The diversity of creed and cultures in European club football is seemingly endless, with players from every corner of the globe represented. For many nations, especially those in football’s New World, there was invariably a lone pioneer who broke through into the rarefied air of Europe’s upper echelons carving a pathway for others to follow.
Liberia’s George Weah, New Zealand’s Wynton Rufer and Panama’s Julio Dely Valdes are just three names who achieved breakthrough success on the Old Continent and directly, or indirectly, inspired latter generations of their countrymen to follow. In Korea Republic there is but one name that stands out above all others: Cha Bumkun. The hard-running and resilient forward boasts legendary status, both in Germany and in his homeland, due to an impressive ten-year career at Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen where his ferocious shooting earned him the affectionate nickname “Cha Boom”.
That was in the 1980s when few Asians played outside their respective homelands, let alone in one of the best leagues in the world. Fast forward to the present day, and the landscape is very different, especially in Germany. Numerous Korea Republic and Japan players have made strong impressions in Germany in recent years, where their technical ability and mental toughness is highly regarded.
One of half a dozen South Korea national team squad members currently plying his trade in the German top flight is Park Jooho. The defender has spent the past 18 months at Bundesliga over-achievers Mainz 05, just along the river Main from Frankfurt where Cha first laid the foundations for the current crop of Korean stars.
Cha’s service to Korean football even extends to his son, Cha Duri who has just completed an exceptional 15-year career with the Taeguk Warriors. So just how much debt of gratitude do the modern generation owe to Cha? “He has not just done well, but he was one of the best foreign players in the Bundesliga,” Park tells FIFA.com. “This had a tremendous impact on other Asian players in helping them come to the Bundesliga.
“Off the pitch Cha was very team orientated and gave a good image of Korean players to Bundesliga clubs and this helped a lot. If it weren’t for Cha, it would have been much harder for Korean, and even Asian players, to advance and play in the Bundesliga.”
Home away from home
Park says the proximity of a large Korean community and numerous Korean restaurants in nearby Frankfurt has been helpful for him to adapt. So too has the proximity of several national team colleagues in Germany, not least of all goalscoring midfielder Koo Jacheol who arrived at Die Karnevalsverein a year ago. Adding further to the east Asian flavour at Mainz is in-form Japan forward Shinji Okazaki.
“When I first move to the Bundesliga there were some struggles, being a completely different league and culture,” said Park. “But after a period I adjusted to the style of the Bundesliga and life (in Germany). He (Koo) has been a lot of help. Hanging out with team-mates is good, but doing so with other Korean players is helpful because you share common experiences.”
Just when Park must have thought the German component of his life couldn’t become any greater, along came the unexpected appointment of Uli Stielike to the national team helm. Following an indifferent FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil, the former Die Mannschaft defender took over the Taeguk Warriors and results improved almost immediately. South Korea won five straight games at last month’s AFC Asian Cup before losing a tense final against Australia in extra time.
“Since Uli came to Korea we have been playing good football and getting good results,” said Park. “And the results at the Asian Cup are evidence of the change in our football.” It is easy to imagine an even stronger German bond for Korea Republic at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a connection that can be traced all the way back to a certain Cha Bumkun.