With the ball at his feet and space to probe, there’s little that can stop Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-min. The attacker’s dashes towards goal are faster than internet download speeds in his native South Korea. There is one thing, however, that may just bar the 22-year-old’s path to European domination, and that’s his country’s mandatory military service. Able-bodied males must start their 21-month tour of duty by the time they are 28, a commitment that already hangs over ‘Sonaldo’s’ ascent in the soccer world.
This is a player who, at the age of 20, compelled Bayer to pay around $15 million for his services two years ago. Since that move, the young Korean has become a vital part of Leverkusen’s squad, scoring 10 league goals in his first full season and 11 thus far this year, with five more to boot in the Champions League. Not bad for someone who spends much of his time far wide of goal.
Even though the star is still two months shy of his 23rd birthday, his military service is no longer simply lurking around the edges of his future. Though he has plenty of time to win trophies in Europe, that looming commitment means a club spending big money on him now would struggle to recoup much of that cash down the road. While military service for soccer players is better than standing on snow-covered mountains facing the border with North Korea (you can, after all, play for the army team, Sangju Sangmu), it is still a far cry from the bright lights of Europe. Some speculate Son’s star power will earn him a reprieve from the government, but as of now, that’s highly unlikely.
If your career in Europe is going to be limited in time, it’s best to start early. Son did exactly that, making his debut for Hamburg at 18, two years after arriving in Germany. His pace was always there, of course, but the control? At the time, not so much. As with so many young players, he was still raw. Consistency was a problem, but at times, the beautiful flashes of what could be were undeniable.
Able to play at any position along the attack line but best coming from deep and wide, Son soon made a name for himself with his runs and fierce shots from around the edge of area. In the early days, Son tended to start seasons on fire before fading as the Gluhwein grew cold, but when that changed, bigger clubs came calling. Borussia Dortmund, a team Son has become accustomed to scoring against, was interested, but he was concerned about a lack of first team opportunities. Before coming to terms with Bayer, there had been stories about interest from Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
Now those stories are starting return, even if the wind has been somewhat taken out of his sails by January’s Asian Cup. Heading all the way to Australia with South Korea, Son fell ill with a mystery virus before recovering in time to lead his team to the final. There he scored a fine last-minute equalizer against the hosts in front of 80,000, though Korea eventually lost in extra time. In the process, however, Son confirmed his status as one of the continent’s most exciting players.
For club and country, he has seemed a little tired since, reflecting a very busy 12 months. After all, he was Korea’s best player at the World Cup last June, then starred in both the Bundesliga and Champions League before a grueling continental tournament on the other side of the world. Since the end of the last Bundesliga season, between his appearances for club and country, Son has played 61 games, scoring 21 goals.
At this point, Son clearly needs a rest, but this summer could still prove a busy one, if transfer rumors are anything to go by. There are frequent links to Liverpool, though plenty of other clubs are keeping an eye on one of the few Asian stars to really distinguish himself at Europe’s highest levels.
Distant as it might seem, interested teams will need to factor in his military service, or perhaps just assume he’ll find a way around the obligation. South Korean legends Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo won exemption as a prize for reaching the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup. The same awaits for those who win any medal at the Olympics (and the Korean team did just that in London 2012, taking bronze to ensure a whole new raft of exempt players, such as Swansea City’s Ki Sung-yeung) or gold at the Asian Games, an honor Korea claimed on home soil last September.
Son missed that tournament, even though Korea’s coaching staff wanted him to play. But Bayer wanted him, too, and with the Asian Cup just four months away, Son’s club refused to let him play two faraway tournaments in one season. There’s still time in Rio in 2016, the 2018 Asian Games and perhaps Tokyo in 2020 for Son to earn his exemption, assuming they continue to be granted. At this point, however, that is not a given.
There’s also the Park Chu-young route. Park, a big star in his homeland, left the K-League for Monaco in 2008 at the age of 23. Always wanting to play for a seriously big club in Europe, he joined Arsenal in 2011 to the surprise of many, and not just because of his level of perceived ability. It seemed strange to join a club that Park, then 26, would have to leave shortly after to fulfill his military obligation.
But the player had an ace up his sleeve, one he produced in March 2012. In Monaco he obtained a ten-year residency visa which his lawyers managed to use, via a little-known legal loophole, to postpone his service by a decade. It left those at home unhappy at another example of the rich and famous using their status to get privileges not available to the average man. Park’s reputation there has never recovered, though ironically, that summer he won total exemption at the Olympics.
It could be that Son will use a similar loophole. There’s no reason take that route now, as there is still time to claim an exemption, but as a last resort? It’s possible. Delaying military service would still be controversial, but not being the first helps. If Son can approach his situation in a more intelligent and sensitive way than Park, it might make a difference in the public’s eye, especially if he continues excelling at the highest level.
There is still a long time before Son has to come home, but unless something special happens, he will have to return. And unless something changes, that return could disrupt the prime playing days of one of Asia’s brightest stars.