- Son Heung-Min joined Tottenham in 2015, scoring 47 goals in 140 games and earns $5 million a year.
- South Korean law states all able-bodied men must complete 21 months service in the military.
- Only a gold medal in Saturday’s Asian Games final will give Son an exemption from being drafted.
Captaining your country in an international soccer competition is tough enough, but the stakes have been raised for South Korea's Son Heung-min this year.
The attacker, who plays his club soccer with Tottenham Hotspur in England's Premier League, has been representing his country at the Asian Games in Jakarta, where only a gold medal will do if he's to gain an exemption from having to report for mandatory military service. If he is called up, then he would have to miss playing for a top Premier League club at the peak of his career.
The unusual scenario has come as a result of South Korean law which states that all able-bodied South Korean men must complete 21 months service in the military as a deterrent against their northern neighbor.
However, exemptions are offered to athletes who win gold at the Asian Games or a medal of any color at the Olympics.
Son joined Tottenham in 2015, scoring 47 goals in 140 games, making more Premier League appearances than any other Asian player.
He signed a new contract earlier this year and earns close to $5 million a year playing for the North London club. That improved deal is due to expire in 2023, but the 26-year-old has more immediate priorities with his national team.
"I think the players are mentally already there. We are so close to gold. We fight for that. I don't need to say anything, I am ready for that," said Son, following the semi-final victory over Vietnam.
South Korea will now play Japan in Saturday's final. While the Koreans comfortably beat Vietnam 3-1, Japan is seen as a tougher test after having made the last 16 stage at this year's World Cup in Russia.
Son has said neither he nor his team mates feel any pressure, but anything but a win could see him put his soccer career on hold for almost two years serving his country in a very different way.
National service is taken very seriously by South Korea. K-Pop star Psy of Gangnam Style fame found himself redrafted in 2007, after breaching rules relating to his singing career first time around.
The quest for gold to avoid military service has already been evident at this Asian Games, when the all-Korean final of the men's archery competition resulted in muted celebrations from Kim Woo-Jin, as it meant his training partner and compatriot Lee Woo-Seok — who lost in the final — will now head to his military service.
"I am disappointed with the result, but I have to accept these results because they're all my own doing," Lee said this week. "And the military isn't all that bad. South Korean men all have to go, anyway. I'll go back and serve the country the best I can."
Son scored a famous goal at the World Cup to beat Germany just a few months ago, and he'll be looking for something similar in the Asian Games final if he's to claim that gold medal and keep up his soccer career.