The vast majority of athletes play their respective games for the same purposes: feeding their desire to win and fulfilling their honor. But one particular athlete was also spurred on by the motivation of fear, as the 2018 Asian Games represented his final chance of avoiding mandatory military service and saving his career in the process. The player in question was none other than South Korea’s golden footballer, Son Heung-min; this tantalizing proposition, coupled with a thrilling defeat of arch-rivals Japan, made Korea’s first-place finish truly special.
South Korea is one of the few developed nations in the world where conscription still exists, and all able-bodied men must serve their country for two years before they turn 28. However, certain exemptions are given for outstanding athletes: those with a gold medal in the Asian Games or a medal of any color in the Olympics have their sentences shortened to a mere four weeks. As Son was turning 26 this July, the 2018 Asian Games represented his last chance for avoiding conscription.
Given the precarious situation, one might have expected Korea to unconditionally support their team’s battle to advance sparkling talents; but not even the nation’s star footballer could bring down the perennial values of military service deeply rooted in the very foundation of this country. Before Son even stepped foot on the pitch, a rift in the national media formed as some loathed him for trying to dodge what they considered basic duty for all men. Previous celebrities that tested all loopholes to avoid their conscription had received public ridicule and humiliation, and Son seemed to be next in line.
But Koreans fighting for the fundamental values of their country were not the only ones with a stake in this tournament, as football fans around the globe found themselves taking sides on the military debate of a country 5,000 miles away. Son is just entering the “prime” years of his footballing career, the perfect age where the body is at the peak of its powers and the youthful desire to win is coupled with hardened, veteran composure. Many – not just ardent supporters of the Korean national team, but the billions of football fans around the world – saw the looming military service Son faced as a huge loss for the game, and fully supported his odyssey.
However, the Asian Games changed everything and shifted the tide of the narrative. Despite the tremendous weight that burdened his shoulders, Son played the role of a composed veteran in this youthful team to help conquer the exhausting mental battle. Son’s personality could not have been better exemplified in this tournament, where he defied Korea’s heavy emphasis on seniority by letting younger talents like Lee Seung-woo claim the limelight. Although he is naturally a shoot-first player, he unselfishly adapted to the team’s needs and became a creative force, totalling five assists in just four games; it was only fitting that he set up both goals that ultimately made the difference.
When the final whistle sealed Korea’s gold medal, nobody could deny the pure, unadulterated emotions of relief and joy radiating from Son. Even more, nobody could deny that Son did not serve his country through this victory. By uplifting the less experienced players and captaining the team to glory, Son proved himself to be a true role model for the next generation of aspiring athletes and vindicated himself in the process.
Brian Ham, Grade 10
Seoul International School