DOHA – As Brazil’s big-time player made his return to the World Cup in Qatar, the superstar of South Korean soccer made his exit.
Son Heung-min is his country’s Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and, yes, Neymar, all wrapped up into one. Yet, as Neymar recovered from an ankle injury to score in Brazil’s 4-1 win over South Korea in the round of 16 on Monday, Son’s latest chance to light up the sport’s biggest stage came and went.
“We gave everything,” Son said. “Brazil is the favorite, look at their players. If you give them spaces they score. I’m so proud of what we’ve done and I don’t want to blame any of our players because they gave everything.”
For Neymar, there was a 76th international goal that moves him within one of Brazilian great Pelé’s scoring record for his country — and closer to a possible sixth World Cup for the tournament’s most successful team.
For Son, there was the frustration of knowing he was never going to be at the peak of his powers in Qatar. Not after an eye socket broken only a few weeks earlier forced him to wear a protective facemask throughout his four matches.
Sure, Son made it to the World Cup, but not the same player who has established himself as one of the best strikers in Europe with Tottenham and was the co-leading scorer in the English Premier League last season, along with Mohamed Salah, with 23.
He leaves the World Cup without a single goal.
Against Brazil at Stadium 974, with South Korea trailing 4-0 at halftime, his big moment came soon after the restart.
Bearing down on goal, he sized up his chance and picked out the corner of the net. Unfortunately, Brazil goalkeeper Alisson was ready and managed to deflect the ball around the post.
In a later goalmouth scramble, Son again had an effort blocked.
Not that the South Koreans should depart with any regrets about their showing in Qatar. After all, few would have expected them to overcome a Brazil team that came into the tournament as one of the favorites.
South Korea's place in the knockout round was secured with a moment that will live long in team lore, when Hwang Hee-chan scored in stoppage time to secure a 2-1 win over Portugal and advancement from Group H.
The man who provided the assist for that goal? Son, with an intricate pass that split Portugal’s defense and sparked unforgettable celebrations from the South Korean players and fans.
So Son played his part at this World Cup, even if he leaves it without being at his best.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports