When the men representing South Korea will take the field in Russia, all eyes will be on Tottenham star Son Heung-min. For many, Son is the only glimmer of hope that Korea has in a tough group consisting of themselves, Germany, Sweden, and Mexico. However, after one has a closer look at the Korean team for the summer, one finds that the nation has a few absolute gems that could act as catalysts for their country at the World Cup. One of these gems is Red Bull Salzburg centre-forward Hwang Hee-chan, who has been somewhat of a revelation this season. Let’s get to know all about the Salzburg starlet and understand why he could be massive for Korea.
Early Life and Youth Career
Born in Chuncheon on January 26, 1996, Hwang moved around a lot in his childhood. He began his football career at his elementary school in Uijeongbu at the age of 11. When he was 12, Hee-chan scored the most goals in two prestigious Korean youth tournaments, the Hwanrang-Daegi Youth Cup, and Dongwon Cup.
The Kanga Cup, a week-long youth football tournament that is held every year in Australia became a playground for Hwang. He scored 22 goals in the tournament on behalf of the Korean U-12 national team, and the tally is still the most goals ever scored by a player in the cup. Great performances at youth level earned Hwang the Cha Bum-Kun Football Award, one of Korea’s biggest football prizes.
Hwang played for the Pohang Jecheol Middle School team after graduating out of primary school. The club is the U-15 outfit of K-League side Pohang Steelers. Hee-chan led the team to multiple wins in regional and national competitions and was called up to the Korea U-16 squad. In the 2012 AFC U-16 Championship, the lad scored a hat-trick against North Korea and finished the competition with a total of five goals.
As he reached high school, Hwang joined the Pohang Steelers U-18s and won his high school the Adidas All-in Challenger League after he scored 12 goals in as many as games. Not surprisingly, he was the top scorer in the tournament.
In 2014, when Hwang turned 18, Pohang were keen to sign him as a homegrown player, but Austrian giants RB Salzburg snapped the Korean instead.
Moving to Austria and Getting Established at Salzburg
Hwang spent his first two years in Austria at FC Liefering, Red Bull Salzburg’s feeder club. His first season for Liefering in the Erste Liga, which is the second division of Austrian footballer was relatively impressive. Hee-chan scored twice and assisted twice in 13 total appearances.
However, it was the ‘15/16 season which attracted the main Salzburg team and persuaded them to promote Hwang. The Korean centre-forward scored 11 times and assisted six times in eighteen games for Liefering and was promoted to the main team on a permanent basis the next season. Hwang had played for Salzburg a few times in ‘15/16 but most of his appearances were off the bench.
The Korean’s versatility is what makes him very important for Salzburg. Hwang can play as a centre-forward, left-winger, and right-winger with ease, essentially meaning that he can play everywhere as long as it is up front.
2016-17 was a particularly special season for Hwang. In the summer, he played for Korea at the Olympics and managed to get a goal, and just around a month later he made his senior debut for South Korea. The season was also the forward’s first full season at Salzburg. In his second game in the Europa League, Hee-chan scored twice for his team against OGC Nice, but couldn’t ensure that Salzburg qualified to the next round, sadly.
In the entire season, Hwang scored 16 goals and got a couple of assists in 35 appearances. This form meant that he was turning into a sensation in Korea and into a starter at Salzburg.
Becoming a Starter for Korea and Becoming a Star at Salzburg
Hwang’s international career was off with a bang after he scored his first goal against Qatar in his first game where he played the full 90 minutes. Unfortunately, a worrying hamstring injury ruled him out for a month and a half meaning that his next game for Korea would be in 2018. In his second game after coming back, Hwang scored against Poland and has gotten two assists in the recent friendlies against Honduras and Bosnia. He was also chosen for the FIFA World Cup 2018 squad.
Coming to his achievements at Salzburg over the past year. Hwang was a crucial part of the Austrians’ Europa League dream run that saw them go all the way to the semi-finals. The Korean scored twice and assisted the same number in nine games. His three goals in the Austrian Cup, the Europa League qualifiers and the UCL qualifiers were also important to a fair degree.
In the Austrian Bundesliga, a lot of Hwang’s season was overshadowed by injuries. All things considered, the Korean was out for 17 games due to injury. Despite long gaps between the games he played, Hwang still managed 13 goals and four assists in 37 games.
In early 2018, it was reported that Tottenham Hotspur were interested in Hwang, meaning that a Son-Hwang link-up is certainly possible. Numerous other European clubs have also enquired about the Korean, and if he performs well at the World Cup, Salzburg will definitely be on the receiving end of some calls.
Hwang Hee-chan will hope to keep his good form going and take it to the World Cup, to ensure that his reputation and his country’s result is as good as possible. A lot is resting on the tournament for the youngster.