Tottenham Hotspur’s South Korean forward Son Heung-Min is having an amazing season at Spurs, scoring 18 goals in all competitions thus far and playing some of the best football of his career.
But hanging over Son’s performance is a harsh reality: Son has a two year compulsory term of military service with the Korean army coming up, and time is running out for him to report for duty. Son has until the end of 2019 to report for his conscription. Doing so would mean putting his football career on hold for two years while he serves his country.
However, there are ways for Korean athletes to gain an exemption from military service. For soccer players, that includes reaching the semifinals of the World Cup, or receiving a medal at the Olympic Games. More immediately for Son, a gold medal at the Asian Games would also exempt him (along with all his teammates) from military service, and the next Asian Games is coming up at the end of August.
The Guardian is reporting that Tottenham Hotspur has entered into discussions with the Korean sports officials to allow Son time away from Spurs to participate in this summer’s Asian Games football tournament in Indonesia. If he participates, he would be one of three overage Korean players allowed in the side (the rest are U23 players). It would functionally represent Son’s last chance to receive a performance-based exemption before he would need to report for service, assuming that Korea does not advance to the semifinals of this summer’s World Cup (an unlikely prospect).
Korea’s U23 football team won the 2014 Asian Games gold medal and the entire squad was exempted, but Son, then a member of Bayer Leverkusen, was not allowed to leave the Bundesliga side to participate and he was not granted the exemption.
Korea U23 manager Hak-Bum Kim said that he’d jump at the chance to use Korea’s best player at the Asian Games. “I’m going to pick him unless there’s a special situation,” he said. “I believe there’s not going to be a big problem.”
Playing in the Asian Games in late August would mean an extremely busy offseason of football for Sonny: he will be one of the featured players on Korea’s World Cup team in Russia this summer, and would almost immediately join the U23 side in Indonesia, returning in early September. The schedule would also mean that he would miss the start of the 2018-19 Premier League season with Tottenham.
However, one would think that Tottenham would strongly consider letting him leave, as the prospects of having a tired player report for duty at the beginning of the season and the risk of injury is better than potentially losing one of their best players to military conscription for two seasons.
Son is considered one of, if not the, best and most important athletes in Korea, but from everything I’ve read Koreans take a dim view of celebrities and others who avoid military service (apart from medal-winning athletes). The easiest and most direct way to keep him in Tottenham colors past 2019 would be to let him play, and hope that Korea takes home the gold in Indonesia.