In this Action Images photo via Reuters, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur dribbles the ball during a Premier League match against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux Stadium in Wolverhampton, England, on Aug. 22, 2021. (Reuters-Yonhap)
Tottenham Hotspur's South Korean star Son Heung-min was selected to the national team Monday ahead of two World Cup qualifying matches despite whispers of a possible injury.
Head coach Paulo Bento picked the longtime national team captain, along with 25 other players for World Cup qualifiers against Iraq and Lebanon at home next month.
South Korea will first host Iraq at 8 p.m. on Sept. 2 at Seoul World Cup Stadium in the nation's capital. Then on Sept. 7, South Korea will face Lebanon at 8 p.m. at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul.
Given his considerable offensive talent, Son is clearly a no-brainer choice for Bento. But the 29-year-old attacker will come home amid speculation that he may have injured his left leg.
During Tottenham's most recent Premier League match against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday, Son was replaced by Harry Kane in the 72nd minute. Son played the match with his left hamstring area taped and was seen walking gingerly afterward.
When asked about Son's condition, Tottenham coach Nuno Espirito Santo initially said, "I am sorry I cannot answer that."
"For now he's alright," Espirito Santo continued in his press conference. "In the warmup, he had a strange feeling, but he was OK to play. I don't know. Let's assess him. I didn't realize. I'm sorry."
In announcing the national team roster, Bento said he picked Son, believing the player to be healthy.
"Sonny, for me, is in good condition. As far as I know, he has no problems," the Portuguese coach said, referring to the player by his nickname in a rare press conference conducted in English. "The first game he played (against Manchester City on Aug. 15), he played 90 minutes. Yesterday, he played 72 minutes. In my opinion, he's OK and I have no information about any injury."
Son was selected as one of 11 midfielders, though he can and usually does handle forward duties, too. Bento said he wanted to create balance in his midfield corps, and went with players who can take on different responsibilities, like Son.
The two upcoming matches are the first two for South Korea in Group A during the third round of the Asian qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
There are two groups of six countries. After round-robin play through March next year, the top two countries from each group will qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. The two third-place teams will meet in a one-and-done playoff match in May 2022, and the winner will move on to the intercontinental playoff against a team from a region to be determined later.
South Korea have played at every World Cup since 1986, including as a co-host with Japan in 2002.
South Korea have a 7-11-2 (wins-draws-losses) record against Iraq and a 10-3-1 mark against Lebanon.
Other Group A nations are Iran, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.
With five Middle Eastern opponents, traveling will be especially difficult for South Korea. Bento said he expects a difficult road ahead to Qatar, but he has also told players the upcoming round will be "the most beautiful part of the qualifiers."
"All the games we're going to play will be difficult, for sure," he said. "But we should trust in ourselves, in our process and in our style of play. We must respect all the opponents and try to be better than them." (Yonhap)