For most fans and players, football in the Olympics plays second fiddle to the World Cup and continental events like the European Championships. However, for South Koreans, including Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, the Olympics hold a special significance.
When Son Heung-min signed for Tottenham in August 2015, the £22 million that Spurs paid Bayer Leverkusen was the highest transfer fee for an Asian player in football history. Despite injuries and the impressive form of Erik Lamela and Dele Alli preventing Son from having the impact that was expected in his debut season, there is no reason why the rest of his career at Tottenham won’t be a success. No reason, except for the fact that Son Heung-min still has to do his military service – that is unless he can find a way to get an exemption from military duty. And one ticket to exemption is an Olympic medal.
British football fans’ brief interest in Olympic football was extinguished when Daniel Sturridge missed the fifth penalty in a quarter-final shoot-out against South Korea. The result put the Koreans into the semi-finals, where they lost 3-0 to Brazil.
Usually, third place play-offs are seen as a waste of time – a consolation prize that nobody really wants or cares about with the disappointment of losing the semi-final still too strong for most fans. For South Korea though, their third-place play-off against arch-rivals Japan meant as much as the final itself. Supporters in Korea stayed awake until almost six in the morning to see their team beat Japan 2-0 in Cardiff. That win earned the Korean players, including Swansea midfielder Ki Sung-yeung, an Olympic bronze medal, and exemption from military service.
Son spent the summer of 2012 in Germany, not the UK. He had decided to concentrate on his club career at Hamburg rather than join the Olympic squad. While that move paid off in the short-term – his 12 goals in 33 league games earning a big money move to Bayer Leverkusen – it may have repercussions down the line.
Son had another shot at getting an exemption when South Korea hosted the Asian Games in 2014. As hosts, South Korea had a strong chance of earning the gold medal required to gain exemption from military service. This time, Son expressed an interest in playing for his country. However, new club Bayer Leverkusen weren’t so keen on Son travelling to Incheon; the tournament took place in September and October meaning that he would miss more than half-a-dozen games for his club if he participated.
Rim Chang-woo’s goal in the final minute of extra-time against North Korea meant that South Korea’s young Asian Games side won the gold medal and military exemption without Son Heung-min.
The footballing career of many South Korean players is truncated by several factors. The way that youth football is set up in South Korea often means that domestic players gain first team experience much later than they might if they played in another country. Players also often struggle to get work permits as the way that FIFA rankings work means that it is hard for South Korea to break into the top 50, despite reaching the knock-out stages of two of the last four World Cups.
When Wigan Athletic were relegated from the Championship, a host of other Championship sides were after Kim Bo-kyung’s signature, but, unable to get a work permit, he is now back in South Korea playing for Jeonbuk Motors in the K-League. The other big factor affecting Korean players is the country’s mandatory military conscription.
Although Korean footballers can still play football while they complete their military service, they have to do so alongside their other duties and drills at either the army side, Sangju Sangmu, or at the police side Ansan Mugunghwa. Last season, both sides played in Korea’s second tier, although Sangju Sangmu did manage to win promotion after winning the league by the narrowest of margins – goals scored.
Playing for the army side doesn’t have too much of an impact on the chances of being selected for the national side; forward Lee Jeong-hyup broke into the national team as the lone forward in a 4-5-1 formation despite playing for Sangju Sangmu in Korea’s second tier (and with a distinctly average goal record in that league too). However, it can have a massive effect on the other aspects of Korean footballers careers, especially as the years that they have to serve in the military often come at a time when they are at the peak of their sporting abilities.
Lee Keun-ho certainly isn’t a household name outside of Korea, but after helping Ulsan Hyundai win the Asian Champions League, and winning the Asian Footballer of the Year award in 2012, the former Gamba Osaka forward certainly would have had plenty of clubs interested in him. Instead, he had to join Sangju Sangmu and play for them for two of his prime years.
His salute to the crowd when he scored against Russia in the 2014 World Cup is standard for players on military service. What is less well-known is that while his teammates were on big money contracts in leagues around Europe and the Middle East, he was paid the standard ‘pocket-money’ wage that players on military service receive.
With the risk of losing players for two years during the peak of their careers, clubs may be more hesitant to sign Korean players due to the obvious loss in any resale value. For some players, such as Jeonbuk Motors midfielder Lee Jae-sung, a target of several Premier League sides, the military exemptions earned in Cardiff and Incheon may be the decisive factor in earning a move abroad.
Borussia Dortmund’s Park Joo-ho was on the verge of cutting his career in Germany short and returning to Korea to serve his military duty when he won exemption in the Asian Games. For players without exemptions, like Son Heung-min and Porto forward Suk Hyun-jun, military obligations hang like a sword over their heads, affecting any potential future transfer. Although other countries such as Finland and Israel have compulsory military service, there are few places where the obligations are as strictly enforced or as detrimental to a footballer’s career as South Korea.
There are ways to avoid military service, but these ways will almost certainly have negative consequences on any player’s life once their footballing career is over. Trying to draft-dodge is a quick way to earn pariah status in Korea, and celebrities are often made an example of. Attempts to earn dual citizenship in order to avoid military service have led to people having their passports cancelled and being permanently exiled from Korea.
Even if no official action is taken by the government, a player who has shunned his national service obligations is going to be hard to employ as a pundit in the public eye, or as a coach who is supposed to set a good example.
Former Monaco striker Park Chu-young, currently trying to revive his career at FC Seoul after his disastrous spell at Arsenal, is still an unpopular figure in Korea today due to alleged attempts to delay his military service. His long-term Monaco residency permit allowed him to delay his service, but even though he was still going to do his military service – just at a later date – the public backlash forced Park to backtrack and issue an apology. Ironically, he later earned exemption due to his bronze medal from the London Olympics.
Spurs fans will be hoping that national service obligations don’t get in the way of Son Heung-min’s Tottenham career. A medal at the upcoming Olympics would guarantee that they don’t. The inclusion of the Spurs midfielder as a wildcard will also improve the squad’s overall chances of a medal, and the future careers of the squad’s other players such as young Suwon Bluewings star Kwon Chang-hoon, who already looks set for big things in the future.
As a result, the Korean Football Association managed to work out a deal with Tottenham Hotspur which led to Son missing two recent internationals against Lebanon and Thailand in exchange for his services in Rio de Janeiro.
Earning an Olympic medal won’t be easy; along with Fiji, South Korea’s group stage opponents at the Olympics are Germany, the World Cup holders; and Mexico, the current Olympic champions. But if they can survive a tough group and get through to the knock-out stages they have a reasonable chance of matching their achievements in London and earning that crucial military exemption.
By Steve Price. Follow @kleaguefootball