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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Asian Games: UAE lose, and Son must strike gold to save Tottenham career

Anything less than title win and Son Heung-min, 26, faces compulsory stint of nearly two years' military service

South Korea's forward Son Heung-min has plenty at stake at the Asian Games this month. AFP
South Korea's forward Son Heung-min has plenty at stake at the Asian Games this month. AFP

Son Heung-min has lit up the World Cup and the Premier League but unnervingly it is the Asian Games in Indonesia that could make or break the career of the prolific South Korean forward.

Anything less than gold and Son, 26, faces a compulsory stint of nearly two years' military service - a severe blow to the player, his national team and his club, Tottenham Hotspur.

Son bade farewell to his Spurs teammates after Saturday's season-opening win at Newcastle United and flew some 12,000 kilometres to Jakarta for Asia's regional Olympics, under a special deal brokered with the club.

As Asia's all-time Premier League top-scorer, and a huge celebrity in his home country, he will undoubtedly be the Asian Games football tournament's biggest star.

But more than national glory is at stake as nearly every able-bodied South Korean male - regardless of wealth or fame - is required to enroll by age 28 in the military, for a minimum of 21 months.

Son is banking on the defending champions earning him a rare reprieve only permitted for elite sportsmen such as Olympic or World Cup medallists.

At the Asian Games, only gold will be sufficient to avoid the call-up.

Son Heung-min, in white, is enjoying a successful stint at Tottenham Hotspur. EPA
Son Heung-min, in white, is enjoying a successful stint at Tottenham Hotspur. EPA

While South Korea enter the Asian Games as favourites, the tournament features fellow 2018 World Cup contestants Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But unlike those rival nations, South Korea has used its three wild cards - players permitted aged over 23 - to bring in its biggest stars.

Son's club side Tottenham have shown willingness to compromise, despite knowing the prolific forward could miss Premier League clashes against Fulham, Manchester United and Watford if his team reach the final.

Son, who signed a new, five-year deal with Spurs in July, has been released in return for missing South Korea's first two games at January's senior-level Asian Cup, along with an international friendly in November.

The Asian Games is not a Fifa tournament, so clubs are not obliged to make players available. Son missed the last edition, when South Korea beat North Korea in a tense final, after Bayer Leverkusen refused to release him.

But both club and player know Son is approaching his peak playing age, and the toll two years away from any football could take on his career.

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UAE 0 Syria 1

By Amith Passela

The UAE’s Asian Games campaign suffered a blow when they were beaten 1-0 by Syria in their Group C opener at the Jalak Harupat Soreang stadium in Palembang on Tuesday.

Abdal Rahman Barakat headed a left cross from Khaled Kurdaghli to the bottom of the goalmouth which slipped through the UAE goalkeeper Mohammed Al Shamsi seven minutes into the second half.

The UAE made a valiant effort to equalise but the closest they came was when captain Ahmed Rashid Al Mehrzi darted across to meet a free kick but his header sailed over the crossbar.

The first half was evenly matched. They both had the ball on the back of the net but were ruled out for offside.

Syria keeper Ahmed Madnya did well to push out a dipping lone-range effort from Mohammed Al Mesmari. Al Shamsi meanwhile made an excellent save to block a powerfully struck shot from inside the area by Mahmood Al Bahar at the other end.

UAE, in white, came close but were unable to beat Syria in their Asian Games opener. AP Photo
UAE, in white, came close but were unable to beat Syria in their Asian Games opener. AP Photo

Al Mehrzi was naturally disappointed but have not ruled out their chances of reaching the knockout round.

“We still have two games to play in the group phase and we’ll try to win both,” the Al Wahda defender said.

“It was a game which we could have shared a point at least. We conceded a goal from our own mistake and had to pay the price. This game is behind us and now we’ll focus on our next game.”

The UAE next meet East Timor, who were drubbed 6-0 by China on the same pitch earlier on the day, on Thursday.

In the other games, Uzbekistan outclassed Bangladesh 3-0 while Thailand scored in added time to hold Qatar to a 1-1 result, both in Group B. Vietnam downed Pakistan 3-0 and Japan edged out Nepal 1-0 in Group D.

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Son in military fatigues?

In Son's last appearance for the Taeguk Warriors, he scored in injury time as South Korea knocked defending champions Germany out of the World Cup in Russia.

If they fail at the Asian Games, Son will swap Tottenham's state-of-the-art new White Hart Lane stadium for life in military barracks, where up to 30 soldiers sleep in each room.

On meagre pay of 310,000 won (a little more than Dh1,000) per month, soldiers are assigned to a range of duties, from riding tanks to standing patrol at the heavily fortified border with North Korea - with whom the South remains technically at war.

An infamously spartan military diet has at least improved over the past decade, with soldiers in the mess served rice, meat or fish and soup, along with the national dish of kimchi.

And Son may have other elite footballers for company.

If Son does end up having to go for military service, he may be posted at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. AFP
If Son does end up having to go for military service, he may be posted at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas. AFP

Goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who shot to prominence with a string of superb saves in the win over Germany, and Japan-based Hwang Ui-jo also face their last chances to avoid military service.

But for Son the stakes are even higher, given his burgeoning career in football's richest league.

And while most top South Korean footballers can spend their service playing for the K-League's military side Sangju Sangmu, Son is not eligible as he has never appeared in the domestic league.

South Korea kick off their tournament against Bahrain on Wednesday, before further group matches against Malaysia and Kyrgyzstan. The final will take place on September 1.