Son Heung-min hoping S. Korea will build on positive World Cup momentum
By Yoo Jee-ho
PAJU, South Korea, March 21 (Yonhap) -- A little over three months after South Korea's heady run to the knockout stage at the FIFA World Cup, Son Heung-min is back with the national team, along with most of his teammates from the big tournament in Qatar.
As South Korea prepare to face Colombia and Uruguay in friendly matches later this month, Son is hoping his team will pick up where they left off.
"I think the World Cup has clearly had positive effects on some players," Son told reporters Tuesday before a training session at the National Football Center (NFC) in Paju, about 30 kilometers northwest of Seoul. "It was a confidence boost for us, and it was a great learning experience. The most important thing is to maintain that momentum and not get drunk with success. I think the vibe in the room is pretty good right now."
South Korea rode a dramatic, 2-1 victory over heavily favored Portugal in their final group match to reach the round of 16 in Qatar, only the country's third appearance in the knockout phase. Though South Korea fell to Brazil 4-1 in their first knockout match, it did little to dampen the excitement surrounding the feisty squad captained by Son.
In their first match since the World Cup, South Korea will face Colombia at 8 p.m. Friday in Ulsan, some 310 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Then it will be a World Cup rematch against Uruguay at 8 p.m. next Tuesday in Seoul.
While almost all players from the World Cup squad are back, there has been one significant change. Former German star Jurgen Klinsmann is now in charge, having succeeded Paulo Bento, and Klinsmann has assembled a new backroom staff too.
Son has been starring for Tottenham since 2015, and Klinsmann too played for Spurs across two separate stints in the 1990s. Son said it was "special" to be playing for a Tottenham legend on the national team.
"At Tottenham, we still have people who spent time with coach Klinsmann back in his playing days, and he has such a sterling reputation," Son said. "I have only had brief conversations with him, but I could already tell he was a great man who cares so much about players. Tottenham officials told me we have an exceptional coach for South Korea, and that only raised my expectations."
Sounding rather fatalistic, though, Son said he understands it won't always be smooth sailing with Klinsmann at the helm, and the key is for players and staff to stick together.
"I don't know how long coach Klinsmann will be with us. In four years with coach Bento, we had some great times but also some challenging ones as well," Son said. "We were able to last together as long as we did, because we always trusted each other. And with the new staff, we're bound to experience some difficult times, but I am sure we will have a lot to learn from those moments too."
Son said he and his teammates will not shy away from peppering the staff with questions.
"They've experienced things in football that we haven't experienced, and they should have so much to share with us," Son said. "Every small piece of advice they can offer us will be helpful."
Son was captain for most of Bento's four-year tenure but said Tuesday he wasn't certain if he'd keep his armband on for Klinsmann.
One thing he was certain of, though, was that Son will be trying to play just the kind of attacking football that Klinsmann has declared he will implement.
"The players here understand each other's strengths, and we have been together for a long time," Son said. "Obviously, we all want to score as many goals as possible. But we will try not to put too much pressure on ourselves and instead just enjoy playing off each other."
Klinsmann's oft-stated objective with South Korea is to win the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in January 2024 in Qatar. South Korea's last Asian Cup title came in 1960.
Son, who lost to Australia in the 2015 Asian Cup final, said it has been a long dream of his to snap the long continental title drought.
"We won't get the championship trophy for free. We have to really fight for it," Son said. "I've lost in the final once and lost in the quarterfinals too. I think we can learn from those missed opportunities as we prepare for the upcoming tournament."
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