From now on, if you lose, you pack your bags. The only way to survive to the end of the day and be crowned Asian soccer emperor is to win.
Asia’s greatest ever player, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, faces a tough test. In just over a week’s time, Son will be preparing for the round of 16 at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) 2023 Qatar Asian Cup at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan on Jan. 31 at 1 a.m. ET. The Klinsmann’s men will face traditional powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
Son Heung-min has scored two goals from penalties in the tournament. This is a bit of a disappointment considering he scored 12 goals and provided five assists in the English Premier League in the 2023-24 season before the Asian Cup. Still, in the national team, he’s done a good job of being a decoy, as the opposition’s No. 1 target is bound to be Son Heung-min.
The problem is that they don’t play as a team. In addition to Son, Klinsmann’s team was expected to feature a forward line that included Lee Kang-in (Paris Saint-Germain), Hwang Hee-chan (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Cho Kyu-sung (Mitwilan), Lee Jae-sung (Mainz 05), Jung Woo-young (Stuttgart), and Oh Hyun-gyu (Celtic). Before the tournament, they were always among the favorites to win the tournament.
After the group stage, South Korea’s chances of winning have dropped significantly. They drew with Jordan and Malaysia, both of whom were rated below them in terms of objective strength. It wasn’t just the rotation. Jürgen Klinsmann’s long-planned and prepared best eleven didn’t win. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that they drew with Jordan and Malaysia because they were at full strength.
A repeat of that performance in a one-sided tournament would likely halt South Korea’s run. Their immediate opponents in the Round of 16, Saudi Arabia, are not much different in terms of strength. The head-to-head record is even at 5 wins, 8 draws, and 5 losses, and in terms of Asian Cup history alone, the Koreans are clearly outclassed with three draws and one loss in four meetings. In 1988 in Qatar, they lost on penalties in the final, and in 2000 in Lebanon, they lost in the semifinals.
A repeat of those disappointing losses to the Saudis would end Son Heung-min’s chances of winning a major tournament. In many ways, it’s hard to accept that Son’s first career title is overdue, not only for South Korea but also for his country.
Son Heung-min will be attempting to win his fourth Asian Cup in his career, following the 2011 tournament in Qatar, 2015 in Australia and 2019 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It all started with Cho Kwang Rae-ho. The 18-year-old scored his debut A-match goal in the final group game against India, marking the birth of a new star. He went on to play as a joker in the semifinals against Japan and the third- and fourth-place matches against Uzbekistan to round out his first Asian Cup.
The 2015 tournament in Australia was Son’s best Asian Cup performance. After a quiet group stage, he exploded in the tournament. His multi-goal performance against Uzbekistan in the quarterfinals and his dramatic equalizer against Australia in the final are still being talked about, but he fell just short of winning the title.
The previous 2019 tournament was not 100% focused on the national team. Due to his participation in the Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games in the summer of 2018, his Asian Cup debut was delayed until the third match of the group stage against China. After joining the squad midway through the tournament, Son failed to adjust to the conditions as he started against China just 57 hours after joining the squad for the final match. He went silent against Bahrain in the round of 16 and Qatar in the quarterfinals.
Son Heung-min is now 31 years old. This is the last Asian Cup he can play in his prime. Depending on his health, he may still be able to participate at 35 in four years’ time, but we don’t know if he’ll be at full strength. If he wants to achieve his goal, he needs to go through the next four matches without losing. It starts against Saudi Arabia.