitome of a European footballing juggernaut, having won six national titles and the European Cup (the progenitor of today’s UEFA Champions League) once. Gwangyang’s footballing representative, Jeonnam Dragons, by comparison, have a mere sixteen years of history and only a K-League runners-up award and FA Cup winners’ award to show for it. So with such apparent disparity between the two cities and sides, what do Hamburg and Gwangyang have in common?

The answer is one that has been in the works for a while but only has become been self-evident fairly recently.

In 2008, the Korean Football Association (KFA) entered into a well-publicized agreement with Hamburg SV and 1. Nurnberg FC of the Bundesliga whereby six youth players, three to each team, would be allowed to train, learn, and experience the football there for approximately one year (July 29, 2008 to June 2009). The three that went to Hamburg were Kim Jong-Pil (midfielder), Son Heung-Min (midfielder), and Kim Min-Hyuk (forward). The three that went to Nurnberg were Kim Hak-Chan (forward), Kim Dae-Kwang (defender), and Lee Kang (forward). In addition, Dongbuk’s coach, Kim Jong-Kun, also went to Hamburg. This foreign-exchange agreement is one of many that the KFA has recently established with top tier European clubs in order to hone and develop the coaching knowledge, youth abilities and techniques, and strategies for a complete bottom-to-top approach in cultivating talent in Korean football. Notably, the KFA had one batch of youngsters move through the Reading program during the 2006-2007 season — that of Kim Won-Sik and Nam Tae-Hee of Valenciennes and Ji Dong-Won of Jeonnam. The emergence of two of that crop of young talents, Son Heung-Min and Ji Dong-Won, then, may be seen as the intended objectives of the program coming to their natural fruition. This week, this editorial will cover the former, Son Heung-Min of Hamburg SV.

At 182 cm and 70kg and only 18 years of age, the red-haired, baby-faced Son Heung-Min cuts an odd figure amongst some of the more roughhewn faces of Hamburg’s senior team. But the youthful persona of the former captain of Korea’s U-17 national team belies a body brimming with athleticism and full of footballing ability. As an alumnus of 동북고, or Dongbuk high school, the de facto U-18/youth academy for FC Seoul, Son finds himself in the company of a number of South Korea’s greatest talents including the likes of Lee Hoi-Taek and Hong Myung-Bo and well-known league players like Kim Eun-Jung. The influence of the school is such that the effect can be immediately seen at FC Seoul where recent youth players like midfielders Moon Ki-Han and Lee Sang-Hyup play or have played for the senior squad. And while Son benefitted from the quality of the footballing tutelage he received at Dongbuk it was ultimately his good performances in the U-17 World Cup, where an impressive Korea made the quarterfinals, that convinced Hamburg to take the player in again after the expiration of his initial academy experience with the club. Scorching solo efforts against Algeria and Nigeria and a clinical strike against Uruguay impressed the Hamburg youth scouts enough to offer him full-time enrollment in their academy in early November of 2009. His father Son Woong-Jung, the current coach of Chuncheon FC in Gangwon-do, also noted at the time that there was a contractual clause offering him a professional contract once he made the grade.

Son scores the second goal against Uruguay in the 2009 U-17 World Cup

And make the grade he did. Although accomplished at the academy level where he would regularly find the back of the net during spring of 2010, Son Heung-Min’s name still was a relatively obscure one. It was not until manager Armin Veh gave a handful of promising youth players a chance to impress that Son took full advantage and put in a series of inspired performances in training and scrimmages that convinced the coaching staff to let him continue through Hamburg’s preseason. The midfielder took every gilt-edged opportunity to impress that came his way, scoring and putting in ebullient showings that won over many fans in the process, making himself somewhat of a fan favorite. “Der Hammer” (‘The Hammer’ or ‘the Rocket’) as he is known, showed impressive pace, physicality, dribbling technique and shooting so much so that fans have hailed Son as a ‘Korean Müller’ or ‘Messi’ and even an impressed Franz Beckenbauer recently stated that he has all the tools to “become the second Cha Bum-Keun”

The culmination of this fairytale preseason for Son, however, was bittersweet as another impressive, if fleeting, cameo saw an electric Son net a cool winner against Chelsea FC of the English Premier League but fracturing the metatarsal of his left foot shortly thereafter; an injury necessitating at least 7-8 weeks of recovery and rehabilitation. As the initial shock of the injury blow has smoldered and died, belief from the coaching staff and fans still remains strong that Son Heung-Min is capable of living up to the enormous potential that he has shown and that even such a debilitating injury would little more than stymie the kind of contagious enthusiasm and alacrity his abilities have shown.

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  1. The young generation is clearly talented. Great editorial WS.

  2. Thanks for the insight into Son… I didn’t know anything about him before last month so this was a good read. Hope he can keep it up and impress us at the World Cup in four years!

    • Woong-Soo /

      @Pat. Thanks for the comment! Yes, Son has made a fairly impressive rise to stardom in such little time — you almost wonder how many of our talented players slip through the cracks due to unforeseen circumstances.

  3. Taehwan /

    Awesome editorial. Thank you for your insight. I’m terribly sad he got injured in the Chelsea match although he scored a goal. I hope he recovers soon.

    • Woong-Soo /

      @Taehwan. Appreciate the comment! Here’s hoping to a speedy recovery!

  4. Great commentary WS! Btw, I read in the Korean newspapers that Son experienced a growth spurt over the summer. Hamburg recently measured him and were estatic to learn that he’s now 187 cm tall.

    I hope the KFA re-establishes the youth exchange program. They discontinued it for budgetary reasons last year (or 2 years ago?). Currently, only Son at Hamburg, Baek at Barcalona and Kim at Real Madrid receive stipends (according to KBS). But they’re trying to get it up and running again. Apparently, we have 29 active footballers who’ve been sent overseas through this program. I hope we send more to France and Germany. I don’t think Reading was the best place to have had Ji Dong Won and co. spend their year in development.

    I can’t wait to see a starting front line of Ji Dong Won, PCY and Son. And our bench should be stacked by 2014 with other striking options if the likes of Suk ever develop. Hopefully we can successfully grow our talents in defence as well by 2014…

    • Woong-Soo /

      @Joe. Dartmouth man, huh? I won’t hold that against you ;) Just kidding.

      You are correct and thanks for the correction — Son is in fact 187 cm which puts him at about 6 foot, 1.5 inches. According to the Hamburger Morgenpost (Hamburg Morning Post), he’s been doing a lot of bulking up to ‘grow’ into his relatively new frame and I felt that he adapted very quickly to the physicality of first team matches during the pre-season, perhaps indicative of his weight training program. Nonetheless, while the youth abroad program was scuppered for the time being, I believe they do import some coaches and managers to hold youth training programs and seminars.

      Reading may have not been the best place to send Nam, Ji, and Kim but when I saw Nam against Olympique Lyon last season, he had definitely bulked up and was very comfortable in asserting his physicality, holding off much bigger midfielders and defenders. I believe the physical acclimation was a consequence of being adequately trained in the art of the rough-and-tumble of an EPL club. Kim Won-Sik, although I’ve seen very little of him, is supposed to be physically imposing and can slot in as either defender or midfielder.

      Out of all of them though, I hold Nam in highest regard but, quixotically enough, he is the one that I’ve seen arguably the least of due to his foot injury last year and the relative lack of popularity of Valenciennes. There was an article on Naver maybe two or three weeks ago regarding his being scouted by Arsene Wenger shortly before being signed by Valenciennes. Incidentally, the club that he was trialling at was Hamburg SV but later Nam said that he preferred the north of France to the north of Germany and ultimately went with Valenciennes when they approached him, beating Wenger to the punch quickly as he was in high demand apparently.

  5. nam tae hee and son heung min

  6. Steve /

    Excellent. Looking forward to Part Two!

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