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  • Aaron Renehan

Cha Bum-Kun: Asia's Greatest Ever Football Export?

In 1974, the great footballing continent of Asia had a problem on its hands. With a humiliating 0 representatives at the World Cup of the very same year, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) needed to revamp its footballing ideology in order to compete with not only sports such as Bandy and Cricket which had previously dominated the continent but also, the other administrative footballing bodies from around the world, and in particular CONMEBOL and UEFA.


Fast forward just 3 years, and we see the start of a movement. A batch of undeniably talented young Asian footballers arriving into some of the greatest league's in world football at the time which were, of course, situated in Europe. The first man to take that leap from local stardom to international recognition was Japan's Yasuhiko Okudera who arrived at Bundesliga's 1. FC Köln, to an environment completely different from the one he had just left. What many would have considered to be the greatest league in the world at the time, the German Bundesliga's atmosphere and tenacity was a far cry from the weekly occurrences Okudera would have been used to at his previous club of Furukawa Electric SC of the JSL, Japan's top-flight soccer league at the time.


Playing in front of an average crowd of over 32,000 each week in Koln's Müngersdorfer Stadion didn't seem to phase a young Okudera who held his own for the team located in the biggest city on the River Rhine, going on to become the first Asian player to score in the European Cup, with his goal coming in one of the club's most important games in history, the semi-final vs. Nottingham Forest in 1979 to tie the game 3-3, a game which Koln ultimately went on to lose.


While Okudera may have been the founding father of this Asian footballing Renaissance in Europe, it was the blistering pace and dazzling skills of a certain South Korean international Cha Bum-Kun who really captured the attention of football fans across Europe. Cha followed his continental compatriot in making the brave move to Germany after already carving out a highly respectable career in his native land.


Cha, who through the youth ranks had already become known for his rapid pace, played underage football for his country whilst in middle-school and also high-school before making his senior international debut in 1972 at the tender age of 18, after being called up to join the South Korean Asian Cup squad of the same year. This debut against Iraq made Cha the youngest ever player to represent his country at the time, and he did not disappoint, cooly converting in a crucial penalty-shoutout. Just 3 days later Cha bagged his first goal for his nation in a comfortable 4-1 victory against the Khmer Republic (Modern-day Cambodia).


Cha was rapidly gaining notoriety in South-Korea playing for Seoul Trust Bank FC, and also ROK Air Force FC due to his mandatory military service, however, it was Eintracht Frankfurt's amateur trainer Dieter Schulte who really brought him to a global audience. After witnessing Cha's talents in the 1978 Korea Cup, Schulte fell in love with Cha's style of play and immediately sought a plan to bring him to West Germany. Having said that, there was still one main difficulty surrounding this proposed move, Cha's military involvement which would not see him dispatched until January 1979.


Schulte's persistence to bring Cha to West Germany led him to contact numerous sources such as Bandus (the world's leading brand of sports equipment at the time), stating, ''There is a great player in Korea. I am sure that this player will succeed when he comes to West Germany. Please invest in this player. ”He also wrote personal letters to the Korean Football Association pleading for Cha's try-out in this large-scale European league.


The KFA was not too pleased with this request, arguing that “Without Cha Bum-Kun, the soccer fever will cool'', and they did have a point. Moving to West Germany would mean that Cha's international career would come to an untimely end, even though he had already received a whopping 118 caps. The Air Force had reason to disapprove of this transfer also as Cha had not completed this mandatory military duty, and of course, like all things, money played a major part as the recent 30 million development of a new Hyundai Football Club, who aimed to have Cha as the star player, meant more complications for this proposed transfer.


Negotiations took place, Cha would be discharged early, and in the aftermath of Cha's steller 1978 Asian Cup performance, a deal was made. More complications would arise regarding this military service, but nonetheless a German move was on the cards. Moving to Darmstadt on an initial 6-month temporary contract, Cha played just 1 game in the club's famous blue colours, before his contract ran-out, allowing him to move to a bigger club and his desired location of Eintracht Frankfurt. The start of something magical.


His prolonged and often tedious negotiations paid dividends for this formidable Frankfurt side which included the likes of 1974 World Cup winner Bernd Hölzenbein, as Cha made an immediate impact scoring consecutive goals in the 3rd, 4th and 5th rounds of the 1979/80 Bundesliga season. The club's hierarchy knew they had a star on their hands and Cha was just getting started in what turned out to be one of the most successful seasons in the club's history.


The famous 'Cha-Boom' chant started every time he received the ball. Defenders could only watch hopelessly as Cha's pace and mesmerizing dribbling abilities left them dead in their tracks. Frankfurt's domestic league position of 9th didn't reflect the whole outcome of their season as it was their European dominance which really got people talking. Manager Friedel Rausch and his superstar Korean striker blitzed through the Uefa Cup that year, and thus put their name on the trophy for the very first time. Beating the likes of European giants Bayern Munich 5-1 in the semi-final, and Scottish opposition Aberdeen along the way, managed by a certain Sir. Alex Ferguson at the time who dubbed him 'unstoppable'.Cha's eye for goal helped Frankfurt to reach the final. What stood in their way was another formidable force and fellow German opposition in Borussia Monchengladbach.


A 3-2 first-leg defeat at the hands of a Gladbach side which contained the future superstar of Lothar Matthäus didn't discourage Cha and his teammates, as a 1-0 victory for Frankfurt in the return leg meant victory by means of away goals and thus securing Cha's first trophy since his move abroad. Matthäus who had scored in the first-leg spoke about Cha in an interview with ESPN stating, "He was the face of Frankfurt then. He had pace, great technique, was a great dribbler and scored goals. And most importantly, he was the ultimate team man''. He went on to finish as the club's top goalscorer in the Bundesliga during his debut season with 12 goals, gaining a well-deserved place in the Bundesliga Team of the Season and there was certainly more to come.

Cha & Lothar Matthäus, 1979/80 Uefa Cup Final, Source: Kick and Push


The 1980/81 brought more success for Cha as an improved league position of 5th showed the direction in which the club was heading. Cha also bettered his own personal goalscoring record of the previous season, claiming 16 this time around, leaving him as not only the club's top goalscorer in the Bundesliga that season, but also in all competitions. It was these goals in all competitions (6 in 6 cup matches) which led Frankfurt to only their third ever DFB-Pokal win, a game in which Cha scored again, a 64th-minute goal in front of a crowd of over 70,000 spectators, securing a 3-1 win over victory over 1. FC Kaiserslautern. Another cup triumph which showcased the Korean's brilliance.


The following season which would ultimately be Cha's last at the club, demonstrated his quality once more. No cup wins this time around, but the goals still came thick and fast with Cha again claiming the sides Golden-Boot award, an accolade he would have to share with Norbert Nachtweih, another world-class talent at the club. Frankfurt did pull off a respectable 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the European Cup Winners' Cup, with Cha not surprisingly grabbing one of the goals. However, things took an unexpected turn as financial difficulties began to take over at the club, with Frankfurt aiming to raise much-needed funds, many clubs licked their lips at the possibility of claiming Cha Bum-Kun's much-desired signature.


Eventually, it was Bayer Leverkusen who got their hands on Cha. This turned out to be a fantastic signing for them with Cha only entering the prime of his career. His goalscoring exploits did not slow down, as Leverkusen began to establish themselves as a side who would challenge for a European place. 12 more Bundesliga goals from Cha saw Leverkusen just miss out on a European place in 84.


1985/86 then came around in what turned out to be Cha Bum-Kun's standout season in Germany. 17 Bundesliga goals, a career record for Cha saw him finish overall 4th in the league's individual goalscoring chart, a feat which proceeded to help his side to a 6th place finish and therefore securing Leverkusen's first-ever appearance in the Uefa Cup. Another milestone for Cha was his 2nd inclusion in the Bundesliga Team of the Year. 'Cha-Boom' the fans roared week in, week out.


A second-round defeat in the Uefa Cup at the hands of Dukla Prague meant Cha could not repeat his triumph of 1980 with his former club Frankfurt. After Leverkusen again claimed 6th position in the 1986/87 Bundesliga securing another chance at European glory, it was apparent that Cha had some unfinished business with this prestigious European competition and boy oh boy did he deliver.


The Uefa Cup of 1987/88 boosted Cha to a whole new level of stardom. Leverkusen began in the first-round and subsequently reached the final beating the likes of Feyenoord, Werder Bremen and giants Barcelona on-route. It was another Spanish outfit in Espanyol who stood in there way. The first-leg in Spain ended horrifically for Cha's side succumbing to a 3-0 defeat, leaving many fans hopeless of potential European glory. The second-leg, however, turned out to be one of the most memorable games in not only Leverkusen's history but also Cha's whole career, as his 81st-minute header which saw him tower over a sea of Espanyol players despite his small stature, brought the game to 3-0 (3-3 aggregate), and secured extra-time. A stalemate at the end of this additional 30 minutes meant penalties were on the cards, and with this Bayer Leverkusen claimed their first and only European trophy winning the shootout 3-2. Cha's goal cemented his place in the club's folklore forever and will live long in the memory of Leverkusen fans, especially those old enough to witness it live.

Cha with his 2nd Uefa Cup, 1979/80, Source: Uefa.com


With this European victory came Cha's timely decision to retire just a year later in 1989 on a high note. A wonderful end to a wonderful career. Netting 98 goals in 308 top-flight matches in the Bundesliga, Cha Bum-Kun paved the way for Asian players making the often intimidating move to Europe's leagues. His influence and list of achievements including those 2 Uefa Cup Winners medals have made him a household name across Asia and Germany alike, etching his name into both Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen's famous histories along the way. Cha was duly honoured for his indelible mark on Asian football, deservedly earning his most esteemed personal award, the title of 'Asian Player of the Century'.


Cha's footballing journey didn't stop after retirement as he made the move into management taking the reigns at clubs like; Ulsan Hyundai, Suwon Samsung Bluewings (Korea), Shenzhen Football Club in China, and most notably becoming the manager of the South Korean National Team. It seems a talent for football runs in the family genes as Cha's son Cha Du-ri followed in his father's footsteps also becoming a professional, playing for Eintracht Frankfurt and Celtic along the way. The legend of Cha lives on!

Cha Bum-Kun & his son Cha Du-Ri, Source: Korea Joongang Daily





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