Son calls for patience as Koreans turn to youth

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The pressure is on in Asia as attention turns to qualification for the 2022 World Cup.

Son Heung-min is among those players already calling for patience. The Tottenham star, South Korea’s biggest football export, wants fans to allow the national team time to build for the tournament in Qatar.

South Korea coach Paulo Bento has called up two rookies for home friendlies with Bolivia and Colombia tomorrow and next Tuesday as he prepares for Asian qualifying, which kicks off in June across the continent and in September for the higher-ranked nations.

There are high expectations on the young, Spanish-based duo of Lee Kang-in, 18, and Paik Seung-ho, 22.

South Korea exited the Asian Cup at the quarterfinal stage after a loss to eventual champions Qatar and the team was criticised at home for sluggish performances.

Son, who has been a standout in the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League, has struggled to perform at a similar level for his country.

“Since those young players are on the senior national team for the first time, the rest of the team will have to help them,” Son told reporters after the squad assembled for the friendlies.

File photo shows South Korea’s forward Son Heung-min dribbling the ball during an AFC Asian Cup match. – AP

“I think too much attention on them can have negative impact. I think it’s important for fans and media to allow them to just grow as players. I hope they will prepare themselves well on and off the field and find their footing here.”

Lee made his La Liga debut for Valencia in January and is the seventh-youngest player to be called up by South Korea, a team looking to appear in a 10th successive World Cup. The attacking midfielder made headlines last year as his new contract with Valencia contained a buyout clause of 80 million euros.

The teenager has tried to play down the attention that he has received back home.

“I just want to thank people for having a lot of interest in me,” he said. “I will do my best and play a good game.”

While South Korea are focussed on young up-and-comers, in Japan it is time for a seasoned veteran to return. After being left out of the 2019 Asian Cup squad, it was assumed that Shinji Kagawa’s international career was over. But the former Manchester United player has earned a recall to face Bolivia and Colombia — they’re playing in the reverse order to South Korea.

Kagawa has enjoyed a resurgence in Europe since leaving Borussia Dortmund last August to join Turkey’s Besiktas. In six appearances for the Istanbul giant, the 30-year-old Kagawa has scored three goals.

There will be considerable interest in China’s clash with Thailand in Nanning tonight. Marcello Lippi stepped down as head coach at the end of January after more than two years in charge. The coach who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title was succeeded in March by the captain of that team Fabio Cannavaro.

The former Italy captain will keep his current job with Guangzhou Evergrande and manage China part-time. It has yet to be confirmed if this twin role is temporary or permanent.

The Chinese Football Association (CFA) selected Cannavaro because of his local knowledge, an appointment received a mixed reception in China. In 2018, the 45-year-old Cannavaro became the first coach since 2010 to fail to deliver the Chinese Super League title to Guangzhou.

“The association has carefully made this decision based on comprehensive research of his experience and technical and tactical style, familiarity with Chinese players and other factors,” the CFA said.