Lee Keun Ho

Korean Lee Keun Ho poses with the AFC Player of The Year 2012 trophy.

Lee Keun-Ho isn’t one of football’s household names, but Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United supporters know very well who Japanese international Shinji Kagawa is.

The connection?

As dynamic attacking midfielders both are co-winners of last year’s Asian Player of the Year award, but while Shinji made global headlines scoring goals (a hat trick against Norwich City) at Old Trafford last spring, Lee began his new season at a second tier Korean team.

This situation was not due to a lack of talent, indeed journalist John Duerden described Lee’s performance in securing the 2012 Asian Champions League title for his then South Korean club Ulsan Hyundai as “swashbuckling”. Yet instead of plying his trade with the best in Europe -having been the target of many interested top flight clubs – Lee is now undergoing a mandatory two year term in the South Korean military.

Between drills, Lee currently turns out for Sangmu Sangju – a team of other conscripted players ‘on loan’ to the K League Challenge outfit. Undoubtedly, this level of competition is a drastic step down and, as a consequence, Lee’s form hasn’t been the same. It hasn’t prevented him from getting called up to play for Korea, but the question remains: “what if…?” When his term in the military is finished, Lee will be close to 30 years old, and well off the top of his game.

South Korea qualified for the World Cup despite a loss to Iran in June. It was emblematic of just how unconvincing they had looked during qualification with Uzbekistan unlucky not to pip them to a place at Brasil 2014. Coach Choi Kang-Hee immediately resigned following the game, making way for Hong Myong-Bo, regarded highly for steering the Taeguk Warriors to their first Olympic football medal. Add to that fact he captained the epic 2002 World Cup squad and it’s easy to see why Korean supporters are finding reason for optimism. But a decade since Hong’s side achieved their miraculous World Cup semi-final appearance – a first for an Asian team – the continent’s most successful program is wrestling with an existential crisis, rooted in the simmering sixty year cold war with North Korea that threatens to derail efforts to become an international footballing power.

In stark contrast, Japanese players face no such military draft limiting their options in leaving the domestic J-League for the spotlight of Europe. Then again, they don’t have a hostile nuclear-armed neighbour bordering within 35 miles of their capital. Shinji, along with Honda Keisuke are but a few of the marquee players who have migrated to the West. The result: more players sharpening skills brought back to the Blue Samurais that enhances Japan’s bona fides.

It’s not a secret both countries employ an ‘export abroad’ strategy in that cross-pollinating test tube of European competition to gain an edge. When it comes to Asian nations exporting players though, strictly as a numbers game, Japan is winning. The number of Japanese in European top flights called up recently equals 14. The number of Koreans is 7. That 2:1 ratio illustrates this off-balance trajectory.

This sense of angst wasn’t always so. In 2002, the World Cup co-host country poured into the streets, erupting in joy as Korea astounded all observers by dispatching Portugal, Italy and Spain en route to their first World Cup semi-final. Though they eventually succumbed to Germany, they captured the imagination of millions still coming to grips with their evolution as a new democracy. In all the elation, an opportunity of a lifetime was bestowed on the ‘heroes’ of 2002: full military exemption. Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo took their cue and eventually went to PSV, paving the newest wave of Koreans to reach a higher profile stage in Europe.

In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the South Korea advanced to the round of 16, their first progression outside of Asia. Immediately the Korean FA recommended military exemption for this team. Arguing on behalf teammates, Ji-Sung told reporters that the squad should be exempted to raise the bar in Korea; “More players with European experience makes us stronger and sharper.” Then-national coach Huh Jung-moo seconded his advice, “Many players want to play in big leagues in Europe but cannot because of military service.” One time presidential candidate and ex-Korean FA president Chung Moon-Joon: “We need the public’s opinion. I hope we can talk about it more after the World Cup.”

Those talks never happened and unlike the euphoria that followed in 2002, the mood of the country shifted; the chilling effect following the North Korean torpedo attack on South Korean naval vessel Cheonan that year in which 46 sailors perished.

Koreans are divided on granting military exemptions, despite the goodwill at home and international spotlight 2002 brought. Besides national security, some argue that it’s an equity issue. If the average person has to give up valuable time to the military with little compensation, why do others get special treatment? It’s an incredibly polarizing subject, only made more so with some high-profile celebrities caught in the headlines evading military service.

Still, supporters point out that without a solution, Koreans are being held back in this world stage. Without exemption, players aren’t as marketable to clubs. It’s ‘game over’ when their number comes up, just when they reach their prime.

In March 2012, Park Chu-Young was already under pressure with few opportunities at Arsenal when reports surfaced revealing a 10-year deferment arranged during his stint at AS Monaco which had allowed him to delay military duty until age 35. A scandal emerged back home with Park under fire for unpatriotic behaviour, aka ‘draft dodging’, despite the fact that the deferment was approved by the South Korean government several years ago. He made a full apology to the nation, insisting he always planned to fulfil his obligations at career’s end. In the aftermath, the effects were chilling. Cha Bum Kun, a pioneering larger-than-life legend for his 98 goals scored in the Bundesliga from 1978-1989 was himself not immune from criticism after offering an opinion on Park Chu and was eventually forced to issue a mea culpa.

It’s difficult to elicit any comment from players or from the Korean FA about solutions, alternatives, or any kind of flexibility on conscription rules to advance football in Korea. Talking with the Korean FA spokesperson Cha Young-il recently in a bit of historical scrubbing, he denied that they ever advocated exemption for players in 2010. Insisting that it was a “sensitive topic” he urged me politely to not write about the issue. Sensing the political winds, many now believe it’s taboo to even have a discussion. Last April with Cardiff City en route to promotion to the Premier League, I sat down with Kim Bo-Kyung, the Bluebirds midfielder. He acknowledged the importance of his own tournament-win exemption, a likely factor in his transfer to Europe from Asia. When asked about his thoughts concerning flexibility with conscription rules to ensure more Koreans could compete in Europe, his interpreter and handler sensed a dangerous off-limits topic. Eventually he shut the interview down, literally invoking Chu-Young’s name in steering Kim away. This is the tense atmosphere surrounding the elephant in the room.

Despite all that, Lee Young-Pyo, then with Vancouver Whitecaps (and newly retired last November), was one of the few willing to publicly stick up for Park. “It is not like he is totally evading,” he told the media, “This is not about right or wrong. There is nothing Chu-Young can do for the country if he goes to serve immediately. He can do more for his country as a footballer.”

Ironically Park’s deferment was rendered moot when he scored the crucial game winner in the Summer Olympic Bronze match in August of 2012; oh yes, that’s the other way to get exemption, any Olympic medal or an Asian Gold medal. In this case, the victory against rival Japan capped the exclamation point on an incredibly vital win. NBC Sport’s Jeff Kassouf observed, “For South Korea, a medal really isn’t the prize. The chance for players to better control their future is the real reward.”

Hong Myong-Bo left no doubts on the magnitude of what exemption meant, not only for his players but in advancing “the development of Korean football”. Several players, including Ki Sung-Yeung (Sunderland) and Koo Ja-Cheol (Wolfsburg) and the aforementioned Kim Bo-Kyung are among this new generation who are navigating their careers at top flight European clubs, thanks in large part to several ounces of metal around their necks.

Only two Korean squads, a decade apart, have earned full exemption via tournaments. This is also part of the quandary. There’s so much riding on that narrow window offered every couple of years -with no guarantees. Case in point: Ryu Seung-Woo. The 19 year old Korean international impressed scouts in last summer’s Under-20 World Cup, their jaws to the floor witnessing Ryu launch a brilliant volley that rocketed inside Portugal’s net during a group match. Borussia Dortmund came knocking, offering Ryu a contract in July. There aren’t many who refuse an opportunity from Jurgen Klopp, the ‘hipster’ coach who took Borussia to the brink of a European Championship. Ryu did. It was a surreal rejection, made a week after what looked like a done deal.

What happened?

Some opaque statements from Ryu’s camp indicated he didn’t feel ready. The real reason may again lie with complications surrounding conscription. Theory: if he didn’t get many minutes with Borussia Dortmund initially, he might not get included in Korea’s 2015 Asia Cup squad, where a gold medal could offer the holy grail of exemption. For now, another opportunity lost. (Update: recently, just days after joining Jeju United, Ryu flew to Germany for a limited loan to Bayer Leverkusen. He has less than a year to make a name for himself for the Bundesliga outfit before he has to go all out for Gold in the Asia Cup. The margin for error is very thin.)

Bright spots to ward off pessimism: Son Heung-Min. New acquisition for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, the 21 year old forward had a breakout double digit season for Hamburg last year, and with seven goals already in, is on track for yet another productive year. Three Korean teens in Barcelona’s youth academy has La Masia watchers buzzing; the Catalan media openly asks, “Could Lee Seung-Woo be the next Messi”? Deflating that balloon, all these players have directly on their horizon -you guessed it – military time- unless they win the right trophies…and soon.

The 160 mile long DMZ dividing the peninsula remains the most militarized region on the planet, the vestiges of the bloody Korean War. Sixty years after the armistice was signed, clearly there are unresolved issues. The challenge of changing the current paradigm has only gotten more difficult as tensions with North Korea fluctuates -and with it, hopes for an open dialogue within the South Korean public on ways to balance national security concerns while advancing the larger ambitions of their national football program.

Several thousand miles to the east, illusive balance actually exists within another hotly contested quasi war zone. Israel would describe their situation in the Middle East as an existential struggle, which might explain why they have one of the strictest military conscription laws on record. Others might see that rationale as necessary to maintain an occupation. Regardless, if you’re going to have a military draft -and still strive to be internationally football competitive, this could be a template.

Talking with Israeli FA spokesperson Michal Grundland, she confirmed that nobody gets exempted – even the reluctant ultra-orthodox are now scheduled to serve. However, the Israeli military and the IFA negotiate yearly to set a quota – a set number of players that are deemed “excellent soldiers” and allowed to play football -whether in Israel or in Europe – virtually uninterrupted. But it’s military service that’s deferred in piecemeal: when they can, during summer breaks, or after career’s end, they must finish their time. There’s been no whiff of controversy -the Israeli public has been largely supportive.

Inevitably a day will come when European and South American hegemony is shattered. Perhaps that magical potential of lifting the elusive Coupe de Monde can materialize even from a county such as Korea – but it’s much more difficult to imagine that possibility while the status quo exists, a tragic legacy that continues to divide the country.

By Roy Ghim

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona