‘He’s bigger than K-pop’: How Son-mania is putting Spurs on the map in South Korea

“I’m so excited my heart might explode,” is one teenage fan’s take.

“I feel too emotional,” says a woman who, at the age of 65, could be the youngster’s grandmother and struggles to get the words out. “Even though I’m quite old, to be able to see a national hero is just… I’m not the age to be chasing celebrities around but…”

Fifteen-year-old Lee Young-su adds: “I’m not actually interested in football but this event was too exciting to miss.”

Young, old or casual football fan; it doesn’t really matter. Seoul’s Incheon International Airport on Sunday lunchtime brought together hundreds of fans straining to catch a glimpse of their idol Son Heung-min, who, with his Tottenham Hotspur team-mates, was heading back to London after a week, and two pre-season matches, in South Korea.

This ability to transcend all age groups and classes is part of what makes Son such a fascinating cultural phenomenon — and what makes his fame far outstrip even beloved K-pop idols who appeal to a smaller demographic.

Spurs are now hugely popular in South Korea in general (more on that later) but it’s the relationship between Son and his compatriots that has been the defining theme of this tour.

“I don’t think there’s a rival for Son when it comes to popularity here,” says Lee Sung-mo, who has covered Son’s career for Korean media since he moved to Tottenham in the summer of 2015 from Bayer Leverkusen in Germany and is one of their country’s most respected football writers.

“We have many pop stars, like BTS, and they have huge fanbases abroad but in South Korea, Son’s popularity doesn’t have any generation gap. At first, it was only football fans interested in Son but now it’s the whole country. Kids who are five or six until even 90 years old; grandfather, grandmother. Everybody.”

As well as the members of huge K-pop acts such as BTS, there are other big stars in this country — like Bong Joon-ho, the Oscar-winning director of Parasite, and Lee Jung-jae, star of Netflix’s hugely popular series Squid Game. But their popularity is said to be nothing like the level of Son’s.

Olivia, a 20-year-old Korean-Canadian who has come to the airport to see Son, says: “Sonny is the biggest star here. He gets loved anywhere, even more than any K-pop idols, because everyone loves him regardless of age or status.”

Son Heung-min, Tottenham Hotspur, South Korea

Fans flock to catch a glimpse of Son and Tottenham at Incheon International Airport near Seoul

A 66-year-old supporter and her 34-year-old daughter present at the airport are testament to this, with the former describing herself as a “royalty-sized fan”. She adds: “He’s not my idol. He’s my hero. Because of Son, I got into football, and I stay up all night to watch his matches live.” (The time difference to Korea means evening games in Europe kick off at or around 4am local time).

Between them, the mother and daughter sport homemade t-shirts with “Son” written in pen on the back, and makeshift fans with his image on to keep cool.

Among the few hundred people in attendance, who mobilised mainly after discovering on social media what time the coach carrying the Tottenham players would arrive, these stories and personalised artefacts are typical.

Other supporters have brought food to try to give to Son and his team-mates, balls for him to sign, and laminated posters to wave around in appreciation of their hero. The nation’s biggest broadcasters are in place and some of the supporters in attendance have been here since the airport opened for the day, to get the best vantage points. Some fans attempted to find out what flight Spurs would be on, only to be scuppered by the fact they were using a chartered non-commercial plane.

There is hysteria everywhere, with security personnel trying to keep the peace. Spurs’ arrival a week earlier provoked even more excitable scenes — described by one of those in attendance as “surreal”.

Son was also given a hero’s welcome when presented with the Premier League Golden Boot for last season, after finishing as joint top-scorer with Mohamed Salah of Liverpool, at this same airport in May.

The noise on Sunday when the 30-year-old, wearing sunglasses and looking every inch the rockstar that he is in his homeland, appeared was similarly loud to the reception he received when turning up to welcome his team-mates when they flew in just over a week ago.

Everywhere Spurs went while on tour in South Korea, they were met by hundreds of supporters wanting to show their appreciation — be that at training, sponsored events or going out for dinner. Wherever they went, word always got around. Legions of fans stationed themselves outside the club’s hotel around the clock. K-pop stars joined Son at autograph signings, wearing Tottenham shirts.

Spurs staff and players were taken aback at the reception they have received. “I didn’t expect this,” says England defender Eric Dier. “An amazing reception at the airport and everywhere we’ve been since.”

“A god”, “a rockstar” and “royalty” are various ways Son has been described to The Athletic in the last few days. More idolised than David Beckham at the height of his fame is the view of former South Korea defender Lee Young-pyo, who spent three seasons at White Hart Lane from 2005.

At which point you might be thinking: “‘Superstar footballer is popular in his home country’. Is this really that unusual?”, and in some respects, the answer is no.

A player becoming one of the world’s best from a nation and continent with a pretty meagre record in that respect is always going to provoke hysteria when they return. It would probably be similar were Salah and Liverpool touring Egypt or if Sadio Mane and his new club Bayern Munich visited Senegal.

And yet there is something that feels special about Son in South Korea, that the confluence of, among other aspects, ability and personality have combined to make a country starved of top-level footballing talent feel like something that transcends the normal adulation afforded to sporting superstars.

Son Heung-min, Tottenham Hotspur, South Korea

A banner celebrating Son Heung-min winning the 2021-22 Premier League Golden Boot

“The traits that Son has are what most Korean men my age (mid-20s) would love to have and this is what makes him such an icon,” Michael Ji, one of Son’s compatriots, explains. “He’s tall, handsome, multilingual, athletic, successful overseas in a field where most Asians — let alone Koreans — are not known for success. And he’s achieved everything he has through hard work, overcoming the relative adversity of a pretty tough education from his father growing up.

“I always thought these were qualities that mainly resonated with young men like me but it’s how much he resonates with people from all ages that’s so incredible.”

Throughout the north London club’s week here, it felt as though their presence had taken over the whole city of Seoul — a buzz manifested in the omnipresent Spurs “Son” shirts.

Again, perhaps that is typical of Premier League teams’ overseas tours but even if you are cynical about the uniqueness of the Son in South Korea phenomenon, there are so many illustrations of it that feel remarkable.

Take the stalls selling Tottenham underwear in Busan, a port city on the southern tip of the country, or the fact that correlating almost exactly with Son’s emergence, football has overtaken baseball as his homeland’s most popular sport.

Then there are the regular programmes on the sports channels of SPO TV, the Korean TV network, that are simply compilations of Son’s best assists, or all his goals from last season’s Golden Boot-winning campaign.

Wherever you travel in this country, you will find Son.

One attendee at a recent conference on South-North Korea relations laughs as he recalls that on the coach from Seoul to the event, the DVD chosen by the driver to be broadcast communally was a Spurs end-of-season review.

In live broadcasts of Tottenham matches here, a Son icon appears above the scoreboard to denote he’s playing (there will be a bench one if he is named among the substitutes). If he scores or sets a goal up, icons appear by the scoreboard graphic to denote this too.

Spurs are now supported by an amazing 12 million — almost one in four — South Koreans (according to research commissioned by AIA, the Asia-based insurance firm which is the club’s shirt-front sponsor), but most things are viewed through a Son prism. “Son and Spurs beat X team” is a common structure for headlines.

Team-mate Lucas Moura is also hugely popular in the country, after setting up Son for his Golden Boot-clinching goal against Norwich on the final day of last season.

On the flip side, there was briefly frustration with Dier after he shouted at Son during the FA Cup loss to Middlesbrough in March, but he redeemed himself by asking already-relegated Norwich’s goalkeeper Tim Krul, “What’s Salah giving you?”, on the final day after he had made a string of saves to briefly delay Son’s charge towards becoming the league’s joint-top scorer.

Incidentally, that game was the only one of the 10 Premier League matches unfolding simultaneously on that Sunday being shown at the vast majority of sports bars both on the night and the following morning, when games are replayed because of the unhelpful time difference (those 4pm kick-offs started at midnight local time). Liverpool and Manchester City were playing out a thrilling conclusion to the title race at Anfield and the Etihad but in Korea, all eyes were on Carrow Road, Son’s pursuit of the Golden Boot and Spurs’ successful attempts to secure Champions League qualification.

A couple of fans at the airport explained that they regularly take photos of Son when he appears on their television, while others spoke of their Son memorabilia at home. One supporter admitted he’d palmed off his wife and children onto his parents so he could give up his Sunday morning to be at the airport, and catch a glimpse of Son.

And for more evidence of uniqueness, the fact that Son spent half an hour signing an autograph for pretty much everyone who had turned up at the airport and had to be dragged away by Tottenham staff helps to show why, in many people’s eyes, this goes beyond the ‘Player X is popular in Home Country Y’ paradigm.

There were supporters there who genuinely looked like they might be about to faint. It was The Beatles at JFK Airport in 1964 stuff.

Another element of his story which makes Son stand out is his loyalty to Spurs, given that he could easily have agitated for a transfer to a club more likely to win trophies over what’s been a barren seven years with them in silverware terms. This kind of devotion is unusual among modern players and even the similarly loyal Harry Kane was sufficiently fed up last summer to push for a move away after a grim couple of years for Tottenham. Acts of generosity like paying for the bill when he took the team out for Korean barbecue on Thursday night, and giving the whole 100+ travelling party personal welcome gifts further burnish his reputation as a special individual.

Son Heung-min, Tottenham Hotspur, South Korea

Son’s likeness depicted in a huge mural

While they were in South Korea, Son’s popularity was felt everywhere by anyone with a Spurs connection.

One member of staff was asked for an autograph because he was wearing Tottenham gear. Even though he protested that the fan could not possibly have heard of him, it didn’t matter — the supporter still wanted it. Another was asked for their autograph by a restaurant waiter. Another had a passer-by insist they pick up their restaurant bill after spotting the Spurs clothing.

Coaches and senior members of staff have been mobbed by excited supporters, and at the airport yesterday — and wherever else they were — the whole squad, especially players such as Kane and Moura, were greeted with rapturous applause.

And it wasn’t just the players. Popular English and Korean journalists (including Lee Sung-mo) who cover Son regularly were also regularly asked for autographs, sometimes prompting long queues as fans waited patiently in line.

At a pop-up stall for Saturday’s game against Spanish side Sevilla in Suwon, about 30km (18 miles) south of Seoul, AIA had 500 people queuing for roughly an hour to have photos taken with cardboard cutouts of Tottenham’s players, including Son. The reward was a chance of also winning a Spurs scarf or hat.

In Son’s hometown of Chuncheon, 75km (46 miles) east of Seoul, there is a huge mural in his honour, while banners have been erected with messages like “Pride of Chuncheon, Pride of Tottenham… congratulations on qualifying for the Champions League and the Golden Boot”.

At the £11million ($13m) Son Football Academy he largely funded in the same city, a museum in his honour is in the planning stages. When he visited in June, there was hysteria similar to that at the airport on Sunday.

Stopping off at a motorway service station on the drive back from Chuncheon to Seoul, you see Son’s face front and centre of the popular Lotteria fast food restaurant. His return to Korea this summer, arriving before the rest of the Spurs squad did, prompted the chain to launch a “Made in Korea” campaign, where they created a new burger celebrating locally-sourced meat.

On the pitch, the Son factor could be seen in Tottenham’s first friendly against Team K League, an all-star squad of players from the domestic top flight’s 12 clubs, selling out the 66,000-capacity Seoul World Cup Stadium in 25 minutes. This is a ground that is sometimes about a quarter full for club games.

The queues for packed subway trains to the game stretched back hundreds of metres while the pre-match press conferences saw more than 100 journalists in attendance and a similar number of photographers.

For the Sevilla match in the 44,000-capacity Suwon World Cup Stadium, the tickets went in 20 minutes.

At both of Spurs’ friendlies during the tour, there were screams of excitement whenever Son touched the ball and the media was dominated with reports of how he’d performed.

“In the last few days, all Korean media in the newspapers are talking about Tottenham and only good things,” says Lee Sung-mo. “They’ve brought so many good things to Korean football.

“I think Tottenham are bigger than Manchester United over here.”

Son Heung-min, Tottenham Hotspur, South Korea

Supporters queue for subway trains ahead of Tottenham’s 6-3 victory over Team K League in Seoul last Wednesday

Sevilla defender Gonzalo Montiel, who angrily confronted Son after being caught by a stray elbow in Saturday’s game, quickly became a pantomime villain among Korean fans on social media.

Son said of the mood in his home country during the tour: “I’ve been here with Leverkusen and also Hamburg (his first European club), but with Spurs, I think it’s more special because the fans are more interested in our football and the big players.

“It’s incredible. The fans, the love… we’re feeling the love the fans are giving us.”

The love was such that some at Spurs joked that they never wanted to leave. Certainly in line with Son’s popularity, the club’s profile and popularity in the country has risen and risen over the last few weeks, months and years.

As well as being the most-watched and best-supported overseas club in South Korea, that friendly against Team K League was streamed by two million people — the single most-streamed sporting event in Korean history.

Since the start of the new financial year on July 1, South Korea has become Spurs’ second biggest e-commerce market behind only the UK. Sales in that period to Korea are now half that of the UK and nearly twice as much as for the whole United States.

During this period compared to last year (July 1 to July 15), the number of transactions to South Korea increased from 238 to 5,283. Of those, 4,800 included a home shirt. On matchdays at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, up to 700 Son shirts are sold — the most of any player “by a big distance”.

In Korea, Son’s popularity is such that the national team’s shirt is sold out and pretty much impossible to get hold of. Spurs shirts with his name on the back are ubiquitous — even with kits from almost 30 years ago.

The big question from Tottenham’s point of view is the extent to which their popularity in South Korea will last once Son has left or retired. That’s part of what this tour was about: consolidating the huge popularity they have in the country and making it go beyond the lifespan of Son’s career with the club.

Supporting a player rather than a team is an increasing trend among younger football fans, especially in East Asia — as Simon Chadwick, Global Professor of Sport & Director of the Centre for Eurasian Sport at the Emlyon Business School, explained to The Athletic in 2020.

“There is an emerging trend among football fans globally but particularly in East Asia, and with younger Generation Z and Millennial fans, where engagement with a player is not necessarily the prelude to engagement with a team,” Chadwick said. “What we’re instead seeing is that fans are following players, not clubs.

“In Britain, something similar is happening where there are a lot of young fans who love (Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian) Mbappe. They don’t care about Paris Saint-Germain, they just love Mbappe.”

Speaking to experts in Korea and fans on the ground here, the sense is that, yes, there will be a natural drop-off once Son goes but his Spurs legacy will ensure that many of these people will remain fans of the London club when he finally moves on or hangs up his boots.

The fact he is now unlikely to transfer to another elite club should help in this regard. Were he to move to, say, Real Madrid, he would likely take a huge number of fans with him.

According to Lee Hyeong-ju, a Seoul-based journalist for STN Sports, the fact that local fans, so often forced to miss live TV games because of the time difference to Europe, were able to actually watch the games as they happened during the last week has made a big difference to how they feel about Spurs.

“If fans want to see matches live, they have to stay up very late, so that’s hard to keep fan engagement,” he says. “But the fact fans were able to see matches, and the training session, live elevated the connection between fans and the club. So I think this was an important tour to help Spurs solidify the fanbase and their popularity here.

“There will definitely be a reduction in interest in Korea when Son leaves. The same happened with Park Ji-sung — Manchester United were very popular but when he left the popularity dropped quite considerably. So if Son left, we might see the same thing but the connection, plus the fact that Lee (Young-pyo) was there means it might not drop so significantly.”

Speaking to Son/Spurs fans in Seoul, some say they are essentially supporters just of the player but the majority, admittedly possibly drunk on the excitement of this week, insist they will remain Tottenham fans after their hero calls it a day.

“I love Tottenham,” says Yong Son-lee, a 48-year-old wearing a club kit and a father of two similarly Spurs and Son-mad boys. “I’ll follow the team forever, because Son is so ingrained in the team and is a legend of the club.”

One slightly younger fan says: “I will always watch their games, and the highlights as well. Of course I will support Spurs after Son leaves.” Another adds: “I don’t think my love for Spurs will wane too much, because of how much Son loves Spurs. If Son moved, I would support that team and Spurs.”

Having spent the last week in South Korea, what has shone through is the pride the country’s people feel when it comes to Son: pride at his achievements on the pitch and also in the way he carries himself, and goes out of his way to make time for others. Associated with this, there is a huge amount of affection towards Spurs for being the club who have helped him to explode into a global name.

Whether the bond between Son and his compatriots is unprecedented is unclear but the abiding memory for anyone in Seoul and Suwon over the last week will be of the love shown towards the forward and his team-mates. Of the scenes at the airport on Sunday, when the world was given a glimpse of Son-mania.

“I’ll never forget this,” said one adoring fan.

It was hard to disagree.

(Top photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)