Son got out of national service by leading his country to victory in the football tournament at the Asian Games last weekend, and judging by the scenes of unabashed celebration at the end of South Korea’s extra-time win over Japan, there was no guilt or shame on the part of Son and his less famous teammates at skipping on their national duty. “I think this is the best day of my life,” said Son afterwards, looking to a future spent running the channels at White Hart Lane rather than keeping sentry on the border with North Korea.
Neither was the average South Korean dismayed that Son wouldn’t have to face down Kim Jong-un’s nukes. Once firmly in favour of military service, South Korean attitudes towards conscription have softened in recent times, particularly among the young, some of whom petitioned to do Son’s stint for him so that he may continue his football career.
Elsewhere views on forcing citizens into uniform are mixed. “Bring back national service!” was a cry you used to hear from the likes of Alf Garnett and Basil Fawlty in 1970s British sitcoms, reflecting the once-popular view that the nation’s youth would only be saved from moral turpitude by being taught how to march in straight lines and wear uncomfortable clothing.
Thankfully, as bonkers as Britain has become of late, there hasn’t been a noticeable call for the return of conscription. Granted, there was a discussion on This Morning a few months ago headlined ‘Should We Bring Back National Service?’, but then they also recently featured such topics as ‘I Want To Marry A Ghost’ and ‘Meet Britain’s Sexiest Cow’, so I’m not sure Holly and Phil are a good barometer.
In fairness, a YouGov poll in February revealed that a slight majority of Britons were in favour of bringing back national service, aside from the ones who would actually have to do it. Groups in favour included the over-50s and Conservative and UKIP voters, adding to the list of crackpot priorities those demographics have championed lately.
But the young had no interest in trading unpaid tech internships for compulsory rifle assembly — 18 to 24-year-olds polled were against the idea by a margin of 62% to 10%, with the remaining don’t knows presumably too stupid to be allowed in anyway.
Essentially, like Son Heung-min, most sensible young Brits wanted to ignore the national call to arms in favour of doing something more pleasant and profitable, which pretty much sums up recent problems facing the Irish soccer team. Draft-dodging of a different kind has been bothering our own national cause, with Declan Rice and Harry Arter bailing out as conscientious objectors.
Given that Martin O’Neill’s main managerial reference point is Brian Clough, another 1970s cultural icon, how he too must secretly wish conscription could be introduced to bring these lousy peaceniks to heel.
In fact, judging by what seems to go on in the Ireland camp, the Full Metal Jacket atmosphere is already in place. Roy Keane is clearly adopting the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the boot camp drill instructor who reduces recruits to tears with the sharp end of his tongue. It’s been suggested that in Sergeant Keane’s tough love worldview, certain players are seen as bespectacled weaklings to be psychologically broken down and rebuilt as buzz-cut international football killing machines.
While O’Neill and the FAI have strongly denied that Rice was given the Private Pyle treatment, a tongue-lashing from Sergeant Keane is apparently behind Arter’s decision to join the ranks of the deserters. Keane also had a set-to with Jonathan Walters around the same time, but as a more grizzled veteran of the Abbotstown barracks, the Ipswich Town striker was less inclined to flounce off with a flower in his hair.
In this regard Walters is of the older breed of Irish player, the ones represented by the likes of Kevin Kilbane and James McClean, patriotic squaddies happy to march over the top into the teeth of enemy fire. To them the spittle-flecked invective of a superior officer is all part of regimental life, character-forming even. If you can’t take the barbs of a Corkonian drill instructor, how will you cope under heavy fire from the likes of Gareth Bale and Christian Eriksen?
Alas, like the South Korean footballers and the gap-year Brits, the military life apparently no longer carries the same appeal for some of our Irish recruits. But Field Marshal O’Neill’s contention that players like Arter can’t pick or choose when they report for duty is a call to arms to these lily-livered types: Your Country Needs You!
The idea of conscripting our best and bravest towards boosting the ever more meagre ranks of our soccer troops is but a pipe dream. But the concept of getting young people to do something they really don’t want to do, a large part of the FAI’s overseas recruitment strategy, isn’t entirely out of fashion. France has recently brought back national service, with President Emmanuel Macron believing it will promote a sense of civic duty and help unite a fractious nation.
Much of this will consist of charity work and volunteering, with less emphasis on the whole being-trained-to-kill-people lark, so imagine if we could similarly redirect our raw-boned youth away from such nefarious pursuits as online gaming, Class A drug use, and rugby, and towards the FAI’s crack soccer academy, where Sergeant Keane would soon knock them into shape.
Sure, it seems like we are close to the Blackadder scenario, where a player will soon place underpants on his head, stick pencils up his nose and say “wibble” in an effort to get out of international duty. But bring back (inter)national service and O’Neill would have happy bands of volunteers signing up for the cause, confident that our Uefa Nations League campaign will be over by Christmas.