On Monday, Tottenham Hotspur pulled off a resounding 3-0 victory over Manchester United in a battle between two of the Premier League’s most storied clubs. Son Heung-min, Tottenham’s 26-year-old superstar forward, did not participate. Instead, he was on a pitted field some 7,300 miles away in Indonesia, captaining South Korea in the Asian Games quarterfinal against Uzbekistan. These quadrennial Games are not one of soccer’s marquee tournaments. By rule, squads are inexperienced, as each team is only allowed three players over the age of 23. Of the 24 nations competing this year, 16 have never appeared in a World Cup. But for Son, the tournament represents the most important competition of his life. Should he and South Korea fail to win it all, Son will have to enlist in the military and serve for at least 21 months during the prime of his ascendant athletic career.
In South Korea, all able-bodied men of a certain age are required to serve in the military. It’s in the constitution. By the time Son turns 28, in 2020, the law states he has to initiate a stint of nearly two full years with the armed forces (and away from soccer). There are exemptions for elite athletes, but in order to qualify, one must either medal at an Olympic Games or win a gold medal at the Asian Games. That’s why Son, the nation’s greatest player, suited up against Uzbekistan instead of Manchester United this week.
Though heavily favored, South Korea found itself tied with Uzbekistan 3-3 at the end of regulation. When the referee awarded South Korea a penalty kick late in extra time, Son couldn’t bring himself to watch his teammate take it. A picture of the moment—Son standing with his back to goal and his head in his hands—went viral. But Hwang Hee-chan scored, South Korea won, and Son’s life as a civilian continued for at least one more day.
After the victory against Uzbekistan, South Korea beat Vietnam 3-1 in the semifinal. It will play Japan in the gold medal match on Saturday. Son will be the most famous player to ever appear in an Asian Games final, but he will be overshadowed by the high stakes that brought him to Indonesia in the first place.
That photo from the quarterfinal match gives you an idea of how much this is weighing on Son’s mind, even if the man himself tries to avoid the subject. When Time magazine profiled the forward before the 2018 World Cup, his agent cut off the interviewer whenever he broached the subject.
It isn’t uncommon for South Korean celebrities to suddenly disappear from the public eye to serve, and they aren’t given cupcake assignments either. Psy, of “Gangnam Style” fame, became a Private First Class in the 52nd Army Infantry Division shortly after releasing his fourth studio album. Golfer Sang-Moon Bae was enjoying his most successful year on the PGA Tour when he got drafted, in 2015, to serve as a rifleman. “From the day when I was a private second class, a private first class, and even the last day of the service, I wanted to be discharged from the military,” he told reporters upon his return to golf last year.
That Son hasn’t already secured a conscription exemption is a combination of bad luck, circumstance, and, ironically, the fact that he’s so damn good at soccer. In 2014, Son was unable to participate in the Asian Games because his club team at the time, Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen, needed him for must-win Champions League qualification matches. Had Son been a scrub, Leverkusen would have probably been fine letting him go for a few weeks, but, alas, he was an integral part of the squad. Meanwhile, South Korea won the 2014 Asian Games, and all the players involved earned service exemptions.
Tottenham is more forward-thinking than Leverkusen was. Even though the club doesn’t have to let Son participate in the Asian Games (the tournament isn’t even officially recognized by FIFA), it certainly is in its best interests for him to play for his home country. Son is under contract through 2023, and he won’t be of much help to Tottenham if he’s stuck in some barracks in the Taebaek Mountains.
It’s hard to imagine a situation where South Korea itself will be better served with Son in the military rather than under the brightest lights of world soccer. He won’t even be able to put his once-in-a-generation athleticism to use for the armed forces. Due to a complex series of rules and regulations, Son will likely become a pencil-pusher if he gets drafted. Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Wilson explains:
[I]f Son has to do his military service, he won’t have the option of playing of playing in the Korean second division for military club Sangju Sangmu, which is how most footballers fulfill their service. There is a regulation that says all Sangju players have to have played for a K-League club for at least six months before joining Sangju. That could theoretically be arranged–but for the fact that Son dropped out of Dongbuk High School at the age of 16 to head to Hamburg, and South Korean law stipulates that those who have not finished high school are prohibited from active service. Son, arguably the best footballer in South Korean history, would be stuck for almost two years in a desk job instead of continuing the prime of his career.
Fans want sports heroes to treat each game like it’s the most important thing in the world. Be careful what you wish for, as the literal iteration of this wish may banish one of the world’s most exciting soccer players to a cubicle for two years.
Should South Korea lose in the final against Japan, recent reports hint that there may yet be a way out for Son. According an ESPN report, it’s “not impossible” that Son could be granted a special exemption if he helps his country win next year’s Asian Cup, though that kind of thing has never happened before. Other Korean athletes, like former MLB pitcher Cha-seung Baek, have renounced citizenship to avoid conscription. As an established national hero, it’s hard to picture Son following this desperate route. For now, Son’s best bet is to beat Japan on Saturday. No pressure.