Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Korea's football team should be exempt from military service, no matter what

How many Olympic sports can sell out a 70 000 capacity stadium?

Preface: Korean male athletes are exempt from military service if they win an Olympic medal. Otherwise, they must serve for 2 years before the age of 29 (which conveniently coincides with the prime of a footballer's career).

Not all Olympic sports are equal. Some medals are much harder to obtain than others.

For example, football. Football is different. It just is.

Olympic football is a 2-week tournament that begins before the Opening Ceremonies and ends with the gold medal match on the eve of the Closing Ceremonies. Any team that wins a medal will have played 6 hard-fought matches, each of which were at least 90 minutes long.

It's quite ludicrous how all that effort only adds up to one medal for a team, whereas a swimmer can rack up multiple golds in just a few days.

There are already certain sports that give out 2 bronze medals, such as Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Wrestling, and Boxing. The difference between third place and fourth place is completely arbitrary, and no different than, say, distinguishing between fifth and sixth place. It's just our culture's bias towards the number 3.

I'm not saying this because I fear that Korea will finish 4th. I think they'll play Brazil very hard, and if they don't beat them, they are certainly more than capable of beating Japan or Mexico for the bronze.

But if after all this, Korea ends up losing the next couple of matches to finish 4th and, thus, become ineligible for military service exemption, then I'll be absolutely gutted. And so will an entire country. It would be the absolute cruelest ending to what has been the most rousing Korean football experience since the 2002 World Cup.

People are notorious for wanting to have contradictory things. They want low taxes but lots of government services. Men want to sleep around but have chaste women for wives. And (some) Koreans want football players to be treated like everybody else, but they also want to keep up with the rest of the world in the sport, especially Japan.

Korea's the only football country in the world that handicaps itself by forcing the early retirement of its players. If its ambitions are modest, then so be it. But it's not. Korea dreams of becoming a very good footballing nation. It can't do that when every Korean footballer's career basically ends at the young age of 27.

Perhaps there are lots of bitter citizens who don't want superstar footballers to get opportunities that most Korean men don't have. But if so, then I hope they're also perfectly okay with being merely a regional power, and falling more and more behind Japan.

Korea's already made national history by progressing to the semis in Olympic football. If they beat Brazil, then everything I said won't matter, at least not for another generation. But what if they don't? Is there that big a difference between 3rd and 4th place? Is the government really going to stunt the careers of perhaps the most promising generation of Korean footballers ever just because of a totally arbitrary human predilection for the number 3?

Ah, just go and beat Brazil.

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