South Korea beat rivals Japan 2-1 after extra time to win the gold medal in men’s football at the 2018 Asian Games in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Palembang.
Hellas Verona’s young star Lee Seung-woo broke the deadlock with a strike into the top corner early in extra time, and Hwang Hee-chan, who has just agreed to join German side Hamburger SV on loan, added a second with a powerful header. Japan pulled a goal back but South Korea held on to win the gold medal.
And that gold could change the careers of the players involved as it gives them an exemption from military service.
Star striker Son Heung-min has been in the news around the world this week because of his military service predicament. Every able-bodied South Korean male has to enlist in the military, but for soccer players, the service period comes right in the middle of their careers, which can make it difficult for them to move to European clubs or force those in Europe to return to Korea.
Son and his teammates wouldn’t have been standing on the front line. Most would have had the chance to play for Sangmu Sangju or Asan Mugunghwa, the army and police teams in South Korea’s domestic K League. Players who don’t fall into the military grade for those teams, for example by not graduating from high school, often end up doing desk work and playing in the country’s semi-pro leagues.
But by winning gold in Indonesia, South Korea’s players now just have to do their four weeks of basic training. This means that Son Heung-min can continue his career at Tottenham Hotspur, and Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan can continue their careers in Europe unhindered by military service.
It also means that their teammates are more likely to get the chance to follow them to Europe.
Goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo was South Korea’s standout player at the 2018 World Cup, earning comparisons to Manchester United’s David de Gea. The position has been one of the South Korean national team’s weak points over the years, so if Cho can get a move to a stronger league and keep developing, it could really benefit the national team.
Defender Kim Min-jae and midfielder Hwang In-beom could also see a move abroad after winning gold. Kim Min-jae is a key player for the national team despite being just 21 years old, but he got injured just before the World Cup and missed out on Russia 2018. Hwang In-beom chose to do his military service early so that it would have less of an impact on his career. He currently plays for the police side Asan Mugunghwa, who are actually higher in the league than his previous club, but he can cut short his military service after winning gold.
Hwang In-beom has already benefited from the Asian Games. His strong performances, and those of winger Kim Moon-hwan, caught the eye of new South Korea head coach Paulo Bento, earning them call-ups to the full national team for the friendly matches against Costa Rica and Chile in September.
But while military exemption gives all the players a better chance of a move to Europe, not all of them will take it. South Korea won gold at the 2014 Asian Games, but out of that squad, only Holstein Kiel’s Lee Jae-sung successfully made the jump to a different continent, and some of the Europe-based players in that squad have since returned to the K League.
The next group of South Korean soccer players will have their chance to earn military exemption at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, should they qualify for the games.
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