South Korean World Cup players have received the overwhelming sympathy of the Korean public, with many feeling squad members face being “punished” for failing to reach the second round by being forced to complete military service.
Korean law dictates that young men between the ages of 18 and 35 must report for two years of national service, as per the Military Service Act of 1949.
There have been many instances of successful athletes being exempted from the requirement – notably Olympic medalists, members of the South Korean World Baseball Classic roster and the 2002 FIFA World Cup team that reached the semifinals.
However, despite the team’s Wednesday victory that led to the elimination of defending champion Germany, it’s unlikely that the reward will be extended this time around, potentially affecting the sporting careers of several players.
“It is totally unfair,” Korean fan Kim Chul-Seung, a recruiter from Seoul, told USA TODAY Sports in Moscow on Thursday. “They are punished by being forced to do this. It will hurt the performance of the team in the future.”
Kim’s comments were echoed with a petition launched on the official presidential website of Korean leader Moon Jae-In, which read, in part, that “(the players) gave us so much hope and their talent should not be wasted in the military.”
However, the Korean government has given no indication it would be willing to waive the rule about joining the military – where conscripts must live on around $150 per month – for the soccer players. Indeed, it has hardened its stance towards exemptions in recent times, and several well-known athletes and Korean pop stars are currently serving in the forces.
One of the players most likely to be affected is Korea’s best player, Son Heung-Min, a star with Tottenham in the English Premier League, reported to earn in excess of $5 million per season.
A potential get-out for Son and the rest of the Korean team could be to play in – and win – the Asian Games soccer tournament later in the summer. However, the players’ European club teams are not required to release them for that event, given that it is not officially sanctioned by FIFA.
Many thought the government would respond to the triumph over Germany by granting a reprieve, and public and media sentiment is firmly behind the team. “We are so proud of you,” read the banner headline in popular newspaper Dong-Ah Daily.
However, South Korea prime minister Lee Nak-Yeon declined to do so, merely saying that the result showed that “really beat our imagination.”