The Long Read: Cha Du-ri
Seoul: The son of one of Asia’s greatest players, former Korea Republic and FC Seoul defender Cha Du-ri reflects on his his 14-year career and how he finally stepped out of the shadow of his famous father.
Cha Du-ri had a harder time than most in living up to his father’s legacy. Korea Republic’s all-time leading scorer with over 50 goals from more than 120 international matches, winner of two UEFA Cups and holder of a number of Bundesliga records, Cha Bum-kun is hailed far and wide as one of Asia’s greatest ever players.
A 14-year career as a professional brought its own accolades to Cha with a CV that is impressive in its own right: 2015 AFC Asian Cup finalist, 2013 AFC Champions League finalist, 2011 AFC Asian Cup third place, not to mention appearing in the 2002 and 2010 FIFA World Cups.
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“Sometimes I hated my father. What he had achieved was such a big wall in front of me in terms of career,” admitted Cha. “My father was always my goal as a football player; I wanted to become great like him.”
Cha Bum-kun made his mark on the footballing world in Germany, with hugely successful spells at both Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen, where he was affectionately known as “Cha Boom” due to his pace and thunderous ball striking ability, and it was there, too, that on 25 July 1980, Cha was born.
Although too young to remember his father’s spell at Frankfurt that ended with a transfer in 1983 to Leverkusen, Cha can still recall his days growing up in West Germany where his father was the talk of the town for his exploits in the red and black of Bayer from 1983 to 1989.
“My Mondays at school were very much dependent on how my father did over the weekend. If he played well, I felt really proud and was maybe a little boastful in class; but if he didn’t do great, then I was a bit quieter and the atmosphere was quite different,” recalled Cha.
“In those days, there were no games' consoles or internet like there is today, so for young kids in Germany, football was really the main entertainment and all we talked about – it was every youngster’s dream to become a footballer.
“Everywhere my family went, a lot of people welcomed us and gave me such a positive impression that I remember thinking then that if you become a football player you will get this kind of welcome wherever you go.”
One place the young Cha was unwelcome, though, was in the stands at the Ulrich Haberland Stadion, where his mother, Oh Eun-mi, believed the child would be a distraction for his father.
And so Cha had to make do with watching the matches on television, including seeing his father score a crucial header for Leverkusen in the 1988 UEFA Cup final second leg as the Bundesliga side went on to lift the continental title.
In 1991, with Cha Bum-kun retired from playing, and offered a job as manager of K-League side Ulsan Hyundai, the family left Germany for Korea Republic where they had to reacclimatise to life in Asia.
Already intent on following in his father’s footsteps as a professional footballer, Cha worked his way through school teams before being accepted at Seoul’s Korea University in 1999. There, already hinting at possessing the power of his father as a physically imposing forward, Cha caught the attention of national team head coach Guus Hiddink and at 21 years old, still an amateur, he made his Korea Republic debut in a friendly against Senegal in November 2001.
Cha remained in Hiddink’s plans and when the squad for the 2002 FIFA World Cup jointly hosted by Japan and Korea Republic was announced, he was named among the Dutchman’s 23.
“I was really surprised to be called up for the national team in that era. Back then everyone felt you must first go to university and graduate before playing professionally, so it was really sensational for a player like me who hadn’t yet graduated to be called up,” said Cha.
“The coach told me that he needed me because I was really fast and physically well-built. When the match had gone on for a while and people are getting tired, I could be a different option from the bench.
“I was obviously happy about the selection, but simultaneously there was a lot of controversy about it because I had never played for the youth national team and had little international exposure. But as a result of all this prejudice, I saw it as a challenge to overcome.”
Although Cha played just a late cameo in Korea Republic’s victorious opener against Poland, he saw action against Italy in the Taeguk Warriors’ famous extra-time win in the Round of 16 before making his first start in the 1-0 loss to Germany in the semi-final, as well as coming off the bench against Turkey in the third place play-off.
“It was a dream to play in the World Cup in Korea. At the time, I didn’t have much chance to really think about the matches and the World Cup itself, I just tried to do my best each time I got a chance to play,” said Cha.
“After the World Cup, it was then that a lot of players realised how crazy it all was; how much attention there was on us, and how people followed us around. I have no memory of paying for any meals in restaurants!”
Following the success at home, Cha returned to Germany with a move to Leverkusen, and high on self-belief after his FIFA World Cup experience, he looked to take the next path in his footballing journey.
“I was young and confident back then and even as a youngster in Korea, I always thought I’d return to Germany and play in the Bundesliga, so I felt no pressure that my father had been a famous player at Leverkusen,” revealed Cha, who was first sent on loan to Arminia Bielefeld before a loan spell at another of his father’s former clubs, Frankfurt.
“But as time passed at Leverkusen – one year became three years – reality began to sink in and I realised how great a player my father was, how hard it was to live up to what he’d done at the club, and it began to weigh me down.”
National team duties also brought little solace as a quarter-final exit to the Islamic Republic of Iran at the 2004 AFC Asian Cup in China PR proved a disappointment for a team that two years earlier had finished fourth at the FIFA World Cup.
Having failed to break into the Leverkusen first team, Cha moved permanently to Frankfurt and it was there, under the advice of coach Friedhelm Funkel, that he eventually gave up trying to be the free-scoring forward his father had been and switched to right-back ahead of the 2005/06 season.
“As I wasn’t scoring goals, I was under a lot of pressure. I was suffering a bad goal drought and in each game I felt so tense that I couldn’t play at my full capacity,” he said.
“Funkel suggested I move to right-back and harness my speed and physical attributes. The pressure lifted immensely and I could begin to play with all my ability.”
Cha, however, missed out on Korea Republic’s 2006 FIFA World Cup squad, a source of particular frustration due to his presence in the host country, and subsequent spells at Mainz and German second division side TuS Koblenz failed to bring the success he craved, as well as an extended period away from the national team which saw him miss the 2007 AFC Asian Cup where Korea Republic would go on to finish third.
A move to newly promoted SC Freiburg ahead of the 2009/10 season proved more fruitful though, and his consistent form there saw him recalled to the Korea Republic squad ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, where he starred for his nation before they lost to Uruguay in the last 16 of the tournament.
Cha’s performances in South Africa earned him a move to Scotland’s Celtic, where he would join up with countryman Ki Sung-yueng in Glasgow.
A cult hero at Celtic Park, Cha played two seasons and was part of the side that lifted the Scottish Cup in 2011 and the league championship in 2012.
“I had so much fun in Scotland,” he recalled. “Celtic is a big team and Celtic Park is a beautiful stadium – it was such an honour for me to play there as a football player and great to play there with Ki Sung-yueng.
“In one match against St. Johnstone, in December 2010, both me and Ki Sung-yueng scored late goals to make the score 2-0 – I think it’s the first and maybe last game that two Koreans will score at Celtic Park for Celtic, from time to time we still talk about this match.”
Cha and Ki went on to play every match of Korea Republic’s 2011 AFC Asian Cup campaign in a side that melded the 2002 FIFA World Cup experience of Park Ji-sung, Lee Young-pyo and Cha with young talents in Ki, Ji Dong-won and tournament top scorer Koo Ja-cheol; as well as giving future star Son Heung-min a first taste of international competition.
“The 2011 AFC Asian Cup side in Qatar was the best team I’ve ever played in, both tactically and in terms of personnel,” said Cha.
“There were younger players around, so I was there as more of a role model and could read and see the games a lot better from a tactical point of view – I was much more mature as a football player."
“So when we lost the semi-final against Japan on penalties, it was one of the most disappointing games ever for me.”
Cha’s time at Celtic ended in June 2012 and he returned to Germany with Fortuna Dusseldorf.
But disillusioned with how the move panned out, Cha began to consider an early retirement before a discussion with close friend and former 2002 FIFA World Cup roommate Choi Yong-soo, the coach at FC Seoul, resulted in his return to the Korean capital in March 2013 on a two-year deal.
The switch of continents proved beneficial for Cha and he helped FC Seoul reach the final of the 2013 AFC Champions League where they finished as runners-up to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the continental club championship the following year.
A re-energised Cha then made the squad for Uli Stieleke’s Korea Republic at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup after being left out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup side, and he rolled back the years to demonstrate the power and pace down the flanks that had earned him the nickname ‘Chaminator’ as he helped his country to the final, only losing to hosts Australia after extra-time.
The continental tournament proved to be the swansong for Cha in his nation’s colours, and in March he played his last game in a friendly against New Zealand with his father joining him at half-time in a special ceremony to commemorate his career.
“In Korea, playing as a national player is such a burden. When you do well there is a lot of love, but when you do badly there is a lot of criticism. But I feel so happy that I am able to retire with the fans' love,” added Cha.
“It is thanks to my friend Choi Yong-soo and FC Seoul that I was able to be selected for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup and finish my international career in this great way.
“Now I can look back on my career and I feel happy that me and my father played as national players for Korea, and that we both made our own footprints in Korean football.”
This article was originally published in AFC Quarterly Issue 12, October 2015
Photos: Korea Football Association, Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen, FIFA
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