South Korean players have made a major impact on the top leagues of many countries, but none have yet drawn near to the devastating effectiveness of a German favourite. Here's Michael Hudson.
Mention the name Cha and many British football fans will think of a pacy, bald-headed fullback in green and white hoops. However, Cha Du-ri isn’t the first member of his family to find fame through his prowess on the football field. His father, Cha Bum-kun, voted ‘Asia’s Player of the Century’ in 1999, remains an idol to many fans in both Germany and South Korea, famed for his meek temperament (in his entire career he received just a single yellow card) and the ferocity of a shot which brought him 55 goals for South Korea, and a further 98 in the 308 Bundesliga games he played between 1978 and 1989.
The elder Cha made the first of his 121 appearances for the South Korean national team at the age of just 19 while he was still at Korea University. Six years later, now playing for the Korean Air Force team, Cha was spotted by newly-promoted Bundesliga side SV Darmstadt 98 at the Bangkok Asian Games and became the first Korean footballer to be signed by a European club side. Although he managed just one game for Darmstadt before complications with his military service forced him to return home, Cha had already caught the eye of Eintracht Frankfurt coach Friedel Rausch.
“We saw him during a tournament in South Korea,” Rausch recalled in an interview with the Bundesliga website three decades later. “No other player has convinced me during trials as quickly as he did. He was the best and most willing forward I’ve ever seen.”
“We saw you for the first time, lovely, against Stuttgart,” Eintracht fan and poet Eckhard Henscheid wrote in his Hymne auf Bum Kun Cha (Hymn to Bum Kun Cha), which recounts the ninety minutes of Cha’s home debut. Five minutes after half-time, the ‘Star of the East’ managed to evade his man-marker, Karl-Heinz Förster, heading the goal that sealed a 2-0 win for Frankfurt. The following weekend he scored again, away at Eintracht Braunschweig, striking a third against Leverkusen the game after that. Alex Ferguson called him “unstoppable” after seeing his Aberdeen side knocked out of the UEFA Cup; Cha scoring an early goal in the first-leg at Pittodrie. By the end of the season, the Korean had rebuffed an attempt to naturalize him by the German FA, and won his first major trophy, helping Frankfurt overcome holders Borussia Mönchengladbach in the UEFA Cup Final. “I am young and he is among the best attackers in the word,” said a contrite Lothar Matthäus, after Cha had slipped his marker to help set up Fred Schaub’s crucial late goal in the game’s second leg.
Cha’s lowest ebb in German football followed soon after, when he was taken to hospital with a broken rib after a reckless tackle from Leverkusen’s Jürgen Gelsdorf. He recovered in time to score in Frankfurt’s 3-1 German Cup Final win over Kaiserslautern, but Eintracht were already a team in decline. After scoring 46 goals in 122 games, Cha was sold to Leverkusen at the end of the 1982-83 season. He greeted Gelsdorf with a handshake (“Fair play is Cha’s religion,” Henscheid had written) and his new fans with a brace of goals against Nürnberg in his first home game.
Cha’s career flourished. In 1986 he scored 17 league goals as Bayer finished sixth and qualified for their first ever European campaign. South Korea were also making history that year, having qualified for their first World Cup since Switzerland in 1954 by defeating Japan in the final qualifying round. Cha was tempted out of international retirement at the age of 32, but was double-marked as the Koreans drew 1-1 with Bulgaria and lost to both Argentina and Italy.
"We didn't achieve our first win but the campaign was not disappointing as we played hard and well against the best teams in the world,” Cha later said. “I think the lessons we learned and experiences we gained there helped lay the foundations that eventually produced the tremendous success at the 2002 finals."
But Cha’s greatest moment on a football pitch was arguably still to come. In May 1988 he won his second UEFA Cup winners’ medal in the wake of Leverkusen’s miraculous comeback from a three-nil first-leg deficit to the Spanish side Espanyol. After a goalless first half, Leverkusen score two goals either side of the hour, Tita scrambling the ball over the line before Falko Götz’s crashes a header past Thomas Nkono in the Espanyol goal. With just nine minutes left to play, Cha drifts off his marker, Santiago Urquiaga, as a free kick from the right of the penalty area is struck high and fast across the six-yard line. The ball dips to meet Cha’s rising head; Nkono, wrong-footed, tumbles across the goalline as the ball floats into the net. The Leverkusen bench spills onto the pitch, “Cha Bum! Third goal!” the commentator screams. Javier Clemente drags wistfully on his cigarette.
The game goes to penalties. Leverkusen’s Ralf Falkenmayer misses, while Pichi Alonso and Job score the first two for Espanyol. But then the hapless Urquiaga, Spain’s first-choice right-back in the 1984 European Championships, hits the underside of the crossbar, and when Sebastián Losada, on-loan from Real Madrid, skies his side’s fifth penalty, Leverkusen have won their first major honour in 84 years of existence. “Best player on Earth: Tscha Boom” said one newspaper headline the following day. “No one heads the ball more beautifully than Cha Bum Kun.”
In Germany, Cha’s legacy still endures. When Michael Ballack arrived in Korea ahead of the 2002 World Cup, he had only one question for the assembled media. “Is this Cha Bum’s country?” he asked. “I’ve always wanted to come here.”
“The purpose of my visit to South Korea is to promote both countries’ progress and to strengthen our friendship,” Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said at the beginning of a state trip to Seoul. “But I want to meet Cha Bum first.” Günter Netzer thought Cha “would have been a starting forward for any club in the world”.
“I am considered an accomplished footballer,” Jürgen Klinsmann once told an interviewer, “but I am not at the level of Cha.” In a kicker poll of the Bundesliga’s best ever forwards, Cha came ninth, splitting Klaus Allofs and Karl Heinz Riedle.
Even now, there’s a Frankfurt band named Bum Khun Cha Youth and the Cha Bum Kun Award is given annually to South Korea’s most promising schoolboy footballer (previous recipients include Park Ji-sung and ex-Middlesbrough forward Lee Dong-guk). Together with Japan’s Yasuhiko Okudera, who won the Bundesliga title with 1. FC Köln in 1978, Cha was a true footballing pioneer, the first in a line of Asian players which today includes Hidetoshi Nakata, Lee Young-pyo, Keisuke Honda, Shunsuke Nakamura, Lee Chung-yong and Shinji Kagawa. All of them owe a debt to Cha Bum-kun.
As well as writing for IBWM, Michael is responsible for the splendid ‘The Accidental Groundhopper‘ blog. You can follow him on Twitter @DolphinHotel.