Sports

2022 World Cup ‘Moment of the Day’: Son Heung-min’s pause of genius against Portugal

The 2022 World Cup has had one of the most epic group stages ever: the goals, the results, the performances all have been quite incredible. With so much happening every day, ESPN India attempts to pick out the one magical moment that defined the day’s action.

For day 13, we pick a pause. A moment of genius from Son Heung-min that helped set up South Korea’s winner against Portugal.

It all starts from a Portugal corner. As the game enters the first minute of stoppage time after the regulation 90, South Korea stand fourth in the table. Down, but somehow not yet out, this match with Portugal tied at 1-1. The corner is swung in at the near post, where it’s headed clear and into a patch of free grass.

Son Heung-min, out wide at the edge of the Korean box, has already anticipated the clearance and is on his bike. Four seconds and eleven of those loping strides later Son has the ball at his feet just behind the centre circle. The clock reads 90:00 (+0:19).

When he takes that first touch, pushing the ball forward, slowing down only a wee bit, he takes his first look to see what’s around him. Ahead of him are Diogo Dalot and William Carvalho, the latter closing in at an angle, covering for the possibility of Son cutting inside. The closest person behind him is Palhinha, and he’s stomping across the pitch to close the gap. There’s no one in red within a ten-metre radius. His head swivels forward again and he keeps running.

At around 10 yards from the edge of the Portuguese box, Palhinha catches up, eight seconds after the ball was first headed out from within the Korean six-yard area. Son shrugs him off, head bent down, eyes firmly on the ball as he suddenly decelerates. He appears to lose balance before a light touch with his left foot keeps the ball in control. By this time, there’s a wall of three in front of him. Then comes the pause.

One.

Two.

Looking back at the goal, you can count it: Just how long Son holds onto the ball. He takes a moment and looks up to see the Portuguese trio. The next second, he glances to the left to see Hwang Hee-chan tearing into the box. Without that pause, without those two moments he took to himself, what follows next wouldn’t have happened.

The three defenders have stood off him for just those few milliseconds, but Carvalho steps up and reaches out with a long leg. At that instance, Son pokes the ball forward – past Carvalho’s toe, through Dalot’s legs and just beyond the reach of a stretching Palinha. That was the only path that would have taken the ball from Son’s boot to Hwang’s and he had found it.

Hwang ran onto the ball without breaking his stride and swept it along, past Diogo Costa and into the far corner. 90:00 (0:27). 2-1 South Korea. Second in the table. Progress to the round of 16.

After the match, an emotional Son — the face mask that was protecting his recovering-from-fracture eye socket long abandoned — would break down in front of Korean television. He would apologise for not being able to do much in the last three games and praise his teammates for carrying him and the team into the next round. It wasn’t false humility, he appeared to truly believe it, but it was the magic of one of Asia’s greatest ever players that had seen South Korea through at the end.

If the run so late in the game, at such a high pace, had shown off Son’s physical attributes, then the pass had highlighted his technical quality and his vision: it was the pause that had tied it all together.

The footballing intelligence to understand that there was only one possible way he could continue this counter and that it necessitated waiting. The calmness to do nothing when the overwhelming urge must have been to do something, anything. The belief in himself that even if surrounded by defenders, he would be able to thread that ball through. The faith in his teammate that that’s all he had to do.

It’s the kind of small moment that separates the very good from the great, that can lift a nation from the brink of elimination and into the knockouts, that can define one of the most dramatic days in Word Cup history.

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