JAKARTA: Son Heung-min has lit up the World Cup and the Premier League, but it is the Asian Games in Indonesia that could make or break the career of the prolific South Korean forward.
Anything less than gold and Son, 26, faces a compulsory stint of nearly two years’ military service – a severe blow to the player, his national team, and his club, Tottenham Hotspur.
Son bade farewell to his Spurs teammates after Saturday’s season-opening win at Newcastle and flew some 12,000 kilometres to Jakarta for the tournament under a special deal brokered with the club.
As Asia’s all-time Premier League top scorer, and a huge celebrity in his home country, he will undoubtedly be the Asian Games football tournament’s biggest star.
But more than national glory is at stake as nearly every able-bodied South Korean male, regardless of wealth or fame, is required to enrol by age 28 in the military for a minimum of 21 months.
Son is banking on the defending champions earning him a rare reprieve only permitted for elite athletes such as Olympic or World Cup medallists.
At the Asian Games, only gold will be sufficient to avoid the call-up.
While South Korea enter the Asian Games as favourites, the tournament features fellow 2018 World Cup contestants Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
But unlike those rival nations, South Korea has used its three wildcards – players permitted aged over 23 – to bring in its biggest stars.
Son’s club side Tottenham have shown willingness to compromise, despite knowing the prolific forward could miss Premier League clashes against Fulham, Manchester United, and Watford if his team reach the final.
Son, who signed a new, five-year deal with Spurs in July, has been released in return for missing South Korea’s first two games at January’s senior-level Asian Cup, along with an international friendly in November.
The Asian Games is not a FIFA tournament, so clubs are not obliged to make players available. Son missed the last edition, when South Korea beat North Korea in a tense final, after Bayer Leverkusen refused to release him.
But both club and player know Son is approaching his peak playing age, and the toll two years away from any football could take on his career.
In Son’s last appearance for the Taeguk Warriors, he scored in stoppage time as South Korea knocked defending champions Germany out of the World Cup in Russia.
If they fail at the Asian Games, Son will swap Tottenham’s state-of-the-art new White Hart Lane stadium for life in military barracks, where up to 30 soldiers sleep in each room.
On meagre pay of 310,000 won (RM1,100) per month, soldiers are assigned to a range of duties, from riding tanks to standing patrol at the heavily-fortified border with North Korea, with whom the South remains technically at war.
An infamously spartan military diet has at least improved over the past decade, with soldiers in the mess served rice, meat or fish, and soup, along with the national dish of kimchi.
Son may have other elite footballers for company.
Goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who shot to prominence with a string of superb saves in the win over Germany, and Japan-based Hwang Ui-jo also face their last chances to avoid military service.
But for Son the stakes are even higher, given his burgeoning career in football’s richest league.
While most top South Korean footballers can spend their service playing for the K League 1’s military side Sangju Sangmu, Son is not eligible as he has never appeared in the domestic league.