Korea’s golden boy Son faces thorny issue of military service

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Son Heung-min reacts to scoring in Tottenham Hotspur's Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg tie against Juventus at Wembley Stadium, London, on March 7, 2018. Photo: Action Images via Reuters / John Sibley

Despite Son Heung-min’s goal for Tottenham Hotspur against Italy’s Juventus in the teams’ European Champions League second-round clash in London on March 7, the English team exited the competition. If ‘Spurs’ want to stop Son from exiting their ranks in the next two or three years, they have a decision to make this summer.

The South Korean winger headed to England in the summer of 2015, with Tottenham reportedly paying over US$30 million – the highest sum ever paid for an Asian player – to Bayer Leverkusen of Germany in return. Son’s first season in England was up and down but since August of 2016, this native of Chuncheon – the Korean city famous around Asia for a fiery chicken dish and the drama hit ‘Winter Sonata’ – has won numerous points for his team and plaudits for himself around the world.

There is one opponent whom even Son can’t sprint past, however – and that is the Korean government. Males from South Korea usually have to start military service by the time they are 28. Just as the fleet-footed forward, 26 in July, is reaching his peak on the football pitch, he faces the prospect of a 21-month period back home with the K-League’s army team Sangju Sangmu. His popularity and fame will not be factored in.

“Military service may not be ideal for professional football players and their careers but that is the reality,” Steve Kim, former head of club competitions of the Asian Football Confederation, told Asia Times. “Everyone knows that it is better for Son if he does not have to do it but there is nothing the Korea FA can do about this. He has to be treated like any other athlete.”

There is hope, however. At the 2002 World Cup, South Korea co-hosted the tournament and reached the semi-finals. In addition to the acclaim of the nation, the players received military exemption. Son is set to spearhead the so-called Taeguk Warriors’ campaign in Russia this summer. A similar outcome is unlikely – especially given an initial group containing Germany, Sweden and Mexico – but the real opportunity comes in August.

That is when the 2018 Asian Games will take place in Jakarta. If Korea’s football team can win the tournament, then like all of the country’s gold-medals stars, they will win exemption from military service.

The tournament is reserved for Under-23 players but each coach can select three over-age players and – as the country’s best player – it is natural that coach Kim Hak-beom wants Son. The problem is availability. European Clubs have to release players for the FIFA World Cup, which takes place during the close-season, but there is no such requirement for the Asian Games, which runs during Spurs’ domestic season.

For the 2014 edition, Korea wanted to call Son – but Bayer Leverkusen refused. The player had to watch from Germany as his compatriots won gold, and freedom from the military. It remains to be seen if Spurs will allow the forward to be away from England for what could be a month during the season.

“I’m going to pick him unless there’s a special situation,” coach Kim said this week. “Son is the kind of a player who needs to be taken care of. We need to see till the end whether he can actually join our team or not, but I believe there’s not going to be a big problem.

“The selection issue is not only important for the player, but also for the club.”

It is believed that the Korean FA has already started discussing the issue with Spurs.

Some countries that have conscription allow professional athletes to delay their duty until the end of their careers, but Korea is not one of those. Any hint of the rich and powerful using their status to play the system goes down badly in the country.

In 2012, another national team star, Park Chu-young, who was then with Arsenal, used a little-known loophole to delay his duty by ten years. That provoked a great deal of controversy back home, with the then national team coach Choi Kang-hee saying he would not select the striker. Park returned home to apologize to the nation. Ironically, he won exemption in August that year by helping the Olympic team win bronze in London – any medal suffices in the Olympics, but only gold will do in the Asian Games.

Son, hugely popular in his homeland, would be in danger of upsetting many if he tried to follow Park’s actions.

“Some would understand – but with Park, the general public and media were not supportive,” said Kim. “It would be very controversial.”

The best option, then, is to win gold in Jakarta. But that will depend on Spurs taking a chance.

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