England Premier League star Son Heung-min won’t have to do national service and instead can see out his contract with Tottenham Hotspur uninterrupted after South Korea won gold in the Asian Games final against Japan.
The 26-year-old Spurs forward and his South Korea teammates secured their exemptions with the 2-1 win in extra time over regional rivals Japan at Indonesia’s Pakan Sari Stadium outside Jakarta Saturday night local time (Saturday morning ET).
Any South Korean athletes who win Olympic medals or Asian Games titles are exempt from the usual military conscription, and Son set up both Korean goals to help capture his and his teammates’ dispensations Saturday.
After the first 90 minutes ended 0-0, South Korea opened the scoring three minutes into extra time. Son dribbled in the penalty area and knocked the ball to avoid a defender, allowing teammate Lee Seungwoo to run onto it and drill it into the net.
In the 101st minute, Hawang Hee Chan headed home Son’s corner to make it 2-0.
Japan’s Ayase Ueda scored later from a header, but the Koreans held on, with a grinning Son embracing his teammates at the final whistle.
The victory for Son and his teammates added to the Korean medal tally, bringing it to 49 golds at the games, the third highest total for this edition of the tournament, after Japan and table-topping China.
Under the country’s law, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to perform at least 21 months of military service. The Defense Ministry has pledged to reduce the term to 18 months by 2020.
Son’s addition in the squad – he’s one of three overage players allowed under the Games’ Olympic-like rules – was a lucky get-out for the pacy forward after he missed his chance for exemption in 2014, when the South Korean team also won Asian Games gold.
At the time his German Bundesliga club, Bayer Leverkusen, refused to release him – the tournament isn’t officially recognized by FIFA, and clubs aren’t obliged to release their stars.
This time around Son didn’t play in the first two group games against Malaysia and Bahrain but scored the winner against Kyrgyzstan and was a starter in the quarterfinal win over Uzbekistan, the semifinal against Vietnam and Saturday’s final.
The striker scored South Korea’s second goal as it knocked holder Germany out of the World Cup this summer.
Son has made more than 100 appearances for Tottenham since signing from Bayer Leverkusen for £18 million ($23.1M) in 2015.
In the army now
The law has derailed the careers of many of the country’s biggest male sports stars and K-Pop artists, with hugely popular boy band Big Bang having to take a break recently while its members performed their military service.
Despite knocking champions Germany out of this year’s World Cup – before themselves crashing out in the group stages – South Korea’s senior football team were not adjudged to have done enough to escape the service.
Multiple petitions have been filed to the official Blue House website urging President Moon Jae-in to issue the football players an official exemption – the members of South Korea’s 2002 squad, which surpassed expectations by reaching the tournament’s semi finals, had their obligations waived.
Those without a chance of a presidential pardon have turned to more drastic measures – many young men intentionally gain or lose weight, feign mental illness, get full body tattoos or resort to self-harm in order to get an exemption, according to the Yonhap news agency.
In the past there has been tremendous public criticism of those, such as the children of government officials, who manage to find loopholes in order to avoid military service.
Yoo Seung-jun, a popular singer in the 1990s, had to give up his career in South Korea after he was accused of evading military service by becoming a US citizen. He is still banned from entering South Korea.
CNN’s Jason Hanna contributed to this report.