South Korea’s football players won Olympic bronze medals Friday, but many admitted they were also celebrating an even greater prize: the chance to skip military service.
Medal winners in South Korea are exempted from the 21-months of duty that that their fellow countrymen must do before they are 29 because their endeavors are seen as benefiting the country.
The 2-0 victory over Japan and military service exemption removes a major hurdle faced by many other top Korean footballers to pursuing a career in European leagues.
“I’m very happy to win the bronze medal and everybody here will now get a new chance by being exempted from military service, said striker Park Chu-young, who scored a stunning first goal. “That’s what I’m really pleased about because that was our aim.”
Kim Bok-yung, who is joining English League Championship team Cardiff next season, said being able to skip military service “makes me as happy as winning the bronze medal.”
“This is one of the happiest moments of my life,” he said. “It is a big problem for Korean players, but now I have avoided it. I will have no problem staying in Europe.”
Beating Japan was a motivation in itself for the players. The two countries are Asia’s fiercest football rivals and dueling contenders for the title of the region’s best team. Japan beat South Korea on the way to victory at last year’s Asia Cup.
The bronze was South Korea’s first football medal at the games. Japan has also won just one medal — also a bronze — in 1968, the last time an Asian time got an Olympic award.
When the final whistle blew, the players formed a circle in the middle of the pitch and jumped around. Some took their shirts and traded them for Korean flags from members of the crowd. Coach Hong Myung-bo said he didn’t dare go into the dressing room for 10 minutes after the match such was the noise that the team was making inside.