When I woke up this morning, I can tell you that I wasn’t expecting to feel compelled to write an article doing a deep dive into emerging beef between Son Heung-Min, known as one of the nicest men in football, and his Korea teammate, Napoli central defender Kim “Monster” Min-jae. But here we are.
As if there wasn’t enough drama swirling around Tottenham Hotspur already, the Korean media is now picking up on emerging drama on social media between Son and Kim over Monster’s frustration with international football participation with Korea, and his desire to concentrate on his club career. There’s a lot of cultural context, and neither player comes out exactly smelling like a rose.
I don’t know what we should call Korean national team beef. Bulgogi? Maybe not. But I took a deep dive in on social media to figure out what was going on. This article is heavily influenced by Albert Kim (@albert_kim2022), one of the people who run the excellent Korean football account @taegeuktavern, and who replied to my tweet asking for an explanation and provided some invaluable context. Thanks very much to Albert! You can click on the tweet below to read our full exchange.
I need a Vox-style explainer of this IMMEDIATELY. https://t.co/9M9LvtU9bq— Dustin George-Miller (@dustingm) March 29, 2023
Let’s start with Kim, because Monster is the one who kind of kicked everything off. After Korea’s 2-1 friendly loss to Uruguay yesterday, Kim suggested in an interview with the Korean media that he was mentally exhausted from international duty, and expressed a desire to focus on Napoli’s scudetto-chasing and Champions League campaign.
Kim Min-jae made a shocking comment in the mixed zone interview after the game against Uruguay: "I'm mentally tired. I want to focus on my team (Napoli) rather than the national team. I have nothing more to say right now" (Footballist) pic.twitter.com/6FViSIdFKX— Korea Football News (@KORFootballNews) March 28, 2023
That doesn’t sound so bad, right? This was, after all, a meaningless international friendly. Lots of footballers might come to the same conclusion, especially after a long, compressed season that included an inexpressibly weird winter World Cup in Qatar. Monster is also a player who has struggled with injuries in his career — he missed the 2018 World Cup, and had a foot injury while with Fenerbahce at the end of last season that would have kept him out of a summer 2022 cup as well. Meanwhile, Napoli is doing some really important things this season and he’s an integral part of their back line. Makes sense that he’d not want to risk picking up an injury or a mental health breakdown in a meaningless international game.
But as it was explained to me, in Korea there’s a huge cultural support for the national team. It is expected that Korean internationals are to give everything they have to play for Korea, and anything less than 100% is considered an insult to the national team fans. For Kim to express the (reasonable!) position that he’d rather just focus on his club at the moment was for a lot of fans a gross and unfair complaint, akin to spitting on them and the Taegeuk Warriors. The fan and media backlash was, as I understand it, substantial, and Kim went on to post an apology to Korean fans on Instagram.
It’s a long post and the auto translation isn’t perfect, but the gist of Kim’s apology is this: essentially, he tries to give everything for Korea when called up, he’s proud of representing his country, but he’s tired and mentally beat down after a long season. He’s sorry his comments were interpreted as a slight to Korea and its national team fans, which he did not intend, but he also needs to take care of his mental health as well.
Enter Son Heung-Min. Son is the captain of Korea and the country’s best and most famous footballer. He achieves essentially Korean pop-icon level status in his home country, and if you’ve been following Son’s career at Spurs and elsewhere over the past number of years you know that he has literally bled and cried for the Korean national team. When the team does well, he is gracious and magnanimous about sharing the credit. When the team does poorly, it is he, as the captain, who ends up shouldering the vast majority of the burden. I can’t remember how many times Son has apologized for Korea not doing the impossible, even when they’ve done well in major tournaments!
So as I understand it (and there’s some conjecture here), Son was none too pleased about Kim’s comments. He did, apparently, like Kim’s apology on Insta, but fired back a few hours later with what was interpreted as a passive-aggressive blast of Monster on his own Instagram feed.
Again, here’s the auto-translation, which isn’t perfect but you get the idea.
Standing for the country is always a pride and honor to wear the uniform of the Korean national football team. It’s been a long time since I was able to feel the love that football is receiving by playing a home game. We couldn’t give you a gift with a great victory, but we will try to be a team that develops.Thank you everyone for supporting us over the past ten daysSee you on the pitch again soon❤️ Sonny
The implication, again, something of a conjecture here, is that Sonny was furious with Monster’s comments about injury and mental tiredness. Son’s response was super passive-aggressive, but in Korean context it was explicitly clear as to whom and what he was referring. It doesn’t sound like there’s a whole lot of room for interpretation.
Son’s post, apparently, pissed Monster right off to the point where he actually blocked Sonny on Instagram which removed Sonny’s “like” of his apology tweet. And that’s where we are right now.
At some level you can understand Sonny’s frustration and anger too. Son literally played a World Cup with a broken face and has also played football with a broken arm, all without complaint and despite both injures adversely affecting his performances. Other past Korean stars such as Park Ji-Sung have literally put their bodies on the line for the national team.
It all seems kind of silly, as most social media beef turns out to be, but I should re-emphasize the cultural aspect of this point, because it runs somewhat counter to our Western understanding of athletes participating in national sports competitions. Sure, there’s some of that in certain contexts in European and Western cultures, but not to the same extreme that it’s felt in Korea. This may not feel like such a big deal to some of us, but it’s a deeply held conviction among many Korean sports fans and for Kim to prioritize his mental health can come across to some as gauche.
There’s also a certain level of irony here as Tottenham Hotspur supporters. Sonny is, of course, a beloved player amongst Spurs fans, even as he endures what is by his standards a miserable season. Monster was actually a strong Tottenham transfer target under Jose Mourinho when Kim was playing in China, though the transfer ultimately never went through and he ended up at Fenerbahce, and then Napoli.
In a way, both Son and Kim are being assholes here. Kim is upset that he’s being forced to fly to Korea to play in meaningless friendlies when he’s clearly mentally fried; he’s making decisions based on his own mental health, and that’s admirable! But he made some ill-advised comments to the media that he probably knew were not going to go over well with the press, the fans, and his teammates.
Meanwhile, Sonny is being a jackass for taking his frustration of Kim’s comments out publicly in a way that he knew would be correctly interpreted, but that also gave him a veneer of plausible deniability, instead of just taking Kim aside. I know that every human has feelings so I shouldn’t be surprised by Son being a passive-aggressive jerk, but it’s one of the very rare times that I’ve seen Son do something publicly that I think is probably not in his best interest.
Instead, now there’s a feud going between Kim and Son, and it’s all being played out on social media instead of the two hashing things out over a beer (and possibly a hug). Who knows where they go from here, but hopefully this is temporary and they can bury the hatchet, as national team beef rarely works out well for anyone.
The worst is that Sonny’s leaving what appeared to have been a chaotic environment in Seoul and returning to Spurs, one that’s, at present, even more chaotic. There has been, as of yet, no comment on this from Korea manager Jurgen Klinsmann, which is a phrase I never thought I’d ever write.