Son Heung-min and Ben Davis face military service conundrum

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden sees a lot of similarities in South Korea and Singapore football when it comes to military service. Cue Son Heung-min and Ben Davis.

The issue of military service in Asia has been making headlines this week. There was excitement in Singapore as 17-year-old Benjamin Davis signed a two-year contract with Fulham, newly promoted to the English Premier League. The midfielder is not about to appear for the first team of the London club any time soon but the fuss is understandable with Singaporean players hard to find outside Southeast Asia.

With a British and Thai passport as well as the one from Singapore, Davis does have certain choices that other players faced with military service do not have but if he keeps his Singapore nationality then he is going to have to finish his conscription duties. His application to defer for his compulsory service was rejected by the Singapore Ministry of Defence. If he does choose to focus on Fulham, then he may well have to choose to lose his Singapore passport, much to the chagrin of some back in Southeast Asia.

“It’s not something we would want to consider, but at the end of the day, if it’s something that is put on the table and forced to consider if he’s not deferred, we have to make the decision to the best interest of our child,” his father Harvey Davis told Reuters. “People tell us it’s not a big deal, to come back (to Singapore), serve in the army and go back (to play in the Premier League). There is no going back, it doesn’t work like that,” he added.

There has been a big debate in Singapore as to what should be done and whether the player should be given a deferment or not. Some argue that he can perform a vital service for the country by becoming an English Premier League star others say that he should be treated no differently than anyone else.

It is a matter, of course, for the country and the people of Singapore but the issue of military service and football is a major one in South Korea too. Earlier this week, the country’s U-23 coach Kim Hak-bom named his squad for the 2018 Asian Games that start on August 14. Any coach deciding what players to take to a major tournament carries a burden of responsibility. Such stages can make or break the careers of players. Those that are left at home can be devastated.

For coach Kim, there is something else to think about. If the Taeguk Warriors win gold in Indonesia, then they will also win exemption from a 21-month period of military service that they are expected to start around the age of 28. The prize is a big one.

The headlines have obviously surrounded Son Heung-min. At the age of 26, time in Europe with Tottenham Hotspur is running out – a major setback in the career of a player who has had an excellent couple of seasons in the English Premier League. If Son does not win exemption in this Asian Games then he will have to start thinking about returning home in the next couple of years. It is obviously not an ideal situation for Asia’s biggest name player.

It is easy for those from outside of South Korea and Singapore to say that it should be just a case of a football player being able to get a deferment on his military service and do it when his career – which is shorter than average – is over.

For Son, he is playing at the highest level and coming home in the next year or two will likely end his European career. After two seasons in the K-League, there will be offers from Europe but when he is 30, it is unlikely that they will be at the same level he is at now. Or in the case of Davis, a postponement allows him to focus on trying to make his way into the first team of an English Premier League team.

But it is not that simple. There are millions of men in both countries who have no choice but to see their careers and/or education interrupted by the duty to their homelands. Just because the likes of Son choose to play football, it does not automatically follow that they should also be given a choice that most others do not. When Korean striker Park Chu-young tried to postpone his service period by ten years when at Arsenal in 2012, there was support at home but there was also fierce criticism. And in the case of Son, it is not like he will be performing sentry duty in the mountains of Gangwon Province when temperatures fall below minus 20 in the winter. He will be playing for the K-League’s military club Sangju Sangmu and while this is a no-frills football existence, there are worse ways to perform conscription.

This is not to say that football players should not receive deferment or be allowed to delay but that the situation in Singapore and South Korea is more complex than people may think.