Soccer

Here’s Why the 2018 World Cup Isn’t the Most Important Tournament South Korea’s Son Heung-min Will Play This Summer

For professional soccer players, going to the World Cup is a big deal. But, for South Korea’s star player, Son Heung-min, it’s not the most crucial tournament he’ll play this season. This summer, Son is representing his country in the 2018 World Cup and possible the 2018 Asian Games. Although the World Cup is a tremendous career — and country — achievement, it’s not the one he hopes to win.

The 2018 Asian Games aren’t just a chance to play against some of the best players in Asia. They’re a chance for him to prove himself to the South Korean government and avoid a drastic career change. As of right now, Son hopes to earn exemption from 21 months of military service. That said, things aren’t looking so good for him.

South Korea's Son Heung-min faces 21 months of military service
South Korea’s Son Heung-Min faces 21 months of military service. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

As one of the most recognizable South Korean players in the world, Son has earned himself a star player title in both South Korea and London, where he plays for the Tottenham Hotspurs. However, South Korean government officials aren’t phased by his celebrity status.

In South Korea, all men must do 21 months of military service before their 28th birthday. So, regardless of his athletic abilities, the South Korean forward is still expected to report for duty — and soon. With his 26th birthday fast-approaching, Son doesn’t have much time to convince the government he’s worthy of exemption.

Why the 2018 Asian Games?

According to Talksport, the South Korean government honors exemptions “for sports stars who perform exceptionally at major tournaments.” While that technically means Son could be granted immunity after the 2018 World Cup, the odds are against him — and the national team — in this year’s tournament.

To shine in this year’s cup, South Korea needs to at least make the final four. But, given who they’re up against in the group stage — Germany, Mexico, and Sweden — it is an unlikely scenario. That means Son’s last shot at military exemption relies heavily on his performance in the 2018 Asian Games. There’s just one problem: He’s not on the team yet.

2018 World Cup: Son Heung-min
Son Heung-min hopes to compete in the 2018 Asian Games. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

“Son has a strong will to compete at the Asian Games,” South Korea’s coach, Kim Hak-beom told The Guardian. “But first there’s the World Cup. I told Son to play well in Russia before we meet at the Asian Games. It’s a sensitive issue,” he added.

With that said, it’s not entirely up to South Korea whether or not he plays in the 2018 Asian Games. It’s up to the Tottenham Hotspurs. Since FIFA does not recognize the Asian Games, Tottenham has the right to deny South Korea’s request for Son. It’s not the first time the South Korean star experienced this fate. In 2014, Son’s former team, Bayer Leverkusen refused the call.

Despite the immense pressure he’s under, Son could still help lead his team to victory in the 2018 World Cup. As a result, the weight of the 2018 Asian Games would be obsolete, and Son would be exempt from military service. However, the possibility of that happening is unlikely. As it stands, the 2018 Asian Games are the most realistic way for the South Korean forward to avoid his military fate.