Cha: Time to prove we're Asia's best
As the son of the great Cha Bum-Kun, Cha Du-Ri often felt destined to forever remain in his father’s shadow. Having realised from an early age that he lacked the attacking attributes of a player widely considered Asia’s greatest ever, the fullback embarked on a career that, no matter how laudable, seemed to be overshadowed at every step.
Indeed, it is only now, after ending an eight-year stint in the Bundesliga - the league in which his father made his name – that the 30-year-old finds he longer fears the inevitable comparisons. And why should he? After all, while Cha Snr retains legendary status in Germany and remains Korea Republic's all-time leading goalscorer, even this towering Asian icon would surely envy many of his son’s achievements.
It is the younger of the two who has played a significant part in two historic FIFA World Cup™ campaigns, helping the Taeguk Warriors to the 2002 quarter-finals and then starring in 2010 as they advanced beyond the group stage for the first time on foreign soil. Cha’s adventurous, athletic contribution to his nation’s South African success story also earned him a switch to Scottish giants Celtic, where he has swapped scrapping for survival for the pursuit of silverware.
Furthermore, with a new coach at the helm and fresh challenges on the horizon, these are exciting times for Korea Republic and, as Cha told FIFA.com, he believes top priority should be given to ending a 50-year-old continental drought.
FIFA.com: Reflecting first on the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, how did the experience compare to 2002?
Cha Du-Ri: Both were fantastic, but in 2002 I was the youngest player in the squad and I think the main difference was that I didn’t really feel under any pressure at all. I could just go out there and enjoy the games and the whole experience. This year it was different because I knew that I was a very important player for the team and also at an age where a lot would be expected. I actually felt under a lot of pressure before this World Cup and it was probably only after we beat Greece in our first game that I really started to enjoy it. Looking back now, I think we can all be very proud. The team played very well and were very unlucky to go out to Uruguay in the end, so for me I only have positive feelings about the World Cup and what it did for Korean football. I think we took another step forward and we also have some excellent young players coming through like Ki [Sung Yueng] here at Celtic, Lee [Chung Yong] at Bolton and some others in the K-League, so the future looks good.
Given all this, do you feel we can expect even more from Korea Republic in 2014?
It’s possible. We need the new generation to really make it their team before then because I am getting old, Park [Ji-Sung] will not be the best age in 2014 and a lot of the players who played in South Africa will have stopped playing. I have confidence in the young players but it’s important for them, and for the team, that as many of them as possible come to play in Europe.
What do you feel needs to happen before an Asian team can win the FIFA World Cup?
I think Asian football took a big step in 2002, and South Africa was also an important step for us because it was in a different continent. But for us to take that next step, more of our players definitely need to come to Europe to play in this environment. The level in the Korean and Japanese leagues isn’t bad but it can’t compare to the physical side and the tempo of the game here. I’ve said before that I feel more like a German player than a Korean player, and that’s because I spent so long learning to play in that environment against good, strong, quick players. It helped me a lot and I feel we need more of our players to take the same step.
Fitness, strength and speed are obviously some of the attributes that make you so important to the national team at the moment. Have those qualities come naturally or are they a result of training and hard work?
A bit of both, but mainly these are presents from my father (laughs). That’s especially the case with speed. You can improve a little in training of course, but 99 per cent of speed is natural. That is definitely a gift from my father, and I have been lucky in that respect.
Speaking of your father, do you now feel that you have emerged from his shadow and are known for being Cha Du-Ri, not the son of Cha Bum-Kun?
I think so. The first time I ever really felt that I had his shadow over me was when I started in the national team in 2002 and, at first, it made me quite angry. I’m proud of my father, but everyone wants to be judged on their own qualities and everywhere I went I was being compared to him. It was the same when I went to Germany because he was a big player there, won the UEFA Cup twice, so all the journalists and the fans spoke more about my father than they did about me. But I think most people see me as Cha Du-Ri now and, anyway, I’m more relaxed about it these days. I played at the World Cup, the team had a great tournament, I played well and now I have moved to a big club, so I have nothing to worry about. I’m sure my father’s name will follow me until the end of my career, but I can understand that. If the son of Michael Jordan started playing basketball in the NBA, I would do exactly the same, looking and hoping that this guy plays the same way as his father. But it’s impossible. Jordan is Jordan, and in Korean football Cha Bum-Kun is Cha Bum-Kun. I can only be proud of him and also proud of my own career.
Your next major challenge with the national team is January’s AFC Asian Cup. How important is that tournament to you?
It’s something I really want to win before I retire. Normally the World Cup is really the only tournament that matters for Korean fans, but I think this one is just as important for us at the moment. Everyone back home says that Korean football is the best in Asia, but we haven’t won the Asian Cup for 50 years, so how can we say we’re the best if we haven’t proved it? I think we have a strong team, but to show that we’re the best we need to win this competition.
How have you adjusted to football in Scotland after so many years in Germany?
I’ve enjoyed it. Football is football but, if anything, I think the game is a little tougher here – referees let the play flow more and don’t stop for as many fouls. I played for eight years in the Bundesliga, which for me is still one of the best leagues in Europe, but I wanted a new challenge and Celtic was perfect. It’s such a big club and I’ve enjoyed every day and every game since I’ve been here.
And what do you make of Scotland off the field?
I like Scotland very much. I feel at home already, the people are very friendly – the only problem is if I get in a taxi and the driver is a Rangers fan (laughs)! But I like the fact this city is crazy about football and, apart from the rain, I think it’s perfect for me. My wife likes Glasgow too and that helps of course. We’re both very, very happy here.
You've come from clubs (Eintracht Frankfurt, Mainz, Koblenz, Freiburg) where trophies were not expected to one at which challenging for titles year in, year out is demanded. Has that required a change in your mentality?
That’s what I wanted. Every player wants to be chasing trophies and championships, and now I’m 30 I don’t have too much time left to do that. Plus, the name of Celtic speaks for itself – I think every football fan knows this club. There are actually many Celtic fans in Germany, so I knew about the club before I joined and now I feel proud every time I pull on the shirt.
What about your long-term future? Do you see yourself ending your career back in the K-League, or could you even return to Germany?
I won’t go back to Germany. I enjoyed my time there but eight years is enough. I would be quite interested in going to MLS at some stage and learning the ‘soccer’ (adopts a US accent) over there (laughs). That could be interesting. But I’m enjoying it so much at the moment that I’m not sure if I will move again. If things keep going well, we win trophies and the club is happy with me, it’s possible that I’ll end my career at Celtic.