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Hwang Hee-chan: A superstar in the making

Hwang Hee-chan has been a revelation in European football this season. His performances have caught the eyes of some of Europe's biggest clubs. He is the latest among a long list of Korean footballers to have made the move to Europe. Back home, he is already held in very high regard after several brilliant performances for the South Korean national team. Shibajee Das traces the journey of an upcoming star, who could set Europe alight and make his country proud on the global stage. (Image via AFC.)

The Beginnings

Hwang Hee-chan was born on 26 January 1996 in Chuncheon, the capital of the Gangwon province. His entire family- parents, sister and grandparents- moved to Bucheon, right after his birth. Hwang was only six years old when South Korea reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup 2002, on home soil. It proved to be a source of inspiration for several future generation footballers in the country. However, his first athletic experience was Taekwondo, which he had practised with great enthusiasm until he was eight. At the age of 11, Hwang moved alone to Uijeongbu where he first started to play football in Singok Elementary School.

In 2008, he was adjudged as the top scorer in Dongwon Youth Cup and Hwarangdaegi Tournament, which were South Korean national youth competitions. This was followed by an impressive 22 goals in the Kanga Cup in Canberra, Australia for the under-12 national team. Due to his outstanding performances in these tournaments, Hwang was awarded the Cha Bum-kun Football Award, which is bestowed upon the best youth footballers in South Korea.

A young Hwang Hee-chan with Cha Bum-kun in 2009 (Photo Credit: Naver Sports

The Rise Continues

After graduating from Singok Elementary School, Hwang started to play in the football club of Pohang Jecheol Middle School, which is the under-15 team of K League 1 club Pohang Steelers. In 2011, he helped his school win the middle school division of the Korean National School League, which is hosted by the Korean Football Association. He received the MVP award of the tournament and went onto join the Pohang Jecheol High School.

His transition to the Pohang Jecheol High School meant that he joined the under-18 team of Pohang Steelers. Hwang participated in the 2013 Adidas All-In Challenge League, which is contested among the youth teams of the K League clubs. He delivered explosive performances all throughout, scoring 12 goals in 12 matches, helping his school win the league, and was also named in the Best 11 of the tournament.

He carried on the momentum in the high school division of the following National School League, playing a pivotal role in the Pohang under-18 team's brilliant displays. Under the tutelage of Lee Chang-won, the team triumphed 3-1 in the final, against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors' under-18 side. Hwang again became the top scorer in the tournament and received yet another best player award in the competition.      

By now, Hwang Hee-chan had become a familiar name in the domestic youth football circuit. Several clubs were keeping their tabs on him, including many from abroad. Pohang knew that they would struggle to keep hold of their prized asset, despite various suggestions that the youngster should carry his progression in the K League now. However, just like any other teenager, Hwang had his eyes set on Europe and dreamt of plying his trade in one of the European leagues. Several clubs were scouting the next wonder boy of Korean football, and a dream move didn't seem very far away.

European Dream come true

In December 2014, Pohang Steelers were pushing to sign Hwang Hee-chan as a homegrown player in their senior squad for the upcoming season. However, there was a lot of interest from various European clubs. Around his 18th birthday, Hwang swapped Asia for Europe. His European dream came true when he penned a deal for Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg. It was a sensible move in many respects as Austria presented him with an opportunity to develop his attributes and that it was one of the smaller leagues meant that he wouldn't be always under scrutiny from elsewhere. Additionally, Hwang could also get a taste of continental football as Salzburg were one of the top clubs in the country, and almost always occupied one of the European slots.

But it wasn't going to be easy for a youngster to adapt to the culture in a new country. Salzburg understood the situation and immediately loaned him out to their feeder club FC Liefering, in the country's second division. Hwang lived up to his reputation netting 11 goals in 18 league matches in his debut season in Europe. He made his Salzburg debut in December 2015, before scoring a brace in his second league start the following year. His first glimpse on the continental stage came in November 2016, when he came on as a substitute, and scored twice against Nice in the UEFA Europa League. He finished his maiden top-flight campaign with an impressive tally of 12 league goals.

The 2017-18 season proved to be the best ever European campaign for Salzburg. They finished top of their UEFA Europa League group, which consisted of Olympique de Marseille, Vitoria de Guimaraes and Konyaspor. They overcame Real Sociedad and Borussia Dortmund in the knockout rounds, before being drawn to face Lazio in the quarter-finals. Salzburg lost the first leg 4-2 at the Stadio Olimpico, before turning the tie around with a 4-1 victory at home. Hwang was on the scoresheet to help his side reach the semi-finals of the tournament, where they would eventually lose 3-2 on aggregate to Marseille. Nevertheless, it proved to be a record-breaking campaign for Salzburg.

The following season, Salzburg's German manager Marco Rose opted to send Hwang on loan to Hamburg in the German second division. It was an injury-hit season where he managed to score just twice in 20 appearances. However, at the end of the season, Marco Rose left Salzburg and was replaced by American Jesse Marsch. Marsch immediately recognized the potential of Hwang and made him a vital cog in the Salzburg wheel. Hwang thrived alongside current Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Braut Haaland and current Liverpool forward Takumi Minamino. They formed a fearsome trio and wreaked havoc all across Europe.

Hwang's debut in the UEFA Champions League was memorable, as he recorded a goal and an assist in Salzburg's crushing 6-2 win over Genk. In their next group match, Salzburg made the trip to Anfield to lock horns with Liverpool. The Merseyside club was cruising at 3-0 when Hwang took centre stage. He started the comeback with a goal, but they eventually succumbed to a 4-3 loss. The 24-year-old further netted in a 4-1 away victory against Genk, before finding the net again in an away match against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League. Salzburg's exploits in Europe didn't go unnoticed, as Hwang, Haaland and Minamino received plenty of plaudits for their performances.

Hwang finished a remarkable 2019-20 season with 16 goals to his name and provided 22 assists. He left the club, having won the Austrian Bundesliga title four times, and the Austrian Cup thrice. His stock was on the rise and he eventually signed a five-year contract with German Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig in July this year. 

Hwang Hee-chan in his first training session for RB Leipzig (Photo Credit: Die Roten Bullen

Making a Nation Proud

Hwang Hee-Chan first made his name in the international circuit in the AFC U-16 Championship held in Iran, in 2012. Hwang announced his arrival spectacularly in South Korea's opening match against North Korea, scoring a hat-trick to help his team triumph 3-0. In their next match, Hwang was again on the scoresheet against neighbours Japan in a 3-1 win. They also got the better of Saudi Arabia to top the group with a 100% record. In the quarter-finals, South Korea was trailing 1-0 until Hwang popped up to score a second-half stoppage-time equaliser. Penalty shootout followed where Hwang failed to convert his spot-kick as the Korean team bowed after a penalty shootout defeat to eventual winners Uzbekistan. Hwang finished as the top scorer of the tournament with five goals, and for the Korean faithful it was a sign of things to come from their newest scoring sensation.

Hwang was also a member of South Korea's runners-up team in the AFC U-23 Championship in 2016. Later that year, Hwang participated in the Rio Summer Olympics. South Korea started the competition with an 8-0 mauling of Fiji. This was followed by a thrilling 3-3 stalemate against Germany, in which Hwang scored the opener and set up another goal against the eventual silver medallists. South Korea won their final group match 1-0 against Mexico, before narrowly losing to Honduras in the quarter-finals.

2016 proved to be an eventful year for Hwang, as that same year, he made his senior national team debut against China in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. The following year, he scored his first-ever senior national team goal, in an away fixture against Qatar. His swift rise continued when he scored against Poland in a friendly match, ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018. Hwang was named in the 23-man travelling squad to Russia, where South Korea was grouped alongside Sweden, Mexico and defending champions Germany. He started in their opening two matches, in which South Korea suffered narrow defeats against Sweden and Mexico. In the final group stage match, Hwang came on as a second-half substitute to help the Taegeuk Warriors clinch a famous 2-0 win against defending champions Germany. 

By now, Hwang had established himself as one of the regulars in the national team setup. He was named to the South Korean squad for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 in UAE. He started in all their group stage triumphs over China, the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. Hwang scored the opener for his nation in the Round of 16 contest against Bahrain, which South Korea went on to win 2-1. They were eliminated in the quarter-finals stage by eventual champions Qatar, but Hwang again caught the eye with his all round displays. In October 2019, Hwang Hee-chan scored his first-ever senior international goal on home soil, when he found the back of the net against Sri Lanka, in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, at the Hwaseong Stadium. 

Hwang Hee-chan in action for South Korea against Bosnia & Herzegovina (Photo Credit: KFA)

How Good is He?

One of the key qualities of Hwang is his versatility both on and off the ball. When the team is not having possession, he tends to sit in between the channels and in doing so attracts opposition defenders around him, thus creating space for his teammates. On the other hand, with the help of his blistering pace, he can easily get on the end of long balls played forward or open up a great chance for himself in a 1v1 situation. Hwang is also very skilful and often uses that trait to beat his marker. His intelligence and awareness prevent him from overusing his technical moves. So, it is not just his goals but also the playmaking ability that makes him special, as it is not very common for a striker in modern football.

Speaking about his defensive contributions on the field, Hwang is capable of anticipating the direction of the pass and intercepting it in the final third. His determination helps him to time a tackle well and block the passing lane of the opponents. The aggressive nature can sometimes lead to unnecessary fouls, but every manager loves a forward like him, who is so hardworking to win the ball back and doesn't give the opponent a moment's peace.

Hwang Hee-chan is not your typical forward, who just scores bags of goals. He is a complete team player.

Hwang Hee-chan celebrates with teammate Moon Seon-min (Photo Credit: KFA)

The Best is Yet to Come

At 24, the best days still lie ahead of him. At club level, RB Leipzig has handed him the No. 11 shirt, which clearly shows that they believe that he would be the replacement for their all-time record goal-scorer Timo Werner. He will be a perfect fit for Julian Nagelsmann's plans. Alongside seasoned professionals like Marcel Sabitzer, Yussuf Poulsen, Kevin Kampl, he can expect to learn a lot from them. The club is also filled with young talents like Christopher Nkunku, Dayot Upamecano, Tyler Adams, and others who will help him settle into his new life in Eastern Germany. RB Leipzig is a club on the rise, as evidenced by their brilliant performances in the UEFA Champions League, and this will be the perfect springboard for Hwang Hee-chan in his club career.

As for the South Korean national team, he has already won titles and individual accolades at the youth level. Now it is time for him to replicate it at the senior level. His performances have already been eye-catching, and there is a strong suggestion that the boy can take on the very best. The FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar and the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in China are perfect opportunities for Hwang to stamp his authority for the national team.

With Son Heung-min already flying the South Korean flag high in the European circuit, Hwang Hee-chan could be the one to whom the flame torch is passed on as the "Bull" looks to cause a storm in Germany, and gradually climb his way up to becoming the next poster boy of South Korean football. 

Shibajee Das
K League United Columnist

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