Kwon Chang-hoon of the South Korean men's national football team speaks during an online interview conducted at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Wednesday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Korea Football Association)
South Korean midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon is training with the senior national team this week in preparation for World Cup qualifying matches later this month, but he could be forgiven for thinking instead about the Tokyo Olympics in July.
As a 26-year-old, Kwon wouldn't normally be eligible for the Olympic tournament, which is limited to players 23 or younger, though the age limit has been extended to 24 this year after the Tokyo Games got postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But countries can each take up to three players over the age limit. Kwon, a gritty midfielder with good offensive instincts, is seen as a candidate to join the Olympic team as an overager.
One significant consideration for Kwon's inclusion is his military status. He recently wrapped up his four-year European stint to return home and begin preparing for his mandatory military service. Kwon's plan is to play out this year with his original K League club, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, and then join the second-division military team, Gimcheon Sangmu, to complete his duty.
However, if Kwon makes the Olympic team and wins a medal of any color, he will receive an exemption from the military service. That waiver is a huge carrot for South Korean athletes but is also a thorny issue among young males who begrudge wealthy professional athletes their access to such opportunities.
Perhaps mindful of recent controversies on the matter involving other athletes, Kwon tried to steer the focus away from his military service on Wednesday.
"You can't approach the Olympics from the perspective of the military service," Kwon said in an online interview from the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. "The biggest thing is to represent the country well. The sense of responsibility is greater than anything else."
If Kwon makes the team, it'll be his second straight Olympics. South Korea bowed out of the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics by losing to Honduras 1-0.
The two countries are in the same group in Tokyo. Though five years have passed and both teams will have vastly different lineups, Kwon said, "Obviously, it'd be great to get our revenge."
"We only lost that one match at the Olympics then, and it was especially disappointing because we'd been playing so well up to that point," Kwon said, referring to South Korea's two wins and one draw in the group stage. "They're not going to be an easy team to handle."
Kwon said his previous Olympic experience should come in handy if he does get to travel to Tokyo.
"I know what it takes to prepare for the Olympics," he said. "Every player has to come together and be on the same page in order to produce positive results."
Kwon began his European club career in France with Dijon in early 2017, and spent the past two seasons with SC Freiburg in the Bundesliga in Germany.
Kwon was limited to 12 matches this past season because of injuries, but he said he isn't worried about his match readiness or stamina.
"I am a bit of a daredevil and I'll try to play to my strengths," Kwon said of World Cup qualifiers against Turkmenistan, Sri Lanka and Lebanon. "At the same time, I'll have to fit in with the team structure, because I can't do things alone on the national team." (Yonhap)