When South Korea’s national soccer team takes on Japan at the Asian Games, there will be plenty at stake, and not just because the tournament title is on the line. For the Koreans, winning that championship means avoiding mandatory, 21-month stints in their country’s military, and the soccer world will be keenly interested in the fate of one such player in particular.
Son Heung-min would normally be starring in the English Premier League for Tottenham, but he has taken a leave of absence from the team to become easily the best soccer player, and one of the most recognizable athletes in any sport, at the Asian Games, which are being held in Jakarta, Indonesia. The tournament represents his final chance to avoid a conscription that would keep the 26-year-old Son off the pitch during his prime.
That is why Tottenham has let him go, even though it was not obligated to do so, as the club would understandably rather lose one of its finest players for a couple of weeks than possibly for two seasons. If Korea does not beat Japan, Son would have to report before he turns 28 in July 2020, just to qualify for a version accorded high-level athletes that lets them avoid the most grueling tours of duty.
With an unpredictable, bellicose and heavily armed neighbor to the north, South Korea takes very seriously the military service it mandates for able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35, and exceptions granted to the well-connected have caused national scandals. Even K-pop superstars have had to put their fan-crazed careers on hold, and Psy, before unleashing “Gangnam Style” upon the world, was conscripted twice, after authorities accused him of taking advantage of an exemption that had enabled him to avoid active duty.
The country, as with many others, prides itself on international athletic achievement, though, so the prized exceptions are granted to athletes who finish anywhere on the podium at the Olympics or who win an event at the Asian Games.
That has imbued the latter tournament with an outsize importance for Koreans, as the Games are, for the most part, a relatively innocuous event on the world stage. Soccer teams are composed of players aged 23 or younger, and some countries have been known to send their under-21 squads.
The teams are allowed three players each who are over 23, giving Son the chance to maintain his elite soccer career without interruption. Dubbed by some the “Korean Cristiano Ronaldo,” Son has twice been named the Asian Footballer of the Year and the Premier League Player of the Month.
Son has also missed out on chances in the past to have locked up an exemption, having declined an invitation to join his country’s bronze medal-winning side in the 2012 Olympics because he was intent on getting his professional career off the ground in the Bundesliga at Hamburg. With Bayer Leverkusen in 2014, the club would not allow him to join South Korea at that year’s Asian Games, where it won gold, and at the 2016 Olympics, he and his countrymen lost in the quarterfinals to Honduras.
At this year’s World Cup in Russia, South Korea failed to advance past the group stage, but not before taking down defending champion Germany with it, in a stunning result. Son contributed a goal to his side’s 2-0 triumph, which prompted calls for the team’s players to get reprieves from service, in accordance with past nods to noteworthy athletic accomplishments, but the government declined.
With a $22 million transfer from Leverkusen to Tottenham in 2015, Son became the most expensive Asian soccer player in history, and he earns approximately $117,000 per week with the Spurs. South Korea pays its military conscripts about $150 per month.
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