SEOUL– When Son Heung-min joined the South Korean men’s national football team on Tuesday for upcoming World Cup qualifying matches, it wasn’t apparent to him that the country had long clinched a spot in the big tournament, and that for all intents and purposes, the team had little left to play for.
Instead, what Son saw in his teammates was a great deal of hunger and determination, as if they hadn’t accomplished anything yet.
And the captain is grateful for that.
“Our objective all along had been to qualify for the World Cup and we have taken care of that business. But the mood within the team is that we are not satisfied yet,” Son said in an online press conference Wednesday, the eve of South Korea’s Group A match against Iran in the final Asian World Cup qualifying round. The match kicks off at 8 p.m. Thursday at Seoul World Cup Stadium. South Korea will next face the United Arab Emirates in Dubai on Tuesday.
“The guys could have been thinking, ‘This round is already over for us,'” Son continued. “But they’re not like that at all. I am really thankful. We’re going to do our best as if we haven’t qualified for the World Cup yet.”
Both South Korea and Iran have grabbed their tickets to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, with two matches to go in the current qualifying phase. With the top two teams from the group earning automatic berths, Iran are currently leading Group A with 22 points, and South Korea trail them by two points. At stake over the remaining two qualifiers is the top seed in the group.
South Korea will also try to end a seven-match winless drought against Iran. Their last win over the Middle Eastern powerhouse came in January 2011.
South Korea came within about 20 minutes of finally beating Iran in October last year in Tehran, when they wasted Son’s 48th-minute goal in a 1-1 draw.
After that victory 11 years ago, South Korea suffered four consecutive 1-0 losses to Iran. The next three matches ended in draws — a scoreless one in August 2017 followed by 1-1 affairs in June 2019 and October 2021.
Son said the two teams always play tight matches because of how hard they prepare for each other.
“I think it’s the small details that determine the outcome in big matches like this,” he said. “In our most recent away match (in October), we played well enough to get three points. That gave us confidence.”
Son, coming off a brace against West Ham United for Tottenham Hotspur in Premier League action over the weekend, will once again be counted on for offense for South Korea. He has scored three goals in his last four international matches, but insisted Wednesday he couldn’t have put individual glory further away from his mind.
“I always put the team goal ahead of my own statistics, and it won’t change this time,” he said. “I believe we’ve been able to come together as a team because players have all discarded their greed. If I, as captain, start chasing individual glory, then it would affect the rest of the team.
“No matter who scores, I feel just as happy with it as my own goal,” Son continued. “I only think about how to help my teammates play better and how to please our fans.”
South Korea should play in front of a sizable crowd, perhaps around 60,000, at Seoul World Cup Stadium. It would then easily be the largest crowd for a sports game in South Korea during the pandemic. Son said he could hardly wait to compete in front of a packed stadium and have a chance to give them something to cheer about.
“I hope we can give a victory to our fans and also to ourselves as a nice present,” Son said. “It’s our responsibility to make our fans happy and put smiles on their faces when it’s all said and done.”
And with the way the Taeguk Warriors have been improving under the tutelage of Paulo Bento since his arrival in August 2018, Son is confident his team will be able to do just that.
“We’ve gone through a lot of trials and errors, and as long as we could get better from those, it was all worth it,” Son said. “I think we’ve been playing so well lately because of what we went through earlier. But we are not a complete team yet. Hopefully, we will get to that point in time for the World Cup.”
Source: Yonhap News Agency