By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Aug. 13 (Yonhap) – Teams playing the four major professional sports in South Korea -- baseball, football, basketball and volleyball -- are expected to ride the support of their enthusiasts to podiums at the Asian Games starting on the weekend in Indonesia.
Baseball enjoys the biggest fan base in South Korea, and the national team will be going after the country's third-straight gold medal.
Former Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) pitching legend Sun Dong-yol will be at the helm, managing the current group of KBO All-Stars and former major leaguers, such as Park Byung-ho and Kim Hyun-soo.
Taiwan has finished second to South Korea at each of the past two Asian Games, and it will field a team of 10 pros and 14 amateurs. With Japan missing its top Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) pros, South Korea, on paper, looks to be the strongest in the competition.
There are some injury concerns for South Korea -- slugging third baseman Choi Jeong has been out of action since late July with a thigh injury -- but barring major upsets along the way, South Korea should cruise to the top of the podium.
South Korea will open its title defense against Taiwan on Aug. 26, and the two are likely to clash again in the final.
In men's football, South Korea will try to win its second-consecutive Asian Games gold medal for the first time. Gold this year would also give South Korea the most Asian Games titles with five, breaking a tie with Iran.
Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min will be under the brightest of spotlights, given what's at stake in Indonesia in terms of his international club career.
An Asian Games gold medal will grant South Korean male athletes exemptions from mandatory military service, which runs for about two years. Son missed out on his chance at the 2014 Asian Games, when South Korea won gold but Son's then-club, Bayer Leverkusen, declined to make him available for the tournament.
The Spurs agreed to release him, but only after Son first plays in the Premier League season opener. That match was held last Saturday, and Son will now join the national team later Monday, two days before their opening match against Bahrain.
An exemption from the military duty will set Son on a course for an uninterrupted club career, a benefit that pro athletes in other sports have enjoyed over the years.
The women's football team has won two straight bronze medals, and will be aiming higher this time. Japan (No. 6 in FIFA rankings) and North Korea (No. 10) have captured the past four Asian Games gold medals between them -- with North Korea having won in 2002, 2006 and 2014 -- and 15th-ranked South Korea will likely have to get past either or both if they are to reach their first Asiad gold medal match.
At the 2014 Asian Games, South Korea won gold in both men's and women's basketball, which was the only men-women double that South Korea managed in a ball sport.
There is a twist to the country's bid for another double. This year, South Korea and North Korea will compete as one in women's basketball, with nine players from the South and three from the North. And those three players, Ro Suk-yong, Jang Mi-gyong and Kim Hye-yon, only joined the rest of the team on Aug. 1, and head coach Lee Moon-kyu faces the unique challenge of integrating the fresh faces into an established program without disrupting chemistry.
Captain Lim Yung-hui has said preparations have been going smoothly, dispelling concerns that the players would have trouble getting on the same page.
The men's team will feature U.S.-born forward Ricardo Ratliffe, a veteran of six seasons in the Korean Basketball League (KBL) who acquired his South Korean passport in January this year. The KBL's reigning rebounding champion will be the main low-post presence for head coach Hur Jae, whose two sons, Ung and Hoon, also made the team.
In volleyball, the women's team will be chasing its second straight gold medal. South Korea has never won back-to-back Asian Games gold in women's volleyball -- something the men's team did in 2002 and 2006.
Attacker Kim Yeon-koung, the biggest international volleyball star to come out of South Korea, will be playing in her fourth and likely final Asian Games. South Korea will only go as far as Kim takes it, though she'll have help from other stars from the domestic V-League, including Lee Jae-yeong and Kang So-whi.
China, the 2016 Olympic champion, and world No. 6 Japan, a long-time nemesis for South Korea, will provide the biggest challenges for South Korea.
The men's team may be in for an even more difficult battle. Having won two straight bronze medals, South Korea would do well just to match that feat this time.
South Korea recently finished last in the inaugural Volleyball Nations League and got relegated to a lower competition. The Asian Games -- with clearly inferior quality of opponents -- could be a chance for South Korea to regain some confidence.
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