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National team's 'ping pong gate' comes to close after Son-Lee make up

Feb. 22, 2024 - 14:10 By Yoon Min-sik
Son Heung-min (left) and Lee Kang-in after South Korea's 2-0 loss to Jordan in the semifinal match at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar on Feb. 6, 2024. (Yonhap)

South Korea's soccer governing body said it was "overjoyed" over recent news that Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in of the national team have buried the hatchet after their highly-publicized quarrel during the Asian Cup 2023, seemingly putting an end to what the public and the local media dubbed "ping pong gate."

"After hearing the news (of Son-Lee's reconciliation), I was as happy and excited as if (the team) won in a tournament. ... As for whether the two players are selected (for the national team), we will discuss with the new head coach," said Chung Hae-sung, the recently-appointed head of the National Team Committee of the Korea Football Association.

Son and Lee were involved in a scuffle of an unspecified nature a day before the national team's 2-0 semifinal loss against Jordan in the Asian Cup in Qatar, resulting in Son dislocating a finger.

There had been speculations and unconfirmed reports concerning the scuffle, including what was said during the altercation. However, some details of the quarrel and what happened afterward have been confirmed by the KFA and the public statements of the players involved.

The row between two of the team's most important players came to light when UK media reported last week of the scuffle. According to the report, Lee and younger players of the team finished dinner quickly to play table tennis, but the team captain Son took issue and called them back to the dining area.

This led to an argument, with sources claiming "some disrespectful things were said to Son," and Son and Lee were physically involved with other players pulling them apart. It is unclear who the source was, as no member of the particular media outlet accompanied the national team during the Asian Cup.

Son Heung-min (left) and Lee Kang-in walk off the field after South Korea lost 2-0 in the semifinal match against Jordan at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar on Feb. 6, 2024. (Yonhap)

The news was covered by the South Korean media on the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 14, and the KFT confirmed the report about four hours later, saying it was "mostly right." It confirmed that Son reprimanded younger players playing table tennis, that he got into an argument with Lee involving physical altercation, and that the process led to Son's injury.

The KFA denied that punches were thrown, and the organization said last Thursday it was "currently figuring out all the facts" concerning the incident.

Around 5:43 p.m. last Wednesday, Lee posted an apology on his Instagram about his "argument" with Son. A day later, his lawyer released a statement denying reports that Lee took a swing at Son, and players playing table tennis was something enjoyed frequently by even the older players of the team.

Neither Lee or Son has yet to describe the details of the incident publicly.

South Korea's disappointing performance in the tournament, along with its lackluster team chemistry, led to the KFA dismissing the head coach Juergen Klinsmann last Friday.

Many South Koreans bashed Lee for his actions in the scuffle, with reports indicating that some of his advertisers are considering pulling their endorsements. Frantic media coverage and unconfirmed reports about Lee’s specific actions in the incident, as well as speculations about Lee’s character, exacerbated the matter as the Paris Saint-Germain star’s popularity took a nosedive in his home country.

On Wednesday, Lee posted a second public apology and said he flew to London, where the 31-year-old Son plays for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League, for a face-to-face apology. Hours later, Son posted a photo of him and Lee smiling and embracing each other, and asked that the public forgive Lee for his mistakes.

This photo posted on official Instagram page of Son Heung-min shows Son (left) and Lee Kang-in posing for a photo. (Son Heung-min's Instagram page)

Criticism toward 23-year-old Lee has subdued in light of Son’s words of encouragement, as the KFA is seeking to put the bitter memories of the “ping pong gate” behind them in preparation of the 2026 World Cup. With the head coach sacked, South Korea’s highest soccer authority is looking for the new coach to take helm of the team ahead of the World Cup qualifiers against Thailand next month.

Chung said the KFA is opening all possibilities for the new hire, but added that its members are leaning more toward hiring a South Korean due to time constraints.