As I’m sure we’re all aware, Son Heung-min currently has the spectre of national service hanging over him. As instructed by law, all South Korean men must enlist for 21 months in the armed forces before they turn 28. Son turns 28 in July 2020 which means that a military call-up would rule him out of the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons. His current contract with the club expires in June 2020. Make of that what you will.
However, as I’m sure we’re all also aware, exemptions can be granted by the South Korean government to sportspeople who excel at certain tournaments. The 2002 South Korean World Cup team, for example, were all excused their national service obligations when they reached the semi-final that year.
South Korea will obviously not be reaching the semi-final of this year’s World Cup so Son has two further ‘escape routes’ if he wishes to avoid national service.
The first of these is the 2018 Asian Games, due to take place in Indonesia in August and September later this year. Technically these games are restricted to players under the age of 23, but three over-age players are permitted and Son, as the current poster boy of South Korea, would be expected to fill one of these slots. The unfortunate thing here is that Son should already be exempt from national service as South Korea won the gold medal in the 2014 competition but, frustratingly, he did not take part in those games so exemption was not granted to him. Why did he not take part I hear you ask? Because his club at the time, Bayer Leverkusen, refused to allow him to participate. Furthermore, as FIFA do not acknowledge the Asian Games, Leverkusen escaped reprimand for their actions.
The second ‘escape route’ is the 2019 Asian Cup, due to take place in the United Arab Emirates in January and February next year. Unlike the 2014 Asian Games, Son did participate in the 2015 competition where South Korea made it to the final only to suffer the heartbreak of defeat to Australia. Son scored a 90th minute equaliser to send the tie into extra time, but Australia went on to win 2-1 and be crowned champions. So near and yet so far.
It is rumoured that there are legal loopholes that Son could exploit, due to the length of time he has spent living in Europe, but when Park Chu-young pulled such a trick in 2012 it did not go down well with the South Korean public and his popularity suffered heavily as a result. Sonny does not strike me as the sort of person who’d go down this route anyway, so if he wants to see his contract with the club extended it looks like he’s going to have to win gold at one of the two forthcoming tournaments. As it is clearly in Tottenham’s best interests not to see him called up for national service I’d be very surprised indeed if the club did a Leverkusen and refused to allow him to participate.
I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing Son the very best in both competitions as, not only is he a great character to have around the place, he’s also pretty useful when it comes to playing soccerball.