Niall McGinn has first-hand experience of South Korea’s obsession with football
Aberdeen winger McGinn spent time in South Korea’s domestic league last year.
Niall McGinn can offer insight to his Northern Ireland colleagues about South Korea’s football obsession, having gorged on chocolates sent to Ki Sung-yueng and witnessed the Son Heung-min highlight reels.
It was in the Celtic dressing room McGinn shared with Ki when he first became aware of the level of fandom in the South Korean’s home country.
“It was crazy,” said McGinn, who played for Celtic between 2009 and 2012 and who will miss Northern Ireland’s meeting with South Korea on Saturday due to injury.
“Most mornings the amount of fan mail coming in for him was just incredible. He had his own space in the corner and he was maybe taking up three spaces with the amount of fan mail.
“There were times when we were just eating South Korean chocolate and sweets that people were sending. It just brought you back a bit to realise how big these players are in their own countries.”
Ki’s status as his country’s chief superstar has been lost in recent years thanks to Son’s rise to prominence, first in Germany and now with Tottenham.
McGinn, who spent a spell in Son’s native land with Gwangju last year before returning to Aberdeen, was staggered by the treatment the Spurs forward receives.
“Once Tottenham are playing, all the football channels are straight on to Son,” McGinn added.
“Even the half-time analysis – over here you have Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, they’re sitting and talking about different situations happening in the game, but (over there) it’s more or less as if it’s every time Son touches the ball in the first half.
“Everything he does, it’s just all about him. He is the pin-up boy.”
In contrast, 30-year-old McGinn made little impression in the Asian country after arriving halfway a season that ended with Gwangju’s relegation from the K League.
“I enjoyed it regarding the lifestyle and a new experience for me, (but) football wise, it just didn’t work,” he added.
“That’s just the truth. I was playing catch up, I signed halfway through their season but it was a new experience that came to me and I’ve definitely no regrets.
“An experience like that can only stand me in good stead coming back to Aberdeen and the Northern Ireland set-up, too. It was an opportunity that came to me and I thought why not?
“I was still young enough in football terms, had plenty of years left. It was a very good experience.”
However, it also impacted McGinn’s international career.
A key figure in the successful qualification campaign for Euro 2016, a tournament where he scored one of Northern Ireland’s two goals, the winger was then omitted from Michael O’Neill’s matchday squads for both legs of November’s play-off with Switzerland.
“It was extremely sad – just to not make the squad was a massive disappointment,” McGinn admitted.
“That’s obviously Michael’s decision. Maybe other players were playing every week (but) I still felt fit, good.
“I felt if called upon whether it was 10, 15 minutes, I thought being in those positions before, having that experience, playing in major tournaments, coming on and scoring goals, it might have helped, it might not.”