- Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
- Son Heung-min’s career is on the line in South Korea’s Asian Games final against Japan on Saturday.
- With a win over Japan, Son and his teammates will take gold and earn exemption from South Korea’s required military service.
- Son would only have a few more chances at exemption before he’s forced to put his career on pause to serve in the military.
Son Heung-min’s career may hang in the balance of his next match.
The star Tottenham forward has been absent from Spurs at the start of the Premier League year to play for his home country South Korea in the Asian Games.
Most Premier League stars of Son’s caliber would skip what amounts to a localized Olympics. To give an idea of the competition, Son is serving as one of South Korea’s three permitted older players joining the nation’s U-23 team in the tournament. But Son is uniquely compelled to compete and win gold with the team this year, as it would allow him to continue his professional career with Tottenham uninterrupted.
South Korea requires all able-bodied men under the age of 28 to complete close to two years worth of military service. Son, 26, has yet to serve his time and is playing with the hopes of earning an exemption.
Through soccer, Son has two ways of earning his exemption – by winning gold at the Asian Games or any medal at the Olympics.
Right now, Son and his South Korean teammates are one game away from that exemption, set to face Japan in the final on Saturday. With a win, Son will earn gold and with it, be free to continue his blossoming career as one of the centerpieces of Tottenham’s thriving attack. But if South Korea loses, Son would still have his military service looming, with only a few chances left to earn it before putting his career on pause.
Son is likely even more aware of the pressure of the moment because he’s already missed out on his opportunity to win exemption twice. South Korea took bronze in the 2012 London Olympics, but Son passed up the chance to play with the team because he didn’t want to miss time while playing for Hamburg. Then, at the 2014 Asian Games, his club Leverkusen wouldn’t sign off on him playing in the tournament, leaving Son to watch from afar as his countrymen won gold.
Tottenham appears to be more accommodating to Son’s situation, and smartly so, as Son’s fortunes are directly tied to those of the club – it’s much easier to replace Son for the first few weeks of the season than it would be to manage his absence for two seasons.
Not only did Spurs release Son to play with South Korea and miss the start of this year’s Premier League season, according to a report from The Sun, but Tottenham is also likely to give Son another shot at his exemption should his team fall short on Saturday.
South Korea’s journey through the tournament so far has been rocky at best. Son played hero in the final match of the group stage against Kyrgyzstan, scoring the only goal of the game in a must-win situation for South Korea to move them through to the knockout round. In the quarterfinals, South Korea needed extra time to take care of Uzbekistan and advance.
But regardless of the path, Son and his teammates are now just 90 minutes away from winning the tournament. On the opposite side of the globe, Tottenham fans will hold their breath with hopes of victory to ensure that their star can return to the club and continue his career unimpeded.