Jakarta, Indonesia, Sep 1 – Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min was beaming from ear to ear after winning an exemption from almost two years of military service by leading South Korea to Asian Games gold on Saturday.
The defending champions beat Japan 2-1 after extra time in steamy Cibinong, West Java as Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan scored the goals that will allow 26-year-old Son to see out his new five-year deal with Spurs.
A late header from Ayase Ueda gave South Korea an almighty fright, but they survived a nervous last few moments to capture a record fifth Asian Games title.
Korean captain Son, substituted in the dying seconds to buy precious time, sprinted from the bench to embrace goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, sobbing tears of joy as they rolled on the turf together.
“This is the best day in my life,” Son told AFP, clutching his gold medal.
“I’m so proud of my team-mates, they fought for 120 minutes. But without the Korean people behind us we couldn’t win this tournament. Of course when I see the people support me, I want to give something back and this is the best present for my life.”
The Koreans dominated the final but wasted several decent opportunities before substitute Lee broke the deadlock by smashing a left-foot shot into the roof of the net three minutes into extra time.
Son delivered a free kick for Hwang to ram home a towering header eight minutes later, before Ueda’s goal triggered late drama.
South Korea could have been three goals up by half-time, however, with Lee Jin-hyun blazing just over from distance and Son bundled over in the box for what replays suggested was a clear penalty.
Hwang Ui-jo went close as the Japan-based striker sought his 10th goal of the tournament before Japan captain Koji Miyoshi forced a sharp save from Jo.
– From tracksuit to camouflage –
Roared on by thousands of flag-waving “Red Devils” fans, the Koreans continued to press with Hwang rippling the side-netting just after the hour mark, but both sides wilted in the sapping conditions as the game wore on.
Failure to win gold could have been disastrous for Son’s career as the multi-millionaire footballer faced swapping his tracksuit for a camouflage kit and 21 months of national service, compulsory for South Korean men.
Spurs only released their forward to compete as one of three permitted over-age players at the far-flung, under-23 tournament because he pleaded with the London club.
“I’m so grateful to Tottenham because they let me come here,” grinned Son.
“Normally that’s not an easy decision. I would have felt very sorry if I didn’t win the gold medal,” he added.
“I really thank the coaching staff and players. I’ll continue to work hard for Tottenham when I return.”
Nearly every able-bodied South Korean male is required to perform military service before the age of 28, although the government rewards Asian Games gold medals and Olympic medals of any colour with an exemption.
Son was selected to play at the 2014 Asian Games but his former club Bayer Leverkusen refused to release him — and the Koreans scooped gold.
His tears after South Korea’s quarter-final defeat by Honduras at the 2016 Rio Olympics melted hearts, and thousands offered to do double their own military service in an online petition if Son could be pardoned.
“My players fought to the very end,” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu. “They showed real spirit and can be proud of themselves. They will be stronger for it at the Tokyo Olympics.”