Youngsters playing in the schoolyards from Seoul to Busan ritually re-enact moments from Korea Republic’s fairytale run to the semi-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. Park Jisung’s volley against Portugal in the group stages and subsequent hug with Guus Hiddink, Ahn Junghwan’s golden goal against Italy and captain Hong Myungbo’s winning penalty against Iker Casillas and Spain are among the moments that will live forever in the country’s collective memory. However, before the days of Park, Hong or Ahn, there was a player who paved the way for Korean football to make the next step on the global stage and one whose name will be synonymous with Asian football forever: Cha Bumkun
Affectionately nicknamed, Cha Boom, he was a pioneer as the first ever Korea Republic footballer to be signed by a European club - Darmstadt in 1978 - playing for Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen for the majority of his career. Cha is also an example of success experienced by playing for the national team’s youth ranks. This is precisely why his role as vice-chairman of the Local Organising Committee for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 could not be better suited for anyone else. Not only is Cha a great example for aspiring professionals to look up to for his on-field excellence, his humility and discipline (he famously only received one yellow card in his whole career) are attributes for every young professional to try and emulate.
To mark 100 days to go to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017, *FIFA.com *sat down for an exclusive chat with one of the all-time great Taeguk Warriors to look ahead to the tournament and reflect on his career.
FIFA.com: Not only are you seen as one of the greatest players in Korea Republic’s history, but you have a personal connection to the U-20 level. What do you remember from your first days breaking through the South Korean national team system?
Cha Bumkun: I joined the youth national team when I was in high school. I was just a country boy who never even had a chance to get on an airplane, and then I became a youth international and flew to Japan [to take part in the 1971 AFC U-19 Championship]. I cannot express what I felt in words because it was my boyhood dream to become a Taeguk Warrior. Everything was fresh and new, as it was my first international tournament and it was my first flight as well. I can still remember that particular scent I could smell inside the apartment for the athletes – one that I’d never smelt before in the world.
You become nervous when you go to some new places. Everything was new when I became an international, so I was very excited and scared as well. In the opening match, I couldn’t even stand straight as my legs were shaking and I couldn’t see anything literally. I can’t remember how I ran for 90 minutes, either. It got better as we went on, but I broke my nose in the semi-finals against Japan and missed the final. After the tournament, I could feel the experience and senses had broadened my vision, while I could also have the confidence and will for a new challenge. I realised that I could grow up as a player through such experiences in major competitions.
*What were some key lessons you learned as a youth international that stuck with you for the rest of your successful career? *
The first thing was that it is very important to rack up experience by playing against players from other countries. And then I learned that I could raise my game and build up my confidence by fighting against stronger sides. After the youth championship, I was up against stronger opponents at senior level, who were tougher and faster. Everything I did without any problem at youth level was different when I took on stronger teams and I could feel myself upgraded through the experience. I think it’s really important for young players to learn football sense and skills by taking on good opponents at the international level, because I felt I grew up through such tournaments.
What motivated you to get to the senior team while you were a youth player? What did it take?
It was my boyhood dream to become a Taeguk Warrior, because I [my family] was so poor. After I’ve become an international, then I began to dream of becoming a world-class player. Such goals have helped me stimulate myself and overcome the difficulties. If you don’t have goals, dreams or hopes, you cannot deal with such demanding trainings or procedures.
I had a dream, so I was a bit different from other players: while they were having a rest, I got up early in the morning to go out running and to practice what I didn’t do well. That was possible because I had a dream, and that’s why I tell young players to have a dream. What I dreamt of, eventually came true – I was dreaming of playing in the German Bundesliga while watching the games on television. One day a coach from Germany came to tell me ‘You can make it. Why don’t you come over?’ That’s what happened. Dreams come true.
If you don’t have goals, dreams or hopes, you cannot deal with such demanding trainings or procedures.
You were known for your heading ability and pace with the ball at your feet. Are there any players you see in football that remind you of yourself?
When I see Son Heungmin play, he tries to break down the opposition defence with audacious dribbling – which reminds me of my playing days. [Korea Republic forward] Hwang Heechan also reminds me of myself when he penetrates through the defensive line, although his finishing style is a bit different from mine. Such explosive, solo runs, as you can see from [Cristiano] Ronaldo nowadays, I see them from those two Korean players who can create and finish by themselves.
What’s most important for U-20 players: developing as a player or learning to work on a team and in different systems of play?
Football is not an individual sport. Basically you have to play well together. But the important thing is that you should have your own colour within the team. That’s what the team want from you: express your colour clearly, know what you do best. Korean football, for example, is about speed, breaking into the opposition defence – that’s what the fans want to see as well, because that’s your colour. It’s very important to show them what kind of player you are in the first place, and then the organisation of the team can be adjusted according to such colours.
Would you say it’s nearly as important to learn from losses as it is wins at the U-20 level?
I cannot express too much the importance of trying to win. But at the same time, young players should learn from losing even though they’d given their best. When I first went to Germany, I’d never played for a professional side and the league system was one that I’d never experienced before. I don’t quite remember losing a game in Korea, or on the Asian stage. But in Germany, when I first lost a game, I felt like the sky was falling down and I could barely eat because of the thought that I lost, while the other guys seemed to be cool about it and move on for the next match.
I soon realised that they were building up their experience and know-how through the defeats, and growing up internally. For young players, and for seniors as well, winning is not everything, but losing itself could be a good lesson to become a better player. Of course, you have to do your best to win but even if you lost you’ve got to learn something from it.