It was December 2019 when I saw a thing of incredible beauty in the Premier League game between Tottenham Hotspur and Burnley.
Half an hour into the game, Spurs forward Son Heung-Min receives the ball at the edge of his team’s box. He turns, looks up, and pushes ahead tentatively. Two of his teammates begin surging ahead. Three players in Burnley’s claret begin converging on him – two from behind, one from his right.
Son runs on, as Burnley begin closing his passing lanes. At this point, there’s a voice at the back of my head that reminded me that this was Sean Dyche’s Burnley, built around compact, no-nonsense defending. Another thought crossed my mind: most solo runs in the Premier League end in a loss of possession, a statistic skewed by the fact that YouTube compilation videos only feature the relatively few runs that are successful. It’s terrible for context, but fantastic for views.
So, there I was, expecting a turnover in possession. A fourth man in claret steps up from the Burnley defensive line. He sticks his foot out to tackle…
But Son had other ideas. A slight shift of the hips, a quick toe poke, and Son surges past the defender in a display of unadulterated speed. The ball rolls towards the Burnley centre-back, a burly six-foot Dutchman named Erik Pieters, who dives in, ready to kick the ball or, failing that, Son himself. But Son pivots with a true winger’s agility, and with lightning-quick feet, pushes the ball just past Pieters’ reach. This takes Son clear of Burnley’s defence.
The image is majestic. Seven players in claret, trying fruitlessly to catch up to Son, a speeding blur ahead of them in Spurs white. Son steadies himself as he reaches the edge of the Burnley box. With only the keeper left to beat, he coolly slips the ball into the bottom corner of the net. Speed, guile, agility, composure – a few of the most beautiful facets of the beautiful game. The goal deservedly won the annual Puskas Award, which is given to the scorer of the most aesthetically pleasing goal in world football.
“I tried to pass it. I was never gonna dribble past all the people there. After two seconds I was 1v1 with the keeper and I couldn’t believe it,” he later said of the goal.
I was thinking about the goal as I prepared to interview him ahead of the much-anticipated announcement that he would be AIA Singapore’s first brand ambassador. The announcement felt almost like a non-announcement, as if it should be a fact of nature, that a globally renowned, elite athlete who embodies good health and positivity such as Son Heung-Min should be a brand ambassador for them. AIA is the Global Principal Partner of Tottenham Hotspur, and it felt right that the most famous Asian name on their team sheet should be the brand ambassador of the financial giant’s Singaporean arm.
Son is amazing in interviews. He is warm, cordial, down-to-earth, positive, always smiling. He shows appreciation for his position, and that of the journalist’s. He reveals just enough about his personal life such that it feels like you’re connecting with another human being instead of some monolithic public personality, but not too much that it devolves into tabloid fodder. He sometimes surprises interviewers with profound insights – Son is not another run-of-the-mill Premier League footballer. There is wisdom and worldliness behind his easy smile.
It is to the point where you sometimes forget that he is a global superstar, with a penchant for game-defining moments such as the goal against Burnley, or the brilliant last-minute assist that allowed South Korea to beat European giants Portugal in the recent FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar. But then again, when you’re leading a healthier, better, longer life, creating a thing of beauty becomes a lot easier.
You’re AIA Singapore’s first brand ambassador. That’s pretty momentous.
It’s a big honour for me to join the AIA Singapore family, so I’m very proud, very happy. I want to try to help as much as I can with my skills and awareness. I’ll do anything for them. I’m already working with AIA for a couple of years now so I’m very, very happy, it’s amazing to join the AIA Singapore family.
Now that you’re brand ambassador, how do you relate to AIA’s brand promise of Healthier, Longer, Better Lives? How do you intend to spread the message?
I think it’s really, really important. I think as we live our lives, we forget so many things, we forget how important it is to live healthier, longer and better. It’s the small things we can change, so many things. When I joined AIA, I didn’t even realise how small things can change so much, but the information from AIA has helped me a lot. With what I know now, with what I’ve seen, I want to help people as much as I can to lead healthier, longer, better lives. This is my role as an ambassador. I have to be a good example and I will do my best like always.
Coming into this role, what do you have to say to your many fans in Singapore?
I’m very proud to be Asian. I’m especially very proud to be South Korean. You guys have been unbelievable supporting me like crazy. I’m very, very grateful that you guys love me and support me. I’m not the guy who always wants to take. I want to take it (the love and support) but I also want to give it, the happiness that I have. Let’s make it better and better everyday. I hope to see you in Singapore as soon as possible.
We’ll keep you to your word!
(laughs) Of course.
As a seasoned professional, how do you balance your mental and physical health and to ensure you’re always at your peak, especially in a high-pressure performance sport such as football?
The thing is, it’s really hard. Sometimes, we have seen players face mental and physical problems, but I think we need to find balance by eating well and sleeping well. I’ve been a football professional for almost 15 years now, my diet is very important, but also just as important is to get 9 to 10 hours of sleep. We all work so hard but we should not forget how important it is to eat well and sleep well.
In terms of mentality, it’s important to surround yourself with good people, with family and good friends, who you can talk to if you have an issue. They can help. (smiling fondly) My parents are always around me. That’s my big secret. They’re always giving me advice on life. This to me is very important: to have balance, to have the right people around me who I trust and love.
You are the first Asian footballer in history to win the Premier League Golden Boot last season. How did you feel about it, and what’s the next goal or target that you’re aiming for?
Oh for the Golden Boot, it means a lot. When I was a kid, I always dreamed of this achievement. When I won it, I couldn’t believe it because it’s such a big thing. But it’s already past, and I’m the guy who wants to always improve. I’m looking to the future, and I don’t look at the past. Obviously it was an amazing thing, but I want to keep improving. I don’t have a goal, like to win the next Golden Boot. I’m not that kind of guy. I’m only looking at how I can improve from yesterday, and how I can improve tomorrow. But I do acknowledge that it is important for young players in Asia to see that I can win the Golden Boot so they believe they can win it too. It’s a big message for the kids, the young players, for sure.
You’ve returned to action with Spurs after a grueling mid-season World Cup – straight into a very important time in the League. How have you been coping with how fast and hectic everything is?
Yeah, I think that is a really good question. Actually it was a bit tough. I was really focussed with Spurs first before the World Cup. So mentally I had to turn around. Physical-wise, I think it was okay because we’re used to playing this many games. But mentally, playing for clubs and playing for the country is different. This made things a little bit difficult. But after the World Cup, I had a break for a week, so it helped a lot. I went back to my hometown in Korea, see my family, see my friends. It was really, really helpful.
So when I got back to Spurs, I knew where we are, how important this part of the season is. Mentally it was a bit tough, but we are professionals, we’re born to play football. And luckily we had that little bit of time to recharge.
You mentioned one of the things that helps you as a professional is your support system with your parents. Are there any other ways that you upkeep your mental wellness, especially leading up to a big game or even to the World Cup?
I think everybody knows how positive I am. Looking back, I think this is my third World Cup. But just before that, I injured my face (note: Son had a fracture near his left eye socket mere weeks before the World Cup). People could say, “Okay, his World Cup’s gone.” But literally before my surgery, I was thinking, it doesn’t matter what happened, I’m going to the World Cup. It was clear. I always want to try to think positive. Even in the World Cup, when, after two games, South Korea only had one point, and it wasn’t sure whether we’re going through or not, I was always thinking, this group of players deserve so much. Sometimes, the way you think makes things happen. So we should always try to change the way we think and always think positive. It’s important not just for athletes. This is my advice to give. At least try. If you try, then there’s nothing lose. So always think positive. Don’t chase happiness, because happiness is always here.
I realised that you sometimes pray before the start of matches. What do you pray for?
(laughs) I don’t pray about the results or performance. I’m usually saying, “Thank you for the chance to play, to be on the pitch. I don’t want to lose the happiness (for football) after this match. I don’t want to be hurt, I don’t want any injuries.” I started football because I had fun, because it made me smile. I don’t want to lose that smile.