There is no doubt that Son Heung-Min has fast become one of the most potent and incisive attackers in the Premier League. He’s versatile, he provides Tottenham with a different option to the first-choice Harry Kane, and is extremely likeable. He’s quick, and has an excellent sense of position. It makes him one of Tottenham’s many jewels, but Son has that something extra about him – an energy, which he’s taken to a different level this season. But, in one of those challenging times when football and politics intertwine, the looming shadow above him grows ever larger. Son may be one of Mauricio Pochettino’s soldiers, but a different army beckons him: South Korea’s.
The Korean Peninsula is a land that has not seen peace for years, at least theoretically: the Korean War ended with an armistice, but no peace treaty. The Korean Demilitarized Zone follows the 38th parallel in theory, and is one of the world’s most heavily guarded regions. Under the political situation of recent times, with nuclear missile testing from the North, the South cannot stay quiet, and must prepare for the eventuality of a war. That’s where Son comes in.
All South Korean males are required to provide 21 months of service in the army. They have to start this by the age of 28 at the latest, and it is virtually impossible to avoid this duty without severe societal backlash. One may argue that Son’s service to the country is of a different kind – that of providing exposure on the sporting stage – but fame and popularity is usually never accounted for. There can be no exceptions, but there is one relatively new escape route from this difficult requirement.
If football players reach the semi-finals of the World Cup – as the South Koreans did as hosts in 2002 – or if athletes win an Olympic medal or Asian Games gold medal, they will be exempted from the overall 21 months. Service is cut down to four weeks of basic military training, followed up by a few days of annual training. It’s the dream path for many South Koreans, but it’s naturally laden with obstacles. A precedent lies with Park Ji-Sung and the Class of 2002, who evaded military service thanks to their heroics.
The country has never had a football star of Son’s functional importance, and while this is exciting, it also prompts concerns of burn-out. With regular game time through the first half of 2018 due to be followed up by a summer of World Cup football, as well as an autumn of the 2018 Asian Games, it’s a busy year for the national side.
Son will be the main man for his nation, bearing the weight of high expectations, but he has goals of his own to meet. The Asian Games allows only three over-23 players, but Son should definitely be on the plane, barring an unfortunate injury. Tottenham will be obligated to release Son, considering the fate that may await him if he misses this opportunity; possible injury and unavailability for the starting half of next season is worth the risk if it means protecting the two years of his career he would stand to lose in the army.
It is functionally his last resort, aside from the 2019 Asian Games. It is improbable South Korea will make the final four in Russia, which means Son only has two chances left. He has already missed two chances: he was not part of the 2012 Olympic team that won bronze, and more cruelly, the 2014 Asian Games, where they won gold. Bayer Leverkusen refused to let him go for the games, as they would lose a key member of the squad.
While unfair to the player, their rationale was obvious. The long-term effects of his military service were not going to be their burden, and so their short-termism is justified from a sporting point of view. They’ve passed on the baton to Tottenham, who have a gifted attacker in his prime which could be curtailed. Son turns 26 in July; losing the 2019/20 and 2020/21 years would be a harsh blow to his career. Having to play for the army’s team would be a low blow too. But it’s understandable why a precedent has to be set, either way, especially with Son’s status in the country.
As one of the best athletes in the country, Son has to tread carefully. His popularity will take a hit if he tries to evade national service without meeting the sporting criteria. The safest option is to go and win the Asian Games. His attendance will be up to his parent club, but it is certainly a no-brainer to let him go. It’s not ideal, but there is no gain without sacrifice. The sublime Son represents both risk and reward; it is time for Tottenham to make a choice, one that in theory should be non-existent. One hopes Son will win in Indonesia and avoid further complications. Football (and life) is rarely that simple, but with the South Korean, you hope that it is the case. His career would be lesser for the two years lost; the Premier League would be lesser for his absence.