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(LEAD) Tottenham attacker Son Heung-min off men's national team for March matches

All News 11:21 March 14, 2016

(ATTN: ADDS photo, comments, details throughout)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- Struggling Tottenham Hotspurs winger Son Heung-min has been left off the South Korean men's national football team for two matches scheduled this month.

Son was conspicuous by his absence on the 23-man roster announced Monday by head coach Uli Stielike.

On March 24, South Korea will host Lebanon in Group G action in the second Asian qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. South Korea have already clinched the top seed in the group with a perfect 6-0-0 record and will advance to the next and final round of the regional qualification.

South Korea will then travel to Bangkok to face Thailand in a friendly match on March 27. The match was scheduled last week after a World Cup qualifier between South Korea and Kuwait, set for March 29, was postponed indefinitely, with Kuwait still serving FIFA sanctions.

FIFA let South Korea set up another match in lieu of the qualifier, and South Korea will face Thailand for the first time since 1998.

Some Europe-based South Koreans have struggled to get off the bench with their respective clubs, and Stielike had previously said he hoped to use the two contests in March to keep such players sharp.

While Stielike called up Crystal Palace midfielder Lee Chung-yong, who has also played sparingly for his Premier League side, he decided to do without Son this time.

The attacker sat out the Spurs' most recent league match Sunday, a 2-0 win over Aston Villa.

At a press conference announcing the team, Stielike said the loss of form wasn't the only reason he didn't select Son this time. According to the coach, the Korea Football Association (KFA) has contacted Tottenham about calling up Son for this year's Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.

The Olympic football tournament is open to players under 23 at the beginning of 2016, but teams can each carry up to three players over the limit as "wild cards." Son, who will turn 24 in July, is considered a leading wild card candidate.

The Olympic matches aren't part of FIFA's International Match Calendar and clubs aren't obligated to release their international players for the occasion.

"We've asked Tottenham to make Son available for the Olympics as a wild card, and in exchange, we offered not to select him for matches in March," Stielike explained. "Tottenham are in a battle for the Premier League title and they have UEFA Europa League matches remaining. But since our association is being considerate of the club, we hope they will give us a positive response."

Stielike said Son is "determined" to represent the nation in Rio. For South Korean male athletes, an Olympic medal of any color will mean an exemption from the mandatory military service. It's long been considered one of the biggest carrots for South Korea at the Olympics, and professional athletes in other sports have benefited from the exemptions -- signing lucrative long-term contracts overseas and enjoying sustained runs of success without disruption.

Stielike made few other changes from the squad that defeated Myanmar and Laos last November, but he brought forward Lee Jeong-hyeop back to the mix. Lee, once an unheralded player, emerged last year as an unlikely offensive threat for Stielike but missed the latter portion of the season after suffering a serious facial injury last August.

He will join FC Porto forward Suk Hyun-jun and Seongnam FC striker Hwang Ui-jo on the attack.

Al Rayyan midfielder Koh Myong-jin and Gamba Osaka defender Oh Jae-suk were named to the national team for the first time.

Among the returnees, Kim Jin-su of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and Park Joo-ho of Borussia Dortmund have also seen limited action on their clubs. Stielike admitted that, based on recent form alone, they shouldn't have been on the national team this time.

Yet with a berth in the next qualifying round already clinched, Stielike said calling up such players was his way of rewarding them for the job well done last year.

"We've won all six matches in the current round, and it's largely thanks to the work of these players," Stielike said of the two Bundesliga veterans. "They have played better when they were healthier, and we can now afford to select players like them."


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