It would be too risky for any athlete to return to competition less than a month after suffering facial fractures. But Son Heung-min, the beloved captain of the South Korean men's national football team, says he is willing to put his own health on the line as long as he can make fans happy.
Son had his first training session with South Korea in Doha on Wednesday, after landing in the Qatari capital as the last South Korean player in the host country of the upcoming World Cup.
The Tottenham Hotspur star underwent surgery to repair fractures around his left eye on Nov. 4, an injury he sustained in a collision with an opponent during a UEFA Champions League match.
Only days later, Son announced on his social media he'd be prepared to play in the World Cup with a protective mask.
And he sported a black, "Zorro"-style, carbon mask in Wednesday's session at Al Egla Training Facility in Doha, with his shirt number, "7," written in white on the left side.
At a press conference following the session, Son didn't have a definitive answer to the question on most football fans' minds: his timeline for return.
"I am not a doctor. It's difficult for me to say when I can play," said Son, whose team's first Group H match is Nov. 24 against Uruguay. "I will do the best I can under the circumstances.
But it's tough for me to say right now that I will play every game."
Son acknowledged injury risks that football players face but said it comes with the territory of being an athlete.
"From fans' perspective, I may be pushing this too far. But football players always compete under such risks," Son added. "I just want to give our fans joy and hope. I am more than willing to bear those risks."
Son said he had already trained with a mask on with Tottenham before joining the national team. He had also used the recovery time following his surgery to recharge his battery but said his condition should not be an issue.
Son often fiddled with the mask during Wednesday's session, and he said it was because swelling on his face kept going down.
"I was surprised at first how comfortable the mask was," Son said. "It feels a little different here than in England, because it's hotter here and I sweated a lot today."
The captain said he brought enough masks to Doha to be able to try on different ones to decide which one fits him the best.
"These carbon masks are really light, and they likely won't break," Son said. "And if a mask breaks, it means something has happened to my face. So I hope it doesn't come to that."
Son is one of three South Koreans who have been named to the third straight World Cup squad, joined by goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu and defender Kim Young-gwon. And Son said he still has the same sense of urgency as ever.
"Everyone who comes to the World Cup wants to play well, but it takes more than that," Son said. "Realistically speaking, it's more important to be prepared for matches than to just have the desire to play well. I can't predict the future, but I want to make this a special World Cup using every last ounce of energy that I have." (Yonhap)