There are probably a mere handful of celebrities in South Korea as idolised as Tottenham forward Son Heung-min, so the decision for Spurs to mark the start of their 2022 pre-season in his native ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ was no doubt as lucrative as it would be sentimental.
Over the last decade, interest in South Korea has been exacerbated by an undeniable wave of ‘K-culture’ – everything from music, to food, beauty, fashion, gaming, and indeed sport have elevated the country’s status from a developing economy to one of the top 10 in the world. Last Monday, North London’s Lilywhites would jump on-board, heading out to Korea’s capital city, Seoul. Despite the differences in culture and the hefty 9,000km between the two cities, a small army of feverishly excited fans flocked to Incheon airport to line the arrivals barriers and catch a glimpse of a team many of them probably thought they’d never see in the flesh. Sonny, the hometown hero of the moment, was on hand to personally welcome Conte’s first team alongside the crowd. Spurs had predominantly come to town for two friendlies; one against team K-League (a starting XII made up of the KFL’s top tier players), and another opposite Spain’s Sevilla FC. Both games were broadcast exclusively with Korean platform Coupang, and aired on ‘SPURSPLAY’, Tottenham’s just-launched, premium subscription service.
With a coveted EPL fourth spot and a Champions League qualification bagged, plus several new signings in Bissouma, Fraser Forster, Clement Lenglet, Richarlison, Perisic (at the time of writing, Spence has just been confirmed to sign on), all eyes were on Spurs for their first game back. Sixty four and a half thousand of them in person at the World Cup Stadium: where fans would start descending from morning onwards. Monsoon-like weather gave way to fretful chatter about whether the game would even go ahead. Whether it was at the hands of some excellent drainage systems or tarping measures by Korean officials, these fears would not be realised, even despite the torrent that still poured minutes before kick-off. Of course, nobody seemed to care, least of all the army of saturated, white-clad torsos making their way in unison through the turnstiles.
From kick-off onwards, the crowd were visibly animated. Skittish ‘woah’s’ and ‘ooh’s’ were heard at every touch of a good ball, especially when Spurs took the lead after half an hour thanks to an Eric Dier left foot. Amusingly, Conte had chosen not to play Sonny from the first whistle, opting to bring him on for the second half instead. It was at this point, of course, that the spectator’s mood visibly elevated. The Kane & Sonny show had come to town, and it was to be in full swing. Kane drew an own goal from K League within two minutes of coming on and his own shortly after, while a penalty-box error saw Sonny notch up another straight after Spurs conceded their second to the home side. An offensive tackle on the nation’s Golden Boy reduced K League to 10 men and saw them concede another to Harry Kane, and another defensive error from the Korean squad saw Sonny bag his second of the match. Final score: 3-6 to Spurs, a lovely start to their 2022 campaign and a moving moment for international fans that had sold-out the stadium.
The South Korea trip was Tottenham’s first international pre-season event since the COVID pandemic put a stop to most unnecessary travel. Fair play to them, they certainly pulled out the stops, bringing along names like AJ Tracey and Ledley King for the ride, and slotting in open training sessions, workshops with young Korean hopefuls, and charity partnership appearances along the way (Son was announced as a UN World Food Programme
Ambassador during the course of the week). The North-London side rightfully showed a considerable amount of love to a place that has made them the number one most popular football club in the country. In doing so, they made a pretty good case as to why they might be the horses to back this season.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Spurs will play a couple more friendlies before the EPL kicks off, back on home turf with Rangers this week, and against ex-manager Mourinho’s side Roma at the end of the month.
Tottenham Hotspur’s first Premier League fixture of the season will be against Southampton on August 6th.
Photography: Danny Ovens