How big is football in South Korea

From Cha Bum-Kun to Son Heung-min
The German-South Korean football history

Football has not yet become a mass phenomenon in South Korea, but there have been some successes on an international level. The German Bundesliga and national team were constant companions.

Sometimes just 77 minutes in a club's shirt is enough to keep a place in the hearts of fans for years to come. On December 30, 1977, Cha Bum-Kun wore the jersey with the lily on his chest for the first and only time, but the Darmstadt 98 supporters have never forgotten their former striker. Over 1000 South Koreans traveled to Böllenfalltor from all over the republic to cheer their compatriot, and in the summer of 2017 the enthusiasm among the people in the stadium was no less great. Because Cha had returned to the place where his great Bundesliga career began and also its temporary, abrupt end. Before a test match against English club Fulham, Cha was honored with a bouquet of flowers, but especially celebrated by the Darmstadt supporters for minutes with a standing ovation - even though his star would later rise at the Hessian rival Eintracht Frankfurt of all places.
What happened then? Cha flew back home immediately after this game against VfL Bochum in the winter of 1977 to deal with some formalities. For the time being, however, he was unable to return to Germany because the then 25-year-old immediately had to do his military service in South Korea. After completing his duty, Cha moved to Eintracht Frankfurt for the 1879/80 season - and the striker quickly became a crowd favorite with the Hessians with his dynamic style of play, his powerful shot, and especially his friendly manner. Then he played for Bayer Leverkusen. In his total of 308 Bundesliga games, Cha scored 98 goals, he also won the Uefa Cup twice (1980 with Frankfurt, 1988 with Leverkusen) and once the DFB Cup (1981 with Frankfurt). No matter where he was in his career: In Germany they fondly remember the player who was not only named “Asia's Footballer of the 20th Century” in 1998, but who also laid the foundation for South Korean players in Europe long since ceased to be considered exotic.

German coaches appreciate the South Korean mentality

And so it is hardly surprising that since then there have been many more episodes in German-South Korean football history. The mentality of South Korean footballers is always positively highlighted by German coaches, they value their strength of character, their adaptability and meticulousness. This is also the case with Uli Stielike, who was the coach of the South Korean national team until June 2017: “Koreans are disciplined and correct in their behavior,” he said in an interview with “Die Welt”. “There is no swallow theater in the game and it would never occur to anyone to spit on the floor. I've never seen anyone fall out of role. "The well-organized and accurate defensive work of the South Koreans could be a decisive advantage at the World Cup, believes the 68-year-old, who is also aware of the weaknesses of his former players:" 75 to 80 percent of all Korean professionals who are under contract abroad are defenders. Hardly any striker has managed to strengthen a top European club. "
At a Bundesliga match on February 26, 2018, Koo Ja-cheol wore the captain's armband of FC Augsburg. | Photo: © Yonhap News
The people in South Korea, on the other hand, are proud that some of their compatriots are now good enough to survive at the highest European level. And although the number of top-class offensive players is rather modest, the outstanding player in the South Koreans' squad is an attacker of all things: Son Heung-min, who previously played for Bayer Leverkusen and Hamburger SV for several years in the Bundesliga, has been in the English Premier League developed into a player of international stature. Tottenham Hotspur had the commitment of the dynamic and technically well-versed offensive man cost a proud 30 million euros in the summer of 2015, today he should be worth significantly more. The physical football on the island taught him toughness in competition, and Son gradually banished from his game those juvenile frills that still clung to him in Germany. The 25-year-old is now considered one of the best offensive players in what is arguably the strongest league in the world.
Son is the big star in coach Shin Tae-Yong's team, but there is also great interest in the South Korean players in Germany. During the Bundesliga games of FC Augsburg, several South Korean journalists cavort about week after week in the press stands to report back home on the performance of midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol. After the game, Koo always takes a lot of time to answer your questions, he greets everyone personally, explains and gesticulates before he says goodbye to the dressing room with a smile. His former teammate Ji Dong-Won, who moved from Augsburg to Darmstadt in the second Bundesliga in winter, did not make it into the World Cup squad.

Nice memories of duels with the DFB-Elf

After the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, Germany's goalkeeper Oliver Kahn paid tribute to the South Korean players. | Photo: Yonhap News
At the 2018 World Cup, Germany and South Korea will meet on June 27 in the last group game, held in Kazan, Russia. It will be the third meeting of the two nations at a world championship. And although the roles always seemed to be clearly distributed on paper, the DFB-Elf has always had a hard time against the outsider. In the preliminary round of the 1994 World Cup, Germany won just 3-2 in Dallas, but both sides have positive memories of the game in the semi-finals of the home tournament in 2002 : Give 1 beaten and thus only just missed the dream of the final, which was initially thought to be impossible. In the world, however, this defeat was regarded as another respectable success. Once again, South Korea, which had defeated Italy and Spain in the previous rounds, was able to demand everything from a big favorite with a courageous performance.
Cha Du-Ri, the son of Cha Bum-Kun, was there during the most beautiful weeks in South Korea on the big football stage. He was born in Frankfurt when his father was chasing goals for Eintracht, and he also played for numerous clubs in the Bundesliga. In the meantime, the offspring has also ended his career, at FC Seoul in 2015. “Of course I'm primarily a South Korean,” he once said. “But I'm also from Frankfurt. To have found my happiness in both countries is perhaps the greatest success of my life. "
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