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29 Jun 2018

Tottenham set to lose Son Heung-min for long periods next season

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Delaying the inevitable

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Looking for an out

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A bit of a bind

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Could it all end in tears?

REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

The 2018 World Cup has been a mixed bag for Son Heung-min. 

The disappointment of being eliminated from the competition after two straight losses was tinged with sheer delight at beating Germany in their final group game. 

However, as Son transitions from international to domestic football, the 2018/19 season could prove to be the most important of his career so far. 

Although the media are linking the forward with Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, this is the least of his worries. There is also the small matter of his military service to consider.

Delaying the inevitable

When South Korea implemented the 1949 Military Service Act in 1957, it heralded the start of compulsory service which lasts two years for those aged 18-35. 

Fast forward to the modern day, military service is still mandatory. Crucially, it must be carried out before a person's 28th birthday. Son turns 26 in July.

REUTERS/John Sibley

Dodging military service in South Korea is not an option. Celebrities have been vilified by the public and authorities for trying to do so. For most, the best approach is to take the military service rather than risk ruining their career. 

The authorities also take a dim view towards people avoiding military service through conscientious objection, leading to several hundred people being imprisoned in recent years.

Looking for an out

At times, athletes have gained exemptions from military service by notable sporting achievements: winning gold in the Asian Games, winning the World Cup or a medal in the Olympic Games. 

Son had the opportunity to win a medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio but South Korea were beaten 1-0 by Honduras in the quarter-finals. 

REUTERS/John Sibley

The only chance for Son to gain exemption from military service, then, is at the Asian Games which will be held in Indonesia between the 18th August-2nd September. 

This mean Spurs will be without the winger for four games, one of which comes against Manchester United at Old Trafford on August 25th.

A bit of a bind

This puts the North London club in a tough bind. 

His absence would be keenly felt by Spurs who relied on Son at times last season: the South Korean scoring 18 goals and creating 11 assists.

Losing Son for a period might force manager Mauricio Pochettino into the transfer market but it will be hard to find a player that can match Son’s abilities.

 REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

To further compound things for Spurs, the Asian Cup is being held in January 2019. Asia's showpiece event, South Korea haven’t won the competition since 1960 but, in Son, have arguably the best player in Asia. 

With it being a FIFA-recognised tournament, domestic clubs are required to release players to their country's squad if picked. Worryingly for Spurs, this would see Son missing six games.

Could it all end in tears?

In the wake of South Korea’s sensational win against Germany, there has been a petition among South Koreans for Son to be awarded an exemption from military service. 

Whether the government will agree is uncertain at this point but some have suggested they could relax the requirements so that the national team would only need to win a medal at the Asian Games rather than gold to avoid military service.

REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

However, as the Guardian highlighted earlier this month, there have been whispers of Spurs trying to soften the blow next season. 

It’s been rumoured they might strike a deal with South Korea's football association (KFA) to let Son play in the Asian Games (which isn't an FIFA recognised event) but not take part in the Asian Cup. 

Should this agreement come into fruition, it will incur the wrath of the Asian Football Confederation as the Asian Cup would be deprived of their star attraction.

A slippery slope awaits for Son, Spurs and South Korea. It will take an act of escapology that would make Houdini proud if each party ends up happy. 

Then again, it could all end in tears.

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