Young South Korean striker is one of several players vying to usurp Park Ji-Sung in Korean soccer fans’ hearts (and wallets)

Son Heung-Min has become the first Korean player to appear in the Associated Press’ Soccer rankings top 10. The Hamburg striker, just 20, was ranked 7th this week after scoring 2 goals in his side’s 4-1 win over Borussia Dortmund. The statistically based AP rankings have only been running for around five months and are far from universally respected. However, this hasn’t stopped the Korean press and fans celebrating the achievement and predicting a big future for Son.

Son Heung-Min. Pic: AP.

Son’s status as Korea’s soccer heir-apparent will only be enhanced if his much rumored transfer to the English Premier League takes place this summer. Tottenham, Chelsea, and Liverpool are among the big-name suitors said to be willing to match the $14 million asking price.

Korea’s soccer superstar for the past 10 years has of course been combative midfielder Park Ji-Sung. During his 7 seasons at Manchester United Park inspired near fanatical devotion in his homeland. His hometown has parks and roads named after him, he receives ‘a truckload’ of gifts from Koreans almost daily,  and TV broadcasts that follow his every move, touch, or breath religiously. And then of course there’s the money:

Sales of United merchandise in Korea, including but not exclusively Park-emblazoned shirts, is now a ‘multi-million pound’ earner each year, say the club. Just over a million Koreans have a United-branded credit or debit card, many showing Park’s face. United earn an undisclosed sum from each. United have played lucrative pre-season matches in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, twice since Park signed from PSV Eindhoven in 2005, during Asian tours in 2007 and 2009. The income from those sell-out games was ‘multi-million’.

However, with Park, soon to be 32, moving to the less glamorous QPR and not playing particularly well, his time at the top of Korea’s football pyramid may soon be up. This looks set to leave Son to fight it out with others to be the man at the summit, and the lucrative deals that go with it.

But Son does not have everything sewn up quite yet. There are other pretenders:

Ki Sung-Yueng is currently riding high with Swansea, who are in 7th place in the EPL and have a cup final approaching.  In Korea Ki, 24, is being celebrated as the ‘Korean Gerrard’ and has picked up quite a female following. He appears to have adapted to the celebrity side of the soccer business in a way that Park never fully embraced.

Along with Lee Chung-Yong at Bolton, Park Chu-Young at Arsenal, Koo Ja-Cheol at Wolfsburg, and Korea’s newest export Yun Suk-Young at QPR, all under the age of 28 and plying their trade in Europe’s better leagues, Korean fans seem spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing which players and teams to follow. As the era of a Park and Manchester United-dominated soccer culture looks set to close, Korea still waits for its next soccer hero to emerge from the pack. Son Heung-Min appears be making the front running.