IIt’s a surreal Monday morning at Wolves’ training ground. Seeing South Korean icon Park Ji-sung and Patrice Evra – best friends since their days at Manchester United – serving drinks and Korean delicacies in a coffee truck attached to Hwang Hee-chan is enough to arouse a few doubles. “If the coffee isn’t good, you’re the one to blame … I just mix the water,” Evra said, pointing at Park and breaking into that booming, infectious laugh.
All day the first-team players and club staff lined up to order food – choco pies and rice cookies from Taegeukdang, the oldest bakery in Seoul, proved a huge hit – and drank coffee from mugs emblazoned with Hwang’s sticker celebrating Wolves’ goals, something that has become common this season. Fábio Silva is the first teammate to sample the coffee, with José Sa, Hwang’s close friend at the club, not far away.
Why a coffee truck? In South Korea, celebrities sending coffee trucks full of treats to friends as a show of support has become the norm and part of that tradition is on display at Compton Park, where Park and Evra were at the scene of the latest YouTube episode. Shoot for Love, the most popular channel in South Korea. The English channel Shoot for Love was launched about a year ago to cater to a global audience and has already amassed 1.7m subscribers, surpassing the number of subscribers for the Asian version.
A crew of 30 cameras, many decked out in Wolves colors – shirts, scarves and bucket hats – film Hwang on the court, in the gym playing foot tennis – and later a clay pigeon shot. If all this gives a taste of Hwang’s great appeal, it also gives an indication of the appetite – far from Molineux – for Saturday’s game between Wolves and Tottenham, known as the “Korean derby”. It’s a UK premiere but the premiere in cities like Busan. Millions will sing at home or join the game of chimaeks (chicken and beer restaurants) and sool-jips (gastropubs).
Hwang has faced Son Heung-min, the captain of Tottenham and South Korea, but never like this. They swapped shirts after the Carabao Cup encounter two years ago, which Spurs won on penalties, just weeks after Hwang arrived in England on loan from RB Leipzig – Wolves paid €14.25m to make the move permanent early last year – and Hwang was a late substitute when they last met. in the Premier League later that season. They are now key players in their respective clubs and are among the top scorers in the Premier League (Son has eight, Hwang six).
“It’s probably the biggest match between Korean players since Park Ji-sung played with Lee Young-pyo, Manchester United against Tottenham (in 2007),” said Gun Lee, a reporter for Korean newspaper Sports Chosun.
As Kim Dong-jun, better known as Shoot for Love’s Jamm, says, Son v Hwang is a rising star v. “Sonny is just like David Beckham,” said Lee, explaining how the Spurs forward is dealing with 20 brands in Korea, from banks to energy drinks. Park says: “Everybody can see themselves wherever they go in Korea, on TV, in advertisements. It’s not often you can watch Korean players play against each other, especially in the Premier League and everyone is looking forward to it because they are both on fire.”
In recent years, when Spurs played league games on Sundays because of their Europa League and Europa Conference League fixtures, Son would train on Saturday afternoons and catch up with Hwang’s handling of Wolves. “It’s the first thing I look at,” Son said last year. The greatness of this game is not for both of them. “For the Korean people, this is the most important game and maybe the most special game for us – we know that, Son and I,” Hwang said. “I played with him for a long time and we are good friends. For the Korean people and everyone else we will do our best and hopefully we will show them a good game. Everyone in Korea will be happy.”
Hwang grew up in Bucheon, a satellite city near Seoul, and after spending much of his childhood playing for the Pohang Steelers at the age of 18 he joined Red Bull Salzburg, where he played alongside Erling Haaland. When Pep Guardiola called him a “Korean boy” before Wolves beat Manchester City in September, Hwang took it as a veiled compliment. Hwang invited several South Korean families to the game, bought them tickets and replica shirts, and stayed for a long time, signing autographs and asking for photos. This season, everything seems to have clicked for the 27-year-old player, who is growing well under the burden of coach Gary O’Neil. Several key players left Wolves in the summer, including former captain Rúben Neves, but others, notably Hwang and Pedro Neto, have risen to the top.
“I think Hee-chan represents the journey the team is on,” said Wolves sporting director Matt Hobbs. “He has gone from being looked down upon by previous coaches to the point where Gary is full of faith in him, encouraging him, giving him strength and supporting him. I said to Gary: ‘He (Hwang) just needs to feel loved, to feel important. If you look at his career, he has played the second game a lot. I think when you play next to Haaland in Salzburg, you are Robin to his Batman. “
What is behind his attractive form? Hwang, an intelligent character who continues to improve his English through regular lessons, admires O’Neil’s energetic and clear style. Hwang was also injury free after the first few seasons. “We get along really well,” Hwang said of O’Neil. “Every week he takes another trick from the opponent and as a player it’s easy to understand.”
Park, who spent seven years at Manchester United, suggests Hwang’s support from his home country is invaluable. “(Playing) anywhere (in Europe) is far from our country,” said Park. “Sometimes it can be lonely … at first it’s hard but the reaction of the fans and their support can give you strength. You think: ‘I need to survive here, I need to make them happy because I am very grateful for their attitude and support.'”
Hwang, nicknamed Bull, and Son represent major businesses in their respective groups. In the summer a Korean retailer ordered 1,500 Wolves shirts with Hee-chan and No 11 on the back.
Last month 50% of views on Wolves’ YouTube channel came from South Korea, ahead of 7% from the UK. When Hwang scores there is a lot of interest in the highlights and action of the game.
There is a constant desire to feel closer 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 the opening goal at Watford – as he stepped into the goal line – 1.4m. “Korean fans know that Hwang can be the next star in South Korea, if he continues what he is doing,” said Sungmo Lee, a Korean football journalist. “When Son retires, he can lead the forward line.”
Hwang regards Son, arguably the greatest Asian player of all time, as an idol but he made himself a hero after scoring the goal that sent South Korea into the last 16 of the World Cup in Qatar last year. This season Hwang has scored as many league goals as any Wolves player last season. Hobbs says the Wolves forwards feel they can take risks under O’Neil. “They are allowed to be the players they are. ‘If it doesn’t work, no problem, do it again.'”
Hwang often spends the day after a game completing community service to fulfil his exemption from compulsory military service in South Korea, due to winning gold at the 2018 Asian Games with Son. Hwang, who was required to do compulsory work for three weeks of basic military training by July 2022, it must log 544 hours of volunteer work over a 34-month period, ending next summer. After beating Bournemouth last month, he went to London to coach Korean school children. He sometimes clocks in hours by teaching online seminars.
It is fitting that Hwang has not forgotten where he came from. “Usually when he goes back to Korea he goes back to play Sunday League football,” said Jeremy Park, Shoot for Love’s communications manager. “He moves and plays with novice players and there are videos. ‘Hee-chan are you there? What’s going on?’ Son is like God in Korea – untouchable – but Hee-chan is still very popular.”