BOGOR, Indonesia (Reuters) - Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min’s professional career received a boost in the form of military exemption when South Korea won the Asian Games football gold on Saturday.
Substitute Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan scored in extra time after a barren regulation time to help South Korea retain their title with a 2-1 victory against arch-rivals Japan.
Ayase Ueda reduced the margin for Japan with five minutes left in extra time but his side could not find the equaliser to take the match to penalties.
All able-bodied South Korean men must complete 21 months service in the military as a deterrent against the North, but exemptions are offered to athletes who win gold at the Asian Games or a medal of any colour at the Olympics.
Son, who captained South Korea as one of the over-aged players in the under-23 competition, had a role in both goals.
“It feels very good, it’s the best present of my life,” Son told reporters, thanking the thousands of Korean supporters in the stands and the millions watching the match back home on television. “I think this is the best day of my life.
“So proud of my team mates, they fought for 120 minutes. I think we deserved to win.
“I am really really, really grateful to them (supporters). And when I see the people, the way they support me, I want to give something back. I try to do my best. On the pitch and off the pitch. I’m really thankful to them.”
Gamba Osaka striker Hwang Ui-jo’s profligacy meant South Korea were not able to seal the victory in 90 minutes and it was left to Lee to score the first goal when he planted his drive into the top of the net from a Son layoff.
Hwang’s pinpoint header from Son’s free-kick from the corner pole eight minutes later doubled South Korea’s lead though Japan refused to give up.
Son was substituted seconds before the final whistle only to run back on the field in jubilation to celebrate the victory with his team mates.
Son made one appearance from the bench for Spurs in the season before linking up with South Korea’s Games squad earlier this month.
“I am so thankful to Tottenham because they let me go, normally it’s not easy to do,” Son said, dedicating his gold medal to his country. “Of course it was the final so I was a little bit of nervous.”
He was also congratulated by his Premier League team after the final.
“Congratulations, Sonny — #AsianGames WINNER!” Spurs tweeted.
Writing by Sudipto Ganguly in Jakarta; editing by Clare Fallon and Pritha Sarkar