Jakarta: Son Heung-min may have lit up the World Cup and the Premier League but unnervingly it is the Asian Games in Indonesia that could make or break the career of the prolific South Korean forward. Anything less than gold and Son, 26, faces a compulsory stint of nearly two years’ military service — a severe blow to the player, his national team and his club, Tottenham Hotspur.
As Asia’s all-time Premier League top scorer, and a huge celebrity in his home country, Son will undoubtedly be the Asian Games football tournament’s biggest star. But more than national glory is at stake as nearly every able-bodied South Korean male — regardless of wealth or fame — is required to enrol by age 28 in the military, for a minimum of 21 months.
Son is banking on the defending champions earning him a rare reprieve only permitted for elite sportsmen such as Olympic or World Cup medallists. At the Asian Games, only gold will be sufficient to avoid the call-up. While South Korea enter the Asian Games as favourites, the tournament features fellow 2018 World Cup contestants Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Son, who signed a new, five-year deal with Spurs in July, has been released in return for missing South Korea’s first two games at January’s senior-level Asian Cup, along with an international friendly in November.
However, Son is not the only player, goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who shot to prominence with a string of superb saves in the win over Germany and Japan-based Hwang Ui-jo also face their last chances to avoid military service. But for Son the stakes are even higher, given his burgeoning career in football’s richest league.
Meanwhile, if South Korea misses the gold Son will swap Spur’s state-of-the-art new White Hart Lane stadium for life in military barracks, where up to 30 soldiers sleep in each room. On meagre pay of 310,000 won ($275) per month, soldiers are assigned to a range of duties, from riding tanks to standing patrol at the heavily fortified border with North Korea — with whom the South remains technically at war.