The pressure of winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games is hard enough as it is.
But imagine if winning said gold not only delivered glory for you and your glory, but it also ensured you would be exempt from completing mandatory military service.
It might sound strange, but that’s exactly the scenario that faces male sporting stars from South Korea: win gold at the Olympics, Asian Games or another significant event before your 28th birthday and you will be given a free pass to skip the majority of your military service. Don’t, and you’ll serve 18 months and have to pause your sporting career – irrespective of the damage that causes.
Some, like Tottenham ace Son Heung-min, get lucky. He was part of the South Korea squad that won the 2018 Asian Games, so he only had to do three weeks of service – when the global health crisis struck in 2020, Son took the chance to complete his military requirements….without missing a single game of football.
Others may prove less fortunate. PSG midfielder Lee Kang-in is at the 2023 Asian Games knowing that he only has a few more chances to strike gold prior to his 28th birthday, while Si-Woo Kim – the 40th best golfer on the planet according to the world rankings – is literally in the last chance saloon after turning 28 prior to the Asian Games in China.
If Si-Woo fails to win, he will basically have to forego his golf career, give up millions of dollars and become at one with his rifle as opposed to his driver.
Other countries have similarly stringent rules on their mandatory military service requirements, so which famous sports stars have had to put their careers on hold in the line of duty?
It wasn’t until 2004 that Italy finally relaxed its military service programme, meaning that several stars of yesteryear have been forced to swap tam buses for tanks.
One of them was Paolo Maldini, regarded by many to be one of the greatest defenders of all time. He served a mandatory 12-month period with the forces, but unlike the South Korean contingent there is less military rigour – in fact, Maldini and others, such as Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and Alessandro del Piero, very rarely slipped into fatigues at all, and were not required to live on-site in the barracks.
In fact, it sounds like a fairly cushy number, relatively speaking, and it’s amazing how often the players’ call ups would coincide with the World Military Cup, which Vialli and Ciro Ferrera helped to win in 1987. Del Piero and Fabio Cannavaro, embarrassingly, were sent off as the Italians lost to Cyprus at the same tournament in 1995.
Sir Bobby Charlton
‘Bring back national service,’ is a cry you’ll hear from disgruntled pensioners in England when a news story breaks of a younger person getting up to no good.
Military service was phased out in England in 1960, but that was too late for a number of talented young players in English football, who had to serve an 18-month period.
Amongst them was Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton, who would later be knighted for his services to the Red Devils and football in England. In the late 1950s, he was just breaking into the United first team – but he was still sent off to serve in Shrewsbury alongside his teammate Duncan Edwards.
The pair were trained by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, a base close enough to Manchester that they could still head back to Old Trafford and play at the weekends!
In France, individuals of note had a little more freedom in when they completed their military service – Eric Cantona, a player of incredible promise, decided to get his out of the way as an 18-year-old just breaking through at French club Auxerre.
That effectively wiped out his 1984 as a footballer, but Cantona would bounce back and enjoy a stellar career in his native France and England – he remains one of the greatest players in Manchester United history.
Ever the maverick, Cantona retired from football at the age of 30 – he fancied a crack at Hollywood instead.
Spare a though for poor old Teemu Tainio.
As a 16-year-old, he was a hot prospect – earning a trial at the Sir Alex Ferguson led Manchester United.
Tainio impressed the club’s hierarchy and was about to be signed….until the Finnish military called and told him he had been selected for national service.
His dream move fell through, and while he still enjoyed a decent career that included a stint at Tottenham, Tainio will forever be left to ponder what might have been.
Although not a household name in world golf, it’s a case of what might have been for Sang-moon Bae too.
After impressing on the Japan Golf Tour, Bae made the move to the PGA TOUR – winning twice in golf’s blue riband division back in 2013 and 2014. But with golf, at that time, not part of the Olympic Games schedule and his work visa coming to an end, the South Korean was forced to head home and miss two years of action.
He has since returned to full-time golf, winning on the Korn Ferry Tour – the second-rung of golf in North America, but Bae has failed to hit the same heights as before his military service, which is a real shame.