20 June, 2008

Infantry Made Me the Man I Am Today

It’s great that in the UK you have a choice over whether you join the army or not. Personally I can’t think of anything worse than getting up early and having to iron stuff the whole time, but you know for some folks, it’s the perfect way to see the world and shoot people for believing in a different god. Other countries are not so fortunate however, and have this crazy thing called national service, where all young men have to undergo a period in the army to ‘make them a man’ or some shit. Unfortunately for footballers, this sometimes also applies to them, with Newcastle’s Emre Belazoglu the latest player to apparently be subject to drafting. The midfielder’s £3m move from Tyneside back home to Fenerbahce in Turkey is currently up in the air while the player sorts out his country’s complex and compulsory national service ruling. A spokesman for the club said Emre will have to suffer through 21 days military training once Turkey’s involvement in Euro 2008 is over: “We will send him for national service after the European Championships, but there is no problem with the transfer,” a Fenerbahce representative told us helpfully this morning.

All Turkish men aged between 21 and 40 are required to serve up to 15 months in the military, although there are some exceptions made for those rich enough to buy their way out; citizens who have worked outside the country for at least three consecutive years can just pay 5,112 and undergo basic training for three weeks. Conveniently the clubs intend to wait a couple of weeks to confirm the transfer, as Emre’s third anniversary in this country falls on July 14th, allowing him to dodge quite a lengthy period in camouflage with a rucksack full of smokes and shared pornography, and instead just play soldiers for three weeks.

Of course Mr Belezoglu isn’t the first famous footballer to be subject to military service, with the majority of our old boys during the war still playing semi-professionally when the push of the German frontline allowed. Returning to more recent times however, several countries still operate an element of national service with little or no exceptions. During their formative years in Serie A, several famous Italian stars were involved in leva, or conscription: Fabio Galante, Alex Del Piero, Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Delvecchio were all housed in a special Napoli barracks, but club commitments did keep them away from boot-polishing for most of the week.

South Korean footballers are also subject to military service, more than two years of it no less, but after their successful run in World Cup 2002, the squad were rewarded with their conscription time being slashed to just one cushy month. Interestingly though there’s quite a sizable legal loophole; South Korea’s conscription rules stipulate that men with tattoos are unfit for the military because they cause “abomination among fellow soldiers.” Rumours that this draft-dodging intent was behind the famous Jigsaw Man’s transformation are yet to be substantiated however.

Anyone who’s been traveling will know the amount of Israeli guys you find all around the world, enjoying a bit of freedom after their military service, but their footballers too are apparently subject to special dispensation. Young guys who play for teams in Israel have a special status; they are described as ‘excelling sportsmen,’ and as such are allowed to pursue their career without the hindrance of 1000 sit-ups before breakfast. They are still officially drafted, but the army allows them to have a bit of a jolly in comparison to the hardcore boot-camp regular recruits must go through. Heart-warmingly though, athletes are still taught how to decapitate an enemy with their spade, as is the MOSSAD calling card. Interestingly however, those who manage to dodge the draft altogether can’t actually make it into the Israeli national team later in their careers; for example, Maccabi Haifa’s left-back Haim Migarashvilly would apparently get the call, but since he didn't do his military service he’s shunned for being a pussy.

It seems that surprisingly most Scandanavian countries are pretty draft-happy too; I never realised any of them actually had armies. Golf-club-fearing John Arne Riise was due to join the Norwegian army before heading to Liverpool, but his agent Einar Baardsen helped him squirm his way out. “As long as you are working or playing football abroad you are automatically excluded from any military service,” Baardsen told us. “I'm sure the military service would love to have him,” he quipped, “but it will take many years before they can get him. And if he stays outside the country until he is 28 he will never be drafted.” So that’s that then.

Ex-Blackburn striker Shefki Kuqi also steered clear of a spot of shipyard-guarding back home in Finland by means of living abroad. “Fortunately my lawyer sorted it all out and I didn't have to go back - I got away with it because I've been living abroad,” he told the Telegraph before his move to Lancashire. Tottenham midfielder Teemu Tainio wasn't so lucky however; as a teenager, he saw a move to Manchester United scuppered by his father, who genuinely ordered him home from an Old Trafford training camp to complete his military service. Not cool man, really not cool.

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