One small step for Son, one giant leap for Asian football

Son Heung-min is already a big star in Asia, but John Duerden explains why he could take the the world by storm with a starring role at new club Tottenham Hotspur...

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Ever since Son Heung-min decided to leave Bayer Leverkusen for Tottenham Hotspur last month, there has been a debate back in his native South Korea as to whether the 23-year-old made the right move.

Leaving behind regular Champions League football for its poorer Europa League cousin was the main issue of contention, even if the English Premier League being generally more popular than its German cousin compensates to an extent.

There is a better feeling about the switch after the last few days, however, when the attacker followed an uncertain debut at Sunderland with two goals against Qarabag of Azerbaijan and then the only strike of the game against Crystal Palace at White Hart Lane on Sunday.

Son sparkled against the Eagles and looked full of menace and attacking possibility almost every time he received the ball.

These are still very early days, but more than the medals he collects and any trophies he might lift, there is something more important that the former Hamburg man can achieve – perhaps not for Spurs fans, but for those a little further east.

Son could be just the man to change the image of Asian players around the world.

That's not to say the image is necessarily negative, but at the risk of generalisation and simplification, the global perception tends to fall into one of two categories.

The first is the hard working, energetic, never-say-die do-it-for-the-team kind of guy and the second is a tidy pass-and-move exponent who is easy on the eye.

These are not negative, but don't always tell the full story. The former conjures up images of Park Ji-sung, a willing worker, a dream to play with and a delight to coach.

There was much more to his game than that, but when you play alongside glittering talents such as the 2008 versions of Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney, Giggs and Scholes, then it is not surprising that the talents of Old Three Lungs – more in evidence when playing for his country – did not catch the eye as much as they otherwise would.

And then there's the 'tidy' player. The t-word is an overused adjective when it comes to the always technically competent East Asian star, and this writer is as guilty as any in its easy deployment.

Son celebrates his match-winner against Crystal Palace, which was also his very first Premier League goal

Ki Sung-yueng, one of the best midfielders in England last season (earning a bid – turned down by Swansea – from Juventus) suffers from this when it should be said instead that he is as elegant a player as any currently playing the beautiful game.

Shinji Kagawa is a midfielder with top-class vision, understanding and control, yet tidy was often employed to describe his under-appreciated, in England at least, talents. The Borussia Dortmund man deserves better.

But even so, as good as these players were or are and as much as they deserve higher praise, they are not the kind to automatically make a fan shift forward in their seat when they receive the ball.

That's not to say Asia doesn't produce flair players, but they don't go west or don't always star when they do. Had Ali Karimi showed Bayern Munich fans why he had been nicknamed the 'Wizard of Tehran/Maradona of Asia' (Asian fans are more generous with descriptions of their heroes) back in Iran, then perhaps it would have been different.

Had Lee Chung-yong not broken his leg in pre-season 2011 for Bolton Wanderers when he was at the height of his powers and had informally agreed a move to Liverpool nine months later, perhaps it would have been different.

And then there's Keisuke Honda. ‘The Emperor’, always capable of something a little different on the pitch, took that trait too far off it when electing to join CSKA Moscow in 2009, ending up on the fringes of Europe.

Signing for AC Milan in 2013 seemed to be the right move, but now 29, he hasn’t had the impact he, or his many fans in Asia, would have liked.

Keisuke Honda hasn't exactly set Serie A alight since his move to AC Milan

Son could be the one. As the South Korean picks up the ball just inside his own half and sets off, there is something in the air, spicier and more mouth-watering even than the dakgalbi dish for which his hometown of Chuncheon is rightly famous.

Son can still be erratic, but that just adds to the excitement. When it works – the acceleration, the powerful shooting with either foot and the sheer joy of playing – it can be spectacular.

Playing in the Premier League helps. This is a star who may have more Champions League appearances with his former club Leverkusen than Spurs have in their entire history, but it is just a fact that more people around the world will now see him play.

More people will watch his runs on television, a lot more people are going to read about his exploits, and vast numbers are already indulging in cheesy name-related puns.

Winning things may be harder with Spurs, but Son has a chance to do something truly unique as he performs the spectacular – help give Asian footballers a new image.