(Yonhap Interview) Iraq football legend hails Son Heung-min as 'one of the best,' predicts strong World Cup showing
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 14 (Yonhap) -- After lifting war-torn Iraq to the improbable title at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in 2007, their captain and all-time great Younis Mahmoud earned a nomination for the Ballon d'Or, the prestigious annual award given to the game's top player.
Mahmoud, who led the Asian Cup in scoring and was named the tournament MVP, became the first Asian player to earn a vote for the Ballon d'Or and finished 29th. It may have been one small step for Mahmoud but an important leap for Asian football.
More than a decade later, South Korea captain Son Heung-min has emerged as the best player in Asia. He finished 22nd in the Ballon d'Or voting in 2019, breaking Mahmoud's record for the best ranking by an Asian player. On the strength of his Golden Boot-winning performance for Tottenham Hotspur in the 2021-2022 season, Son has earned his second Ballon d'Or nomination this year.
Mahmoud, now retired and serving as an ambassador for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, believes Son has secured his place among the world's greatest players.
"He is one of the best players in the world today. Especially in the last five years, he has presented excellent and extraordinary performances being in the Premier League and as part of the Korean team," Mahmoud said through an interpreter during an online interview with Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday. "He ranks among the top along with Mohamed Salah, (Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi. It indicates that there's a great development in football in Asia. Today, the Asians are able to compete with the best players in the world. Son is a very important player."
So far this season, Son has not been able to recapture his magic from his Golden Boot campaign. He has yet to score in six matches in the Premier League and two matches in the UEFA Champions League.
But Mahmoud, who earned 148 caps for Iraq and spent his club career in four countries, believes what Son is going through "is very natural and normal" because every football player experiences slumps at some point.
"This does not mean that the player should not persevere in order to bounce back. And this does not mean Son is not one of the best players in the world," Mahmoud said. "He's actually an amazing influencer in football. I am very sure that he will be presenting the highest performances in the World Cup, especially since that the World Cup is taking place in the Asian continent and we will be having fans from Korea, from Asia and from all over the world. All of their eyes will be directed toward players like Son, who is up there at the level of Messi and Ronaldo."
Mahmoud reflected fondly on his own experience as a Ballon d'Or nominee, saying he felt proud to represent his country.
"Winning the Asian Cup in 2007 under exceptional circumstances was quite a feat for the Iraqi team, because we all know that the situation Iraq was going through and still is going through for more than 40 years (with political problems)," Mahmoud said. "All of that affected the spirit of the team. We were able to overcome all the challenges and obstacles. Being nominated for Ballon d'Or that year was very important to me. It was important that I was able to represent Iraq and rank 29th in the world."
En route to the Asian Cup title, Iraq defeated South Korea on penalties in the semifinals. That victory came on July 25, less than a month after South Korea had blanked Iraq 3-0 in a friendly match on Jeju Island.
Mahmoud recalled that there were "high tensions" within his team before the Asian Cup semifinals, knowing that they were playing a country that had beaten them just weeks ago.
"It was a great challenge. It was an extraordinary game," Mahmoud said. "When we won that game, we were sure that we'd be winning the Asian Cup. All the matches against Korea were hard matches."
Mahmoud is now representing Iraq as an ambassador for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will be the first edition to be staged in the Arab world.
"All the facilities of the World Cup 2022 are of international standards and are of extremely high quality and sophistication," he said. "They provide all the means for the success of the teams and their preparation for the matches."
Mahmoud also marveled at Education City Stadium, where South Korea will play all of their Group H matches against Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana, saying it's "one of a kind stadium with top-notch facilities."
"We have great aspirations for the Korean team, especially it is representing the Asian continent in the World Cup," he said. "I am quite sure that Korea will be performing extremely well during the World Cup. Hopefully, all the Arab countries will be supporting Korean team because Korea is part of Asia represented in the World Cup."
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