Freedom or the Sword: Son-Heung Min Eyes Emancipation
South Korea obsesses over tradition. Men must serve in the military but winning a gold medal for your country exempts a healthy male from duty. Son Heung-min's almost there.
The Asian Games is the continental Olympics. Countries compete in multiple events, including. The top three in each event receive a shiny coin on a fancy lanyard. That should be it but we're human. We complicate everything. Football fans can be sceptical over their country's participation. There are often stipulations about who can and cannot play, among other things. It's not about amateurism anymore. Professionals take part but all save three must be U23s. In the London Olympics, the home nations were forced to unite as Great Britain rather than field four separate teams as they do in FIFA events.
For many Asian countries, their Games offer a chance to medal in sports in which they might not even qualify for the world stage, be it football, running, gymnastics, or swimming, but there is also kabbadi [think dodgeball without the ball], sepak takraw [foot volley in the gym rather than on the beach] and wushu, aka kung fu. A gold medal in football sounds peculiar. The old track-and-field argument springs to mind. The glory of winning a competition is still revered by many, though, especially in such a grand continental setting.
In this year’s final, South Korea play Japan, renewing the storied Asian football rivalry. There's an added stimulus beyond the joy associated with wearing a medal for the Taeguk Warriors. That is to say, victory ensures they remain warriors in the figurative sense rather than literal. Exemption from military service enables them to continue playing the game they love while earning lucrative wages rather than a soldier's pittance.
A tiny fraction of the population can dream about such relief. To be involved in professional sport, to be selected for your country and contend for a gold medal is a rare thing. Twenty-three young men roll the dice every four years. Not all succeed.
South Korea emerged from a group including Malaysia, Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan. No one expected problems. After defeating Germany in the World Cup, who were these interlopers? Victory against Bahrain, 6-0, in their opening match inflated egos further. Then came a stunning loss to Malaysia. Elimination hung over the squad like a dark cloud. Son Heung-min proved pivotal in the final contest. He scored the lone goal, securing progress to the knockout stage. His Tottenham career remained alive.
The first elimination match was a challenge. Iran aren’t a global power. Their World Cup record earns them respect as a difficult Asian side albeit not a dangerous one. In the end, South Korea managed a 2-0 victory.
The quarterfinal proved tricky as well. The unabridged, unappreciated, umbrageous Uzbekis showed up. For a country who most couldn’t even name in a pub quiz, you’ve got to be impressed. The game of the tournament went to extra time before ending 4-3. Son again showed his quality. He didn't score but set up two of Hwang Ui-jo's three strikes.
Ui-jo’s plying his trade in the J-League, mired in a relegation battle with Gamba Osaka. He’s taken to his national colours with abandon, scoring nine goals in this competition.
After the urgent undulations undertaken against Uzbekistan, the squad assumed immediate control in the semi-final against Vietnam, scoring three goals in quick succession, bringing them within 90 minutes of their freedom.
Japan stands in their way. Another country rooted in tradition, the country doesn't mandate military service but its players recognize the importance of playing South Korea. Samurai Blue aren't so sadistic as to wish a military career on a gifted rival. They won't cry over it, either.
For them, there's an element of revenge. South Korea pipped Japan to the East Asian Championships in Tokyo nine months ago. The squads aren't identical but there’s a level of national pride in play.
Son Heung-min enters the ground in Cibinong as the best player. He might leave as the most talented infantryman. We'll see. Who wouldn't want to watch a man play with two prime years of his life at stake?