Special military service for Asian Games, Son Heung-min survives, but Lee Kang-in?

Special military service for Asian Games, Son Heung-min survives, but Lee Kang-in?

Military service benefits for Europeans, a money game with tens of billions at stake
Why Lee Kang-In and PSG are focused on winning gold at the Asian Games

Lee Kang-jin’s highly anticipated call-up to the Asian Games has come to an end. Lee arrived in Hangzhou, China, on the afternoon of Sept. 21. Initially, Lee’s departure was not finalized until the 14th, two days before Hwang Seon Hong-ho left for Hangzhou. Five years ago, Son Heung-min’s departure from the Asian Games was similarly painful, but the deal between the Korean Football Association and Tottenham was dramatically finalized just over a month before the first game. Lee’s club, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), only sent the final letter on March 15, four days before the first match.

South Korea’s Lee Kang-in dribbles during an exhibition match against Uruguay at the Seoul World Cup Stadium on March 28. Yonhap

Without the Asian Games gold medal five years ago, there would be no Son Heung-min or Kim Min-jae.

As you can see, there is always a process involved in sending a European team to the Asian Games. The higher the skill and value of the athlete, the more difficult it is. When Lee Kang-in left Mallorca for PSG in France in June, he already had a general agreement with his club to be sent to the Asian Games. The problem was that it was a largely non-binding clause that didn’t specify when and for how long. From PSG’s point of view, it was in the team’s interest to send him as late as possible.

While the Olympic Games are organized by FIFA, 스포츠토토 the Asian Games are organized by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) with some cooperation in terms of sending referees. FIFA’s compulsory loan clause does not apply. As a result, European soccer clubs that have no connection to the Asian Games are not likely to respond positively to the KFA’s request for a loan. This is because they are in the middle of their season and would have to send a player away for more than three weeks.

The players, on the other hand, are in a different position. South Korea is a country with conscription-based military service. They have to serve 18 months in Korea. It’s not exactly 18 months. In order to enlist in the Armed Forces Athletic Corps (Sangsang), you must have been playing in the K League for six months before applying. If the timing of your discharge does not coincide with the player registration period (transfer market), you will have to stay in Korea for up to five more months. The actual gap is more than two years, and it can seriously damage your continuity as a European player.

A prime example of a player whose European career was interrupted by this issue is Kwon Chang-hoon. He landed in France (Dijon) and Germany (Freiburg), but was unable to continue his European career due to military service. Freiburg initially wanted to sign him to a four-year contract, but due to his military service, he signed a two-year plus two-year (option) deal, and Kwon ended up returning to the K League after only two seasons. With his military service issue resolved by joining a commercial organization, Kwon actively knocked on the door of Europe this summer, but was unable to open it again. His time away from the game has changed the way he is viewed, and interest in the 30-year-old has cooled.

A long run in Europe, or even a chance to break through the biggest barrier to entry, military service, requires more than an Asian Games gold or Olympic bronze medal. In soccer, the general consensus is that an Asian Games gold medal is far more attainable than an Olympic bronze. In fact, it’s dizzying to think about what would have happened to Son Heung-min and Kim Min-jae if they hadn’t won gold at the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games. Son Heung-min would have had to return to Korea in 2019 at the latest to play in the K League and pursue a commercial career. Depending on the circumstances, he could have stayed in Korea until the end of 2021, which would have denied him the glory of the 2021-22 season, when he became the first Asian to win the Premier League’s top scorer title.

Kim Min-jae would also be forced to return to the K League without his Asian Games gold medal. After just one season in Europe’s big leagues, he was recognized as world-class by being named one of the 30 finalists for the Ballon d’Or award, which recognizes the world’s best players, but he could have left Europe for nothing. Even a move to Bayern Munich, the world’s most expensive club in Asia (€50 million-approximately $71.5 billion), was out of the question. Even a move to Napoli last year would have been difficult. In that case, it would have been impossible for Kim Min-jae’s skills to be properly tested in Europe.

Lee, who was born in 2001, still has some time before the issue of military service comes into play, but he has focused on the Hangzhou Asian Games to get it out of the way early. The resolution of the Korean player’s military service issue will ultimately benefit European clubs as well. The current trend in European soccer is that players peak in value in their early to mid-20s. Naturally, their transfer fees will go upwards based on their skills up until that point. Son Heung-min cost €30 million (approximately $40.8 billion) when he moved from Leverkusen to Tottenham in 2015, and Lee Kang-in cost €22 million (approximately $31 billion) when he joined PSG from Mallorca this summer. Kim Min-jae became the highest transfer fee in Asian history.

South Korea’s Son Heung-min celebrates with the gold medal after winning the men’s football final at the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games in Indonesia, Sept. 1, 2018. Yonhap

There are also many who believe that the military service exemption system itself should be changed.

It could lead to a situation where a team pays a huge transfer fee of 30 to 40 billion won to sign a player and then has to let him go without completing his contract. This is the biggest risk for European teams interested in signing Korean players. It’s also a barrier to signing Korean players for the long term. In Lee’s case, at his current rate of growth, his transfer fee is expected to more than double in two to three years, and if the military service issue is not resolved, no team will be willing to pay that much for a player whose future is beyond the age of 27. Players born in 1999, such as Jung Woo-young, who plays for Stuttgart in Germany, and Hong Hyun-seok, who has emerged as an ace for Ghent in Belgium, are participating in the Hangzhou Asian Games because the issue will become a reality sooner rather than later.

On the other hand, some argue that the current military service exemption system is showing its limits. Five years ago, Tottenham sent Son Heung-min to the Asian Games with the condition that he could skip one A-match call-up and participate in the Asian Cup group stage from the third round. This time, Lee Kang-jin’s PSG demanded similar terms from the Korean Football Association at the last minute. In the case of key players, European clubs are not willing to let them go for nothing. This complicates the issue of what to do after the Asian Games gold medal. In the case of Son Heung-min, the Asian Games gold medal extinguished the flames, but he was unable to focus on the Asian Cup, which he was obligated to play in.

As the European field expands, their stature rises, and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to be called up for the Asian Games, there are some who believe that the current military service exemption should be revised. Some suggestions include converting A-match appearances, World Cups, and Asian Cups into points to qualify for military service rather than achieving a high standard of performance in a specific tournament, or delaying military service until the late 30s. In fact, European countries with conscription, such as Tunisia, Greece, and Israel, have made early moves to replace it with contributions, taxes, or service in sports-related units.

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