Stars of Europe finish another strong season
Korean footballers’ presence in Europe may have been more obvious this year than ever before.
When Tottenham Hotspur stars Son Heung-min and Harry Kane set the record for the greatest goalscoring partnership in a single season in Premier League history, they also insured that a Korean name entered the Pantheon of European football greats.
But it isn’t all about Son and the Premier League. Across Europe, Korean football stars made headlines this year, contributing to some of the continent’s top teams, not just in England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany, but also in Turkey, Belgium, Croatia, Austria, Portugal and Ireland.
Son and Chelsea’s Ji So-yun may be the king and queen of Korean football in Europe, but there are dozens of players waiting in the wings for their own chance to take center stage.
Here's how Korea's best and brightest have got on this season.
The 2020-21 season may have been a dissapointing one for Tottenham Hotspur, but for Son Heung-min it was the highlight of his career.
Son finished the season with 22 goals and 17 assists across all competitions, with 17 goals and 10 assists in the Premier League.
That’s a new personal best for the Korean forward, who’s previous record was 14 goals in the 2016-17 Premier League season.
Not only did Son reach new heights personally, but he combined with Harry Kane to set a new record for the most prolific goalscoring partnership in a single season in Premier League history, breaking the record of 13 goals set in the 1994-95 season.
Son toppled some other records this season as well, becoming the first Asian player to hit 100 Premier League goals and assists. He also scored his 100th goal in a Spurs shirt across all competitions, becoming only the seventh player ever to do so.
Despite the highlights, the season ends on a low note for Son with the untimely departure of former manager Jose Mourinho and the potential exit of Kane.
Although under contract for another two years, Son’s future at the club looks less certain as more people leave.
Chelsea midfielder Ji So-yun got even more silverware to add to her ever-growing trophy cabinet this season, as her team took home yet another title in the Women’s Super League.
At this stage Ji, who has gone from strength-to-strength with Chelsea since 2014, has to be the most decorated Korean footballer in Europe. She has five Super League, two FA Cup, two League Cup and a Community Shield title to her name with Chelsea, as well as winning both Player’s Player of the Year awards for the 2014-15 season.
This season, Ji came close to adding another title to that long list, as she was nominated for FIFA’s Best Women Player of the Year and the FIFA Women’s World 11, cementing her spot at the very top of the game.
Ji, the Korean national team’s all-time top scorer, had a quieter year on the field this season, scoring two goals and picking up one assist in 19 appearances.
Those numbers don’t do justice to her impact on the squad, however, with 23 chances created and 84 percent pass accuracy with 807 passes completed.
Ji may not be as explosive in front of goal as she once was, but she’s a pivotal part of the Chelsea midfield.
Ji has another year on her Chelsea contract and will likely add yet more accolades and silverware next season.
Bordeaux star Hwang Ui-jo had the best season of his career this year, scoring 12 Ligue 1 goals to pace the French club for the season.
Hwang’s rise to the top of the Bordeaux team wasn’t immediate, but this season the 28-year-old has become the clear favorite to lead the attack.
Hwang combines speed and ball control in a manner similar to national squad teammate Son Heung-min, but is more comfortable right in front of goal rather than out on the sides.
After a hugely succesful 2020-21 campaign, Hwang is expected to continue to lead Bordeaux next season, where he is contracted until 2023.
Cho So-hyun moved from West Ham United to Tottenham Hotspur on loan in the middle of the 2020-21 season, joining her new club on Jan. 29.
Cho, a playmaker that tends to anchor the midfield rather than dominate offensively, is the first Korean to play for Spurs’ women’s team.
Cho captains the Korean national team, giving Spurs the unusual honor of having the captains of both the men’s and women’s national team under one roof, alongside Son Heung-min.
Cho made six league and two FA Cup appearances for Spurs this season, as well as nine league appearances for West Ham.
Hwang Hee-chan’s first full season with RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga was a quiet one, especially after he contracted Covid-19 while appearing with the Korean national team in Austria in November.
Hwang scored no goals this season, despite appearing in 18 games. That doesn’t mean Hwang was ineffective, working more as a playmaker, or what the club calls a “game changer.”
Hwang led the team to a win at the DFB-Pokal semifinals against SV Werder Bremen on May 1, scoring a goal and getting an assist when the team needed it the most after coming on as a substitute in the last minutes of the game.
Twenty-year-old midfielder Lee Kang-in has been playing for La Liga club Valencia CF since 2018, when he became the youngest Korean footballer to debut professionally in Europe.
Fan-favorite Lee’s only goal this season came in a Copa del Rey match against Yeclano on Jan. 8.
Lee was largely sidelined during La Liga fixtures, appearing in 23 of 38 games, but averaging just 55 minutes per game.
He was unable to score in any of those league appearances, but did manage four assists. On Sept. 13, he became the youngest player to pick up two assists in a single La Liga game in the 21st century.
BY JIM BULLEY, YUN SO-HYANG [email@example.com]