The Asian Games football tournament is always an opportunity to find some young talents. Like in the Olympic Games, this tournament is actually a U-23 tournament. While youngsters are getting their chance to show their skills, the over-aged players are usually giving more experience to their friends.
Everyone wishes to win the tournament, but for some players, it can be even more important. Among those, you can find one player that his career can be at risk in case of failure. So, what makes this tournament so serious for Son Heung-Min, a player that usually plays in the highest level of football and now is part of the U-23 Korean squad?
Son Heung-Min is facing a problem in recent weeks. A month ago he celebrated his 26th birthday and he didn't complete one of his duties as a Korean citizen – two years of military service. He can still conscript until the age of 35, but delaying the conscription in South Korea can bring some negative attitude to Tottenham's key player in his homeland.
The Korean army is aware of the athletes' conscription problem. Therefore, they are recruiting many of them in a unit named Sangmu, the Korea Armed Forces Athletics Corps. This unit also has a football team, Sangju Sagmu, who plays in the Korean tier. Unfortunately, it is not an option for Son. Soldiers that are being recruited to this unit can leave South Korea only for their national team duty. It means that Son will need to abandon his spell in England in order to be in Sangmu.
Another option for Son is getting an exemption. Athletes in South Korea can get an exemption for making an exceptional achievement, such as winning an Olympic medal or winning an Asian Games gold medal. Sometimes, other athletes can be exempted from service based on unusual results. The Korean football had three squads that got exemptions in the recent years – 2002 World Cup team, the 2012 Olympic bronze medal-winning team and the 2014 Asian Games champions.
The 2014 Asian Games could have made his life much easier, as he got the call-up for the tournament. Bayer Leverkusen, his club back then, refused to release him and Son missed to be part of the exempted squad. In 2016, Son finally got his chance. He was called up as one of three over-aged players in the U-23 squad that aimed for an Olympic medal. Even though he made an impressive group stage performance, South Korea was eliminated by Honduras in the quarter-finals and missed the opportunity for a medal. Son had two more missed opportunities with the senior team, as the team lost in the 2015 Asian Cup final and failed to impress in the 2018 World Cup.
Son knows that winning the 2018 Asian Games can be his last chance before getting into trouble. He has got an agreement with Tottenham to take part in the tournament, but Son's part in this deal will be turning down any national team call-up during this season, including missing the Asian Cup in January.
It's a bet that Son can afford in the current situation. Winning the Asian Cup can be much harder than winning the Asian Games. Moreover, most of the teams are based on players from the Asian leagues or minor European leagues. Son will be the first Premier League player to take part in the Asian Games. Sun Jihai and Fan Zhiyi were the last players that have played in the Asian Games, as part of the 1998 Chinese squad, while playing for a professional English team. However, both played for Crystal Palace, a second-tier club back then.
The tension in South Korea is high. At their opening match, they defeated Bahrain 6:0, while Son didn't play. A few days later, Son was subbed in but his team lost 1:2 against Malaysia. In the last group stage match, Son finally was part of the first XI and he scored his first goal, as his team defeated Kyrgyzstan.
Now, Son is far only four wins from reaching the desired goal. If he will do so, it would not be only for himself, but he could make a whole nation proud. It can be the only difference between being accused of disgraceful behaviour and becoming a hero that saves the day for his nation. No matter what will happen, it can be an interesting beginning for the military service of Private Son.