Son backs ‘strong’ Alli, vows to overcome his own Spurs issues

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SINGAPORE — When Dele Alli earlier this month emotionally revealed the childhood traumas he suffered, starting with being sexually abused at the age of six which eventually led to addiction to sleep medication that culminated in a recent six-week stint at a rehab facility in the United States, he received an outpouring of support.

It was no surprise that one of the first who took to social media to back Alli was Son Heung-min, who in an Instagram story posted: “Your brave words will help so many people.”

After all, Son and Alli were not just former teammates who began their Tottenham careers at the same time in 2015, they were also close friends.

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A special handshake between just the two of them (although Son admittedly has a different one for almost every teammate). Son patiently and humourously — with brief moments of mock exasperation — trying to teach Alli how to speak Korean at a PR event.

Until Alli left Spurs at the start of last year to join Everton, the duo did not just click on the pitch for a team consistently finishing in the top four of the Premier League, they got on tremendously off it. When Alli revealed the harrowing experiences from his youth, even former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said the interview was “so painful” that he could not finishing watching it.

Alli now believes he is in “the best place” he has ever been. And as expected, Son is fully backing his friend — who at one point seemed destined to be one of the best players in the world — to rediscover his feet.

“I feel really sorry about it because he is one of my close, close friends,” Son told ESPN. “But he’s definitely a strong guy that I always trust.

“I will always believe in him — [that] he will come back as a strong person as before. I’m definitely supporting him.”

While obviously on a different, less severe level, Son also had to endure difficult times recently. Following a 2021-22 campaign that saw him win the Premier League’s Golden Boot alongside Liverpool‘s Mohamed Salah with 23 goals — the first Asian to ever claim the honour — last season was far more trying for the affable South Korean.

Hampered by injury, Son managed just 14 goals in all competition — his lowest tally since his first year at Tottenham — in a turbulent season for the club that saw them part ways with manager Antonio Conte and then have two interim replacements in Cristian Stellini and Ryan Mason.

A facial injury also threatened his chance to captain South Korea at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

While he did eventually make the trip to Qatar, he was evidently far from at his peak and was affected by the protective mask he had to wear even if he did manage to lead his country to the round of 16 — producing a brilliant assist for Hwang Hee-chan‘s winner against Portugal that sealed their progress from the group stage.

Yet, ask Son how he deals and battles with the mental toil that comes with the pressure and expectation and his response is a refreshing — and perhaps unsurprisingly down-to-earth — answer.

“Everyone [deals with it] different. I’m living a dream,” he said, with an earnestness that resembled more the young boy from Chuncheon that once had big goals of becoming a professional footballer, rather than the now 31-year-old widely regarded as one of the world’s best players.

“So, I can’t complain about any of this. Mentally, physically — I’m ready to face any challenges. That’s why I’m still here.

“I’m working, enjoying my life, being happy — I think that’s the most important.”

Son’s likeable nature has seen him gain fans from all over, even if they are not supporters of the North London outfit. Still, if there is one place he is always guaranteed to receive a rapturous reception, it is back in Asia.

It was clear who the majority of the 25,095 who turned up at Singapore’s National Stadium on Wednesday had come to see, as Tottenham continued their preseason by mounting a second-half comeback to claim a 5-1 win over Lion City Sailors.

Every time he had possession, the volume in the stadium increased by several decibels. When he was on the receiving end of a firm challenge, it felt as if the guilty opponent had personally offended the crowd. Even when the ball was not even near him, screams and cheers were elicited by the sheer image of Son on the stadium monitor.

It might be too easy a cliché to say that the smile is back on Son’s face. And frankly rather inaccurate, because it has always looked like he simply enjoys playing football, regardless of whether he gets to do it for a living.

By his own admission though, there are expectations he knows he must live up to that he is optimistic he can indeed fulfil — better than he did last season.

“It’s always an exciting moment — preseason — that we are looking forward [to] and working hard [in],” Son added. “Obviously, the body is not 100% but I’m sure we’ll definitely get there.

“[There were] tough moments last year but, this year, I probably have to do so much better than last year. So I’m looking forward to help the team and do better things.”

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