The “Korean Hiddink” stands between Son Heung-min and South Korea taking another step towards retaining their Asian Games title – and earning Tottenham forward Son and his teammates exemption from compulsory military service.
The South Korean government rewards Asian Games gold medals and Olympic medals of any kind with an exemption from the country’s compulsory 21-month military service.
Failure to win a gold medal in Indonesia will likely mean that the 26-year-old Son will have to return to South Korea within the next two years to perform his national duty.
And the possible severe interruption to his Premier League career is perhaps why Spurs have allowed the talented star to compete in Indonesia despite the league season just kicking off in England.
Son has been given leave from Spurs to take part as one of three overage players each team is allowed.
If the Taegeuk Warriors are to reach the final, however, and avoid military service then they will have to get past Vietnam and a familiar face on Wednesday.
Korean coach Park Hang-seo, a member of Guus Hiddink’s coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup when South Korea reached the semi-finals, is coaching Vietnam.
Korea’s unlikely run to the semis in a 2002 World Cup it co-hosted with Japan had millions of fans pouring onto the streets in cities across the country to celebrate victories.
Park’s success with Vietnam has sparked similar scenes in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and elsewhere when he took the national team to the final of Asia’s Under-23 championship in January.
At the Asian Games, Vietnam’s ‘Golden Stars’ have reached the last four and once more fans at home are getting excited – sparked by the man referred to as the “Korean Hiddink”.
“Back then (in 2002) I was an assistant coach, but now I’m a head coach,” Park said after Vietnam’s 1-0 extra-time quarter-final win over Syria set up a semi-final with the Koreans.
“We stopped in the semi-finals in 2002. But now we’ll not stop in the semi-finals.”
The semi provides Park with a reunion with former K-League coaching counterpart Kim Hak-bom, now leading Korea’s Under-23s.
“I’ve known him since the K-League days and we’re sharing the same hotel,” Park said. “As you know, he is such a good tactician – he’s known as ‘(Alex) Ferguson of the K-League.’”
“I really love my country, but now I’m head coach of the Vietnamese national team. I’m having a good time with Vietnam and I’m enjoying my work.”
Son, meanwhile, skipped the 2014 Asian Games on home soil, when the South Koreans won the gold medal.
He missed Korea’s opener here but came on as a replacement in a surprising group-stage loss to Malaysia, before scoring in the deciding group game to ensure his team progressed to the knockouts.
The title defense was touch and go on Monday, with Korea trailing 3-2 against Uzbekistan with 15 minutes of the quarter-final remaining.
Hwang Ui-jo, the tournament’s leading scorer, completed his hat-trick to equalise at 3-3 and take the game into extra-time, and Hwang Hee-chan then slotted home a penalty with two minutes remaining to send the South Koreans into the semis.
Now Son and Co must overcome a determined and disciplined Vietnam team coached by a man who knows Korean football extremely well.
“I’m trying to pass on my knowledge and football philosophy to this team,” Park said of his strategy with Vietnam. “I always emphasise to the team that it’s not about me, but it’s about us.”
The winner will face either Japan or the UAE in the final on September 1.
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