Football is full of examples of promising youth team players who, for any number of reasons, fail to make it to the top at senior level. High expectations and new challenges can be difficult to overcome.
Talented young Korea Republic attacker Son Heungmin had no problem making the transition, however. After leaving the FC Seoul youth team in 2008 when he was just 16, he made the task of establishing himself in German football look easy.
This year brought an even greater challenge as Heungmin made his FIFA World Cup™ debut. The youngster made a good impression, troubling defences with his pace and skill down the wing, and his ability to get into the area brought him a goal against Algeria.
His team, however, did not live up to expectations, managing only a single point from three Group H games. For a player who has become accustomed to success in his short career, he is unlikely to have been entirely pleased with his FIFA World Cup experience.
“Scoring my first goal at the World Cup was really important from a personal standpoint. But in general, the team didn’t play well, which was disappointing. We didn’t perform the way we had hoped,” he told FIFA after leaving the field following the game against Belgium visibly upset.
The experience will help us to prepare better for the next tournament and be more competitive. That’s my hope.
For the 21-year-old forward, taking part in the FIFA World Cup was another step in his apprenticeship for life on football’s great stages, after he played in the UEFA Champions League for the first time with Bayer Leverkusen. It represents rapid progress for a young man who only joined the Hamburg youth academy in 2008.
Two years later, aged 18, he signed his first professional contract. Then in 2013 he became the most expensive signing in Bayer’s history. Yet he took it all in his stride. His next challenge will be to now use his FIFA World Cup experience to help him grow further. It is the same story for his Korea Republic team-mates, eight of whom play in Germany and England.
“I think this World Cup was like a vaccination for us,” he said. “We came up against some really tough opponents, which has motivated me to work even harder. The experience will help us to prepare better for the next tournament and be more competitive. That’s my hope.”
It sounds as though it might be an automatic response from Heungmin, but for this Korea Republic team it rings true. The squad was the fifth-youngest at Brazil 2014, with an average age of 26.19 years. Of the team that lost 1-0 to Belgium in Sao Paulo on Thursday, nine were even younger.
In other words, there is a good chance that this team will be back at the FIFA World Cup soon, better prepared for what lies in wait. It is time for Korea Republic to take another step forward. “The coach and my team-mates reminded me of that. They told me everything was OK and that I would have other chances to play at this level,” he said. “I’m going to prepare myself to come back even stronger,” he added. Considering what this young South Korean has achieved so far in his career, it would be wise to take him seriously.