Mission accomplished. Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min has secured himself a bright future following South Korea's gold medal victory at the 18th Asian Games on Saturday.
South Korea beat Japan 2-1 in extra time at Pakansari Stadium in Cibinong, south of Jakarta, and defended their Asiad title. This means Son has cleared what could be the biggest obstacle in his career: military service.
All healthy South Korean men between 18 and 35 must serve about two years in the armed forces. But athletes who win either an Asian Games gold medal or any Olympic medal receive exemptions. They only have to undergo four weeks of basic training.
Son Heung-min (Yonhap)
Son was not on the South Korean team that won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics and a gold medal at the 2014 Asian Games.
He represented South Korea at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but South Korea suffered a quarterfinals exit.
To extend his impressive career in Europe without interruption, grabbing the gold at the 2018 Asian Games was the last chance for Son, whose military service postponement period was to end in 2019.
Son recently signed a contract with Spurs that runs through 2023. To make the new contract worth it, both Son and Tottenham choose to gamble by participating in the Asian Games -- and it turned out to be a success.
With Tottenham's permission, Son joined South Korea's football team for the Asian Games as one of three "wild-card" members. The men's football competition at the Asian Games is open to players
who are aged 23 or under, but teams can field three players who exceed the age limit. Son turned 26 on July 8.
If Son had not claimed gold, things would have been very complicated.
Son could still have played with Spurs even if he failed to win gold. He could have done it by earning permanent residency in a foreign country. In that case, he could postpone his military service until age 37, but public sentiment would have been a problem as South Koreans may have thought he was dodging military service.
Son could have searched for ways to join military football clubs in South Korea or play in the K3 League, which is possible under his current conscription status, but none of these scenarios matter now.
With the military service issue cleared, Son's next step will be let his career fly high in Europe with Tottenham.
Son missed Tottenham's early English Premier League (EPL) season matches due to the Asian Games, and in his absence, Lucas Moura has taken his spot with brilliant form. Although he now has to fight for a place again once he returns to London, Son will probably go back with a bigger smile as he now doesn't have to worry about his career having an intermission.
After the the gold medal match, Son was still searching for words to describe his emotions. He dedicated the gold medal to the fans in the stands in Indonesia and back home in South Korea and said, "I have the gold medal around my neck but it really belongs to the people."
Coach Kim Hak-bum made Son his captain, and Son thanked his younger teammates for following him from start to finish.
"I've said a few harsh words, but they didn't take it personally and instead figured out what they had to do," Son said.
"I think we have good guys who also happen to be good football players. We were a hungry bunch and that's what got us to the top."
As South Korea entered extra time, Son said he told the team never to give up and to think about how they'd come that far in the first place.
Son said the extra half hour of play would be "the most unforgettable 30 minutes" of his life.
"We scored a couple of goals and also gave one up. It reminded me of the fact that a lot can happen so quickly in football," Son said. "When I saw our fans waving the national flags in the stands at the end, I was incredibly grateful." (Yonhap)