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Asian Games could provide lifeline for Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min

by August 28, 2016 General

The Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Palembang have emerged as unlikely, but crucial destinations in the topsy-turvy career of South Korean winger Son Heung-Min.

After a disappointing Rio Olympics, and as the 24-year-old reportedly faces an uncertain future at Tottenham Hotspur, the 2018 Asian Games on Indonesian soil are already coming into focus for Korea’s top young players.

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A gold medal at the multi-sports event would excuse all team members from having to serve the mandatory National Service of up to two years.

So, for Son, who missed Korea’s triumphant 2014 Asian Games because Bayer Leverkusen wouldn’t release him, it provides another opportunity to clear the way for his sometimes erratic career to reach its true potential.

If Son is able to help the Taeguk Warriors successfully defend their men’s football title in 2018, he will be able to avoid joining the army the following summer.

That would mean not being forced to return home to Korea from Europe at the age — he will be in his mid-to-late 20s — considered to be the peak of most professional careers. And, it would also make Son a more attractive option now for clubs looking to invest in a man on whom Spurs spent £22 million ($38 million A) to bring to England from Germany in August 2015.

Back then, he signed a five-year contract, but according to the Daily Mirror this week, the North London club are willing to listen to offers for Son, who scored four goals in 28 league appearances last season. Germany’s Wolfsburg have been mentioned as potential suitors.

It was a gamble for the former Hamburg junior to play at the Rio Olympics as one of three over-age players. And, after a promising start as South Korea finished top of their group and drew 3-3 with eventual finalists Germany, it all fell apart in the quarterfinal against Honduras on Aug. 13.

Time running out: Son Heung-Min needs to perform at the 2018 Asian Games or be called back to Korea for military duty. Time running out: Son Heung-Min needs to perform at the 2018 Asian Games or be called back to Korea for military duty. Photo: Darrian Traynor

In a game that the Asian side were expected to win, Son not only failed to convert some gilt-edged chances, but was blamed for losing the ball when Honduras scored the only goal of the match in the 59th minute.

Son’s tears on the Belo Horizonte pitch were a painfully enduring, yet familiar image from the Rio Games for Korean fans who celebrated successes like a gold for the charismatic Park Sang-Young in men’s fencing. Indeed, there was a similar public display of misery from Son after he was part of the side that flopped at the 2014 World Cup, finishing bottom of their group with no victories in three matches.

Seven months later, Son looked like being the hero when he scored the late, equalising goal to deflate host nation, Australia, in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup final. And, yet, he ended up a loser again when Ange Postecoglou’s team talk inspired the Socceroos to a 2-1 win in extra-time in Sydney.

It is unfair to call Son a perennial “nearly man”, but he does seem to have the knack of failing to sample Korea’s sweetest football moments while suffering through the sourest ones. He wasn’t selected for the 2012 Olympics when the Koreans won a bronze medal which earned his fellow Premier League-playing national teammate Ki Sung-Yueng a lifetime exemption from National Service.

National coach Uli Stielike came to Son’s defence this week, saying he wasn’t “entirely” to blame for the Olympics’ disappointment, adding that he would talk to the Spurs’ man after his sub-par performance in the 1-0 loss to Honduras.

Equaliser: Son Heung-Min levels the scores against Australia in the Asian Cup final in Sydney.

Equaliser: Son Heung-Min levels the scores against Australia in the Asian Cup final in Sydney. Photo: Mark Kolbe

South Korea will begin the third round of AFC World Cup qualifying against China on September 1 at the Seoul World Cup Stadium. It is understood that Son will feature in that game but be excused from the September 6 trip to Beirut to face Group A minnows, Syria to concentrate on his club commitments at White Hart Lane.

It will be a massive shock if the Koreans failed to secure a ninth successive appearance in the World Cup finals.

Indeed, Russia 2018 will finish just over a month before the 18th edition of the Asian Games begins in Indonesia. Assuming he continues to be one of the first names selected for Korea’s various national sides, Son could be in for a hectic summer in two years’ time.

Manchester United’s Asian legend Park Ji-Sung, considered by some to be his country’s greatest ever player, never had to do National Service after the Koreans finished fourth at the 2002 World Cup, but Son faces an uphill struggle to avoid a massive disruption to his career.

In the meantime, Korean fans who have been gripped by the highs and lows of his soap opera-like career, hope that Son can take some positive steps to pick himself up after the heartbreak of Rio.

Former Herald journalist Jason Dasey is Singapore-based Senior Editor of global football website: