A few minutes before Tottenham Hotspur’s squad touched down in Seoul on July 10, hundreds of fans gathered at Incheon Airport started screaming out of surprise.
Tottenham’s South Korean star Son Heung-min made an unannounced appearance from his vacation to welcome his teammates visiting his home country for a preseason tour.
Local fans reacted to everything Son did – even an innocuous hand wave.
“Welcome to Seoul,” the South Korean forward cheerily said to his teammates as they made their way out of the arrivals terminal to begin their summer tour.
What Tottenham described as a “special” greeting may not be that novel of an experience for its 30-year-old forward.
When Son came home holding his historic Golden Boot in late May, fans greeting him at the airport screamed, “Heung-min, we love you!” as cameras flashed and captured the country’s most adored athlete.
From Chuncheon to North London
Son started playing football as a child in Chuncheon, located about 46 miles northeast of Seoul, under his father’s supervision.
He was picked as one of six members of the Korea Football Association’s (KFA) FA Youth Project in 2009 to join German side Hamburg’s youth academy, where he eventually advanced to the first team and made his professional debut at the age of 18.
Son made a name for himself in the Bundesliga, first at Hamburg then at Bayer Leverkusen, where he became the first Korean to score a hat-trick in a major European league.
In 2015, the South Korean star made a big move from Leverkusen to Premier League regular Tottenham, just three days before the summer transfer window closed.
Since then, he has been breaking records set by his role models Park Ji-sung, the first Korean to play in the Premier League and only Asian player to win the UEFA Champions League, and Cha Bum-kun, who played over 300 matches in the Bundesliga for Eintracht Frankfurt and Leverkusen from 1979 to 1989.
READ: Inside the Benfica Campus, one of the world’s greatest football talent factories
In May, Son surpassed Cha’s record of 17 goals as the most goals scored by a Korean player in a season in a European league. He also became the first Asian footballer to clinch the Premier League’s Golden Boot with 23 goals in the season – level with Liverpool’s Mo Salah.
Having made his 100th international appearance in June, the forward also plays a vital role in the national team.
Son won Asian Games gold in 2018 and led the way in South Korea’s famous 2-0 victory over Germany in the 2018 Russia World Cup group stage, slotting home the game-securing, injury-time winner into an empty net.
South Korea’s love for ‘Sonny’ and Spurs
Before Son’s transfer to north London, Tottenham was known in South Korea as the team which 2002 World Cup hero Lee Young-pyo had played for. But the team was not anywhere nearly as recognized as Manchester United, a team that the country adored due to Park.
When Park retired in 2014, Korean football fans and media were searching for the “Next Park,” a player that could lead the Korean game.
Although a few other Korean footballers joined the Premier League following Park, none achieved the level of success of the Red Devils midfielder.
Son was the 13th South Korean to join England’s top league when he made the £27 million ($41.56M) transfer to Spurs, signing a five-year contract with the club in 2015.
As he settled in north London and started getting more established as a top-tier player, Tottenham also became the most watched and best-supported overseas team in South Korea.
Whether they’re football fans or not, Koreans are in love with their sensational striker and his club.
Attending a Spurs match has become a must-do for Koreans when traveling in Europe, Son shirts are flying off the shelves in the Asian nation, and if their hero scores a goal, news broadcasts cover him extensively.
Despite the eight or nine-hour time difference (depending on daylight savings time), people stay up to watch Tottenham play. Live broadcasts of Spurs’ 2021/22 season finale against Norwich City – where Son scored a brace to secure the Golden Boot – at midnight on a Monday Korea time had an almost 5.5% rating view across the country, according to Nielson.
Son’s popularity has led to the creation of four official Spurs supporters’ clubs across South Korea, including Gangwon-do Spurs, the province of his hometown of Chuncheon.
People were thrilled when Tottenham announced its preseason tour to Seoul – the club’s first visit with Son and the full squad – and it didn’t take too long before tickets to Spurs’ two matches were sold out.
READ: Women’s Euro 2022 – Attendance records broken with 15 games left as France beats Belgium 2-1
On top of Son’s history-making achievements, fans say they are in love with his humble character.
Having picked up the game under his father’s coaching, who himself is a retired footballer, Son always gives credit for his success to his father.
In his book, ‘What I Thought While I Was Playing Football,’ the footballer said that his father often told him to “be humble.” Son’s father, Woon-jung, told Korean media in June that he still thinks his son is not a world-class player, even after bringing home the Golden Boot.
When Son posted a Golden Boot appreciation post on his Instagram, fans gushed with admiration: “He speaks nicely,” “You are a world-class,” and “I’m so proud of you as a Korean.”
That admiration was on display on a drenched Wednesday evening in Seoul, when 64,100 fans filled the capital’s World Cup Stadium to watch Spurs take on Team K League.
After a rousing 6-3 win where the local hero scored a brace, ‘Sonny’ thanked the fans for coming out on a late rainy night, making the fans fall in love with him yet again.
And with one more friendly to go for Spurs in South Korea when they face off against Sevilla at 8 p.m. local time on Saturday, it’s likely that Tottenham will gain even more fans in the land of their Asian superstar.