South Korea kick off their World Cup campaign against Sweden on Monday but, remarkably, it may not be the most important tournament for Son Heung-min this summer.
The Tottenham Hotspur forward is running out of time to earn an exemption from 21 months of military service in his home country and the best opportunity to skip that obstacle comes at the Asian Games in Indonesia this August and September.
Since leaving his homeland as a teenager for the Bundesliga, Son has become a major star and perhaps the most recognisable South Korean around the world. That does not mean much to authorities in Seoul, however, and unless he does well enough with the national team, in around two years (the exact timing will depend on the relevant governmental agency) Son is going to have to do what all able‑bodied South Korean males have to do: head home and report for duty. It means cutting his hair, living on less than £100 a month and learning to eat instant noodles at a speed that would win gold if such a thing were an Olympic event.
If only it were, as an Olympic medal gets you off the hook, as does winning the Asian Games. That is a realistic possibility, unlike the World Cup. Reaching the semi-final in 2002 was enough for exemption but it comes at the government’s discretion. In Russia there is an outside chance that the team, who struggled in qualification, could perform better than expected and get out of a group also containing Sweden, Mexico and Germany but they would have to match the achievements of 16 years ago for a real chance. Few believe this is going to happen.
Son has had one go at the Olympics. He failed and his tears after the quarter-final exit against Honduras at the 2016 Rio Games were heartfelt. He missed a number of chances to send the team into the last four and two bites, if needed, to follow the 2012 team and take the necessary spot on the podium. It leaves Indonesia as his likely last chance.
This, of course, will have repurcussions for Tottenham too. In 2014 when the previous Asian Games – an under-23 tournament with three spots for overseas players – were held, Son was with Bayer Leverkusen and the German club refused Korean requests to release their attacker (which they were allowed to do as the tournament is not recognised by Fifa). It was a decision that may have cost them millions in the player’s transfer value and meant the Chuncheon‑born star had to watch from afar as his teammates took centre spot on the podium and a new generation of talents saw 21 months of military service reduced to four weeks of basic training.
So now it is Spurs’ turn to make a decision, with it being made clear by South Korea’s under‑23 coach, Kim Hak-beom, that Son wants to travel to Indonesia.
“Son has a strong will to compete at the Asian Games,” Kim said. “But first there’s the World Cup. I told Son to play well in Russia, before we meet at the Asian Games. It’s a sensitive issue.”
Believe it or not, though, there is a further complication. The 2019 Asian Cup will be held in January in the United Arab Emirates. The continent’s showpiece football event is a Fifa tournament and, as such, South Korea have the right to summon Son. But KFA officials understand Tottenham cannot be expected to see the player go to Russia in June and maybe July, then lose him for the best part of a month in August and then again for potentially longer in January.
It could well be that South Korea agree not to call Son for the January tournament in return for the player reporting for the Asian Games. If so, the Asian Football Confederation will be furious at the prospect of the continent’s biggest name voluntarily withdrawing from its biggest competition.
However, that reaction would be nothing, compared with what would happen in South Korea if Son possesses, and chooses, to use, the nuclear option.
In 2012 Park Chu-young, who had signed for Arsenal the previous August, announced he was postponing his military service for 10 years after his lawyers found a loophole created by his three-year residency in France as a Monaco player. It was a hugely contentious move and such was the outcry that Park returned home to apologise.
His popularity, at the time second only to that of Park Ji-sung’s at Manchester United, has never recovered, and the South Korean public have largely grown tired of the rich and famous using their status to delay or avoid the duty when most men have no choice and support for the whole concept of exemption for sporting success seems to be falling. There are other examples – the rapper MC Mong was accused in 2010 of paying dentists to remove teeth in order to avoid conscription. He was cleared of charges but his career has never truly recovered.
There have been rumours for years that Son, who has spent his entire professional career in Europe, has a Park-like card up his sleeve, but even if he does few think he would use it. Winning gold at the Asian Games is a much more acceptable, and realistic, way for him to avoid military service, but first he has a World Cup in which to play. And who knows, all this may be solved by South Korea surprising everyone in Russia, starting with Sweden on Monday.
This article was first published @www.TheGuardian.com