Son Heung-min, Lee Kang-in and the row that dislocated a finger and rocked South Korea’s Asian Cup

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The physical altercation that left Tottenham Hotspur and South Korea captain Son Heung-min with a dislocated finger had been a good few weeks in the making.

The South Korea camp for the Asian Cup played in Qatar over the past month or so had been far from harmonious, with splits everywhere you looked. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann divided opinion, and he himself is said to have thought there was a lack of team spirit in the group, with something of a split between its big-name players such as Son, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Hwang Hee-chan, Paris Saint-Germain’s Lee Kang-in and Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae, and the less-experienced ones.

Son, the 31-year-old captain, is understood to have felt that some of the younger players weren’t taking the tournament — the Asian federation’s four-yearly equivalent of the Euros or Copa America, and a competition South Korea hadn’t won for 64 years — seriously enough, while those like the 22-year-old Lee rejected this suggestion.

A source close to one of the players told The Athletic last week that the group failed to produce a single performance across their six matches, three in the group and three knockout-phase ties, that was 100 per cent collective.

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It all came to a head last Monday, the night before their 2-0 semi-final defeat to Jordan, when a few of the younger players, including Lee, wanted to leave the team dinner early to play table tennis.

Son objected to this and forcefully made his point, which drew a similarly forthright response from Lee. An altercation followed involving a number of players, during which Son dislocated a finger as he tried to break things up. It’s also been claimed that Lee was pushed in the chest, and reacted angrily.


Son playing against Jordan with his fingers strapped after the incident the night before (Simon Holmes/Getty Images)

A spokesperson for the South Korea FA (KFA) confirmed the altercation had occurred, telling the Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday that: “It happened when some young players went up to play table tennis, and Son Heung-min and other older players took issue with it.

“The players exchanged a few words and Son hurt his finger in the process.”

The Athletic has contacted the KFA for further comment.

What happened next is disputed. It’s been suggested that some of the squad said to Klinsmann that Lee should be dropped for the semi-final. Others have denied this happened, and Son, for instance, is said to like Lee and have no issue with him. One view is that it was more about maintaining general standards and behaviours.

Either way, there is clearly a huge amount of ill-feeling among those involved for South Korea in the Asian Cup. And these revelations raise several questions.

The first is why the usually reserved KFA were so quick to confirm the story. It’s being suggested in the country that they did so to divert attention from the hugely unpopular Klinsmann, who most supporters want fired after a pretty dismal Asian Cup campaign. They reached the semis but scraped their way there — drawing two of their three group matches then winning one knockout tie on penalties and another after extra time, both having scored stoppage-time equalisers — and were never convincing.


Klinsmann faced some difficult questions on his return to Korea (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)

“Do you plan on resigning?,” was the first question asked to Klinsmann in his post-tournament press conference, held in Incheon Airport in Seoul immediately after the squad arrived home, where a baying public had gathered.

Others believe that the story has been leaked by those who want the 59-year-old former Germany, Bayern and United States manager sacked as a way of showing how out of control things have become on his watch.

Klinsmann, appointed just under a year ago, is thought to have been surprised by the lack of harmony and team spirit in the group. He felt those dramatic victories against Saudi Arabia and Australia might galvanise the players as they progressed through the knockout rounds but instead, after the shock defeat to Jordan in the semis, he went public to say that their opponents had more desire than his players, adding: “They wanted it more.”

There is a lot of pressure not just on Klinsmann but also on the man who hired him: KFA president Chung Mong-gyu. Chung went into the search that ended with the former Germany, Tottenham, Bayern and Inter Milan striker getting the job wanting a big-name manager who would boost the country’s global profile, and is said to be determined to see this project through. The two men have met twice since the Jordan defeat and both appear keen to carry on, despite the public hostility. “Nice question!,” Klinsmann laughed when asked if he would be resigning.

Meanwhile, The Athletic reported on Sunday that, during a pre-Asian Cup camp in Abu Dhabi, Klinsmann held very intense training sessions. A source with knowledge of the situation, speaking anonymously to protect relationships, said the players had been “run ragged” and that “he absolutely battered them, they were exhausted”.

That was the context for last Monday’s physical altercation, with tensions further raised by the fact that this squad is seen as South Korea’s golden generation of players, including stars from PSG, Bayern and Spurs, plus Wolves’ in-form Hwang.


Lee (18) and Son (7) during South Korea’s Asian Cup group match against Malaysia (Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

The sense that South Korea were wasting their best chance in years for a first Asian Cup since 1960 permeated the mood last Monday, the night before their Jordan defeat.

And, according to insiders, there have been stories of internal issues for some time now inside the national team. On the night in question, while the age-based hierarchy of Korean society is not as strict as it once was, it is still the tradition that it is seen as bad manners for the younger players to get up to leave before the older ones have finished their meals.

Lee said he would be more respectful to the senior players in future in a message posted on his Instagram story on Wednesday: “There was an article about me having a verbal argument with Son ahead of the Asian Cup semi-final.

“I am very sorry to disappoint football fans who are always supporting the South Korea international team.

“I had to follow senior (older) players in the team, but I am sorry that I showed not nice behavior to football fans.

“I apologise to all fans who were disappointed in me.

“I will try to be a better player and person helping senior and older players from now on.”

The majority of South Korean fans are siding with Son and the more experienced players, and Lee is coming in for a lot of criticism for acting this way towards the team’s captain, nine years his senior. There’s also the view that this is more about general dysfunction within the national team set-up than it is about individuals.

It’s too soon to know how it will affect the players’ reputations in the long term, or their desire to carry on playing for their country. Klinsmann said on Sunday that Son would “definitely” keep playing for Korea.

Klinsmann himself is due to hold a meeting with the KFA on Thursday as the fallout from the Asian Cup exit continues. Reports in South Korea suggest that governing body members will push for his resignation during the meeting. The German, whose contract runs for another two-and-a-half years until the 2026 World Cup, will attend virtually as he is now back at home in the US.

South Korea are back in action in just over a month, in a home World Cup qualifier on March 21 against Thailand, where there will presumably need to be the mother of all reconciliation jobs.

go-deeper

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Additional reporting: Jack Pitt-Brooke, Mario Cortegana, Tim Spiers

(Top photo: Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

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