Son Heung-min has lit up the World Cup and the Premier League, but unnervingly, it is the Asian Games in Jakarta 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 Tottenham Hotspur.
Son bade farewell to his Spurs teammates after Saturday’s season-opening win at Newcastle and flew to Jakarta for the Asian Games under a special deal brokered with the club.
As Asia’s all-time Premier League top-scorer and a huge celebrity in his home country, he will undoubtedly be the Asian Games soccer tournament’s biggest star, but more than national glory is at stake, as nearly every able-bodied South Korean male is required to enroll by age 28 in the military.
Son is banking on the defending champions earning him a rare reprieve only permitted for elite sportsmen, such as Olympic or World Cup medalists.
At the Asian Games, only gold will be sufficient to avoid the call-up. While South Korea enter the Asian Games as favorites, the tournament features fellow World Cup contestants Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
However, unlike those nations, South Korea has used its three wildcards — players permitted aged over 23 — to bring in its biggest stars.
Tottenham have shown willingness to compromise, despite knowing the prolific forward could miss Premier League clashes against Fulham, Manchester United and Watford if South Korea reach the final.
Son, who last month signed a new five-year deal with Spurs, has been released in return for missing South Korea’s first two games at January next year’s Asian Cup, along with an international friendly in November.
The Asian Games is not a FIFA tournament, so clubs are not obliged to make players available. Son missed the last edition after Bayer Leverkusen refused to release him.
However, both club and player know that Son is approaching his peak playing age, and the toll two years away from any the game could take on his career.
If they fail at the Asian Games, Son is to swap Tottenham’s new White Hart Lane stadium for life in military barracks, where up to 30 soldiers sleep in each room.
On meager pay of 310,000 won (US$274.86) per month, soldiers are assigned to a range of duties from riding tanks to standing patrol at the border with North Korea.
An infamously spartan military diet has at least improved over the past decade, with soldiers in the mess served rice, meat or fish and soup, along with kimchi.
And Son might have other elite soccer players for company.
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.
However, the stakes are even higher for Son, given his burgeoning career in soccer’s richest league.
While most top South Korean players can spend their service playing for the K-League’s military side Sangju Sangmu, Son is not eligible, as he has never appeared in the domestic league.
South Korea kick off their tournament against Bahrain today.
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