‘A very special game’: South Korea gears up for Hwang v Son showdown

It is a surreal Monday morning at Wolves’ training ground. The sight of the South Korea icon Park Ji-sung and Patrice Evra – best friends since their days at Manchester United – serving drinks and Korean delicacies from a coffee truck plastered with prints of Hwang Hee-chan is enough to trigger a few double takes. “If the coffee is not good, he is the person you blame … I’m just mixing the water,” Evra says, pointing at Park and breaking into that booming, infectious laugh.

Throughout the day first-team players and club staff queue to order food – choco pies and rice cookies from Taegeukdang, the oldest bakery in Seoul, prove a big hit – and drink coffee from cups decorated with a sticker of Hwang celebrating scoring for Wolves, something that has become commonplace this season. Fábio Silva is his first teammate to sample the coffee, with José Sa, Hwang’s closest friend at the club, not far behind.

Why the coffee truck? In South Korea, celebrities sending coffee trucks brimming with sweet treats to friends as a show of support has become a trend and a slice of that culture is on show at Compton Park, where Park and Evra are on location for the latest episode of the YouTube channel Shoot for Love, which is hugely popular in South Korea. Shoot for Love’s English channel was launched just over a year ago to cater for a global audience and has amassed 1.7m subscribers, surpassing the number signed up to the Asian version.

Hwang Hee-chan between Patrice Evra (left) and Park Ji-sung in Wolverhampton on Monday.
Hwang Hee-chan between Patrice Evra (left) and Park Ji-sung in Wolverhampton on Monday. Photograph: The Guardian

A 30-strong camera crew, many decked out in Wolves colours – shirts, scarves and bucket hats – film Hwang on the pitch, in the gym playing foot tennis – and later clay pigeon shooting. If all of this offers a flavour of Hwang’s mass appeal, it also provides an indication of the appetite – far beyond Molineux – for Saturday’s match between Wolves and Tottenham, known as “the Korean derby”. It is an early UK kick-off but primetime viewing in cities such as Busan. Millions will tune in at home or take in the game in chimaeks (chicken and beer restaurants) and sool-jips (gastropubs).

Hwang has previously faced Son Heung-min, the Tottenham and South Korea captain, but it has never been like this. They swapped shirts after a Carabao Cup meeting two years ago, which Spurs won on penalties, a few weeks after Hwang arrived in England on loan from RB Leipzig – Wolves paid €14.25m to make the move permanent at the start of last year – and Hwang was a late substitute when they last met in the Premier League later that season. Now they are key players at their clubs and among the Premier League’s leading goalscorers (Son has eight, Hwang six). “It is probably the biggest match between Korean players since Park Ji-sung played against Lee Young-pyo, for Manchester United against Tottenham [in 2007],” says Gun Lee, a journalist for the Korean newspaper Sports Chosun.

As Kim Dong-jun, better known as Shoot for Love’s Jamm, says, Son v Hwang is superstar v rising superstar. “Sonny is just like a David Beckham,” Lee says, citing how the Spurs forward is the face of 20 brands in Korea, from banks to energy drinks. Park says: “Everyone can see them everywhere they go in Korea, on TV, on advertisements. It is not that often you can watch Korean players play each other, particularly in the Premier League and everyone is looking forward to it because both of them are on fire.”

A cup showing Hwang Hee-chan celebrating after scoring for Wolves.
A cup showing Hwang Hee-chan celebrating after scoring for Wolves. Photograph: The Guardian

In recent years, when Spurs were playing league matches on Sundays owing to their Europa League and Europa Conference League schedule, Son would train on Saturday afternoons and afterwards find out how Hwang fared for Wolves. “It is the first thing I check,” Son said last year. The magnitude of this match is not lost on either of them. “For Korean people, this is the most important game maybe and a very, very special game for us – we know that, myself and Son,” Hwang says. “I have played with him for a very long time and we are very good friends. For Korean people and everyone we will do our best and hopefully we will show them a good game. Everyone in Korea will be excited.”

Hwang grew up in Bucheon, a satellite city near Seoul, and after spending much of his childhood playing for Pohang Steelers at the age of 18 he joined Red Bull Salzburg, where he played with Erling Haaland. When Pep Guardiola referred to him as “the Korean guy” before Wolves beat Manchester City in September, Hwang took it as a veiled compliment. Hwang invited several South Korean families to the game, buying them tickets and replica shirts, and stayed long after, signing autographs and posing for photos. This season everything seems to have clicked for the 27-year-old, who is thriving on the responsibility handed to him by the head coach, Gary O’Neil. Several key players left Wolves in the summer, including the former captain Rúben Neves, but others, notably Hwang and Pedro Neto, have risen to the fore.

“I think Hee-chan represents the journey the squad are on,” says the Wolves sporting director, Matt Hobbs. “He’s gone from being maybe undervalued slightly by previous coaches to Gary coming in full of belief in him, encouraging, empowering and supporting him. I said to Gary: ‘He [Hwang] just needs to feel loved, feel important. If you look at his career, he has played second fiddle a lot. I imagine when you play next to Haaland at Salzburg, you’re Robin to his Batman.”

What is behind his eye-catching form? Hwang, an intelligent character who continues to improve his English with regular lessons, credits O’Neil’s diligent and clear style. Hwang has also stayed free of injury after a couple of stop-start seasons. “We understand each other very well,” Hwang says of O’Neil. “Every single week he takes another tactic for the opponent and as a player it is very easy to understand.”

Park, who spent seven years at Manchester United, suggests the support for Hwang from his homeland is priceless. “[Playing] anywhere [in Europe] is far from our country,” Park says. “Sometimes it can be quite lonely … at first it is difficult but the fans’ reaction and their support can give you energy. You think: ‘I need to survive here, I need to make them happy because I’m so grateful for their attitude and support.’”

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Hwang, nicknamed the Bull, and Son represent big business for their clubs. In the summer a Korean wholesaler ordered 1,500 Wolves shirts with Hee-chan and No 11 on the back. Last month 50% of views on Wolves’ YouTube channel were from South Korea, dwarfing the 7% from the UK. When Hwang scores there are spikes of interest in highlights and match action.

There is a constant appetite to feel close to the stars: a video of Hwang’s father and sister joining Wolves’ under-17s for dinner while on tour in Incheon has amassed almost half a million views; a two-minute clip featuring Hwang scoring on debut at Watford – when he prodded in on the goalline – 1.4m. “Korean fans know Hwang can be the next superstar in South Korea, if he continues what he is doing,” says Sungmo Lee, a Korean football journalist. “When Son retires, he can lead the forward line.”

Hwang views Son, arguably the greatest Asian player of all time, as an idol but made himself a hero after scoring the goal that fired South Korea into the last 16 of the World Cup in Qatar last year. This season Hwang has already scored as many league goals as any Wolves player managed last season. Hobbs says the Wolves forwards feel able to take risks under O’Neil. “They’re allowed to be the players they are. ‘If it doesn’t work, no problem, do it again.’”

Hwang Hee-chan celebrates after scoring the winner for Wolves against Manchester City.
Hwang Hee-chan celebrates after scoring the winner for Wolves against Manchester City. Photograph: Ed Sykes/Action Images/Reuters

Hwang often spends the day after matches completing community service to fulfil his exemption from compulsory military service in South Korea, as a result of winning gold at the 2018 Asian Games alongside Son. Hwang, who was required to undertake a mandatory three weeks of basic military training in July 2022, has to record 544 hours of voluntary work across a 34-month period, which ends next summer. After beating Bournemouth last month, he travelled to London to coach Korean schoolchildren. Sometimes he ticks off hours by mentoring on online seminars.

It is fair to say Hwang has not forgotten where he has come from. “Usually when he comes back to Korea he goes back to play football in the equivalent of a Sunday League,” says Jeremy Park, Shoot for Love’s communications manager. “He rocks up and plays along with the amateur players and then videos of it go viral. ‘Hee-chan is here? What the hell?’ Son is like a God in Korea – untouchable – but Hee-chan is certainly becoming extremely popular.”