SEOUL — He sobbed in the locker room after a World Cup loss to Mexico. He raced into the arms of joyous teammates after scoring a late goal that sealed Germany’s stunning early exit from the tournament.
He humbly apologized after South Korea failed to advance into the round of 16 in Russia.
Now comes the really hard part for Son Heung-min and many other players on South Korea’s national soccer team: possibly putting aside their career to take part in mandatory military service of at least 21 months.
It’s a fact of life for young South Korean men that even fame or accolades cannot stop.
Well, except sometimes.
A South Korean law exempts military service for winners of any Olympic medals and for those who take first place at the Asian Games. There is no such provision for the World Cup, however.
Petitions have surfaced on the website of South Korea’s presidential office calling for the government to waive military service for Son and some other stars of the national team. (South Korea’s soccer team took the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and its players got a pass for military service.)
The bar is high for an official government response. The petitions have to hit 200,000 pledges of support and were far below that mark on Saturday.
Yet it says something of the shifting views on the military obligations as President Moon Jae-in seeks to put rapprochement with North Korea on the fastest track possible.
Moon last year unveiled a five-year plan to reduce the mandatory military service period to 18 months, but some conservatives and defense hawks claim it is far too early to make changes before there is clear evidence of military rollbacks by Kim Jong Un’s regime.
On Thursday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced a significant change to the rigid military conscription policies, saying it would soon allow conscientious objectors to do some form of alternative service, the Reuters news agency reported.
The appeals for Son and some teammates may go nowhere. Still, nothing is certain where sports are concerned. South Korea takes pride in its baseball players making the U.S. big leagues, and the national soccer team is hugely popular.
Moon, while holding talks in Russia last week, cut away to watch South Korea’s 2-1 loss to Mexico on June 23 at Rostov-on-Don. In the locker room, the South Korean president tried to console a weeping Son, who scored in the final moments of the match.
“I can serve in the military twice if it means that the 50 million citizens of South Korea will be able to enjoy soccer,” one person wrote on the presidential Blue House website on behalf of Son, who plays for Tottenham in England’s Premier League.
In Britain, one Tottenham Hotspur fan wryly suggested how they could do their bit: dividing up Son's military service among the season-ticket holders.