Figo, Ballack and Kahn’s hero: the story of Cha Bum-kun, Asia’s greatest footballing export

Figo, Ballack and Kahn’s hero: the story of Cha Bum-kun, Asia’s greatest footballing export

“The problem we couldn’t solve was Tscha Bum,” said Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson after he saw his side defeated by Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1979/80 UEFA Cup. “We could not stop him. He was unstoppable.” It was high praise, indeed, from one of football’s most esteemed minds, albeit nascent in the context of his illustrious career.

Ferguson’s admiration for Eintracht’s striker was justified, however. This was Cha Bum-kun, affectionately nicknamed “Tscha Bum”, translated as Cha Boom, with reference to his powerful technique and ruthless poise in front of goal. Idolised in his native South Korea, and canonised as one of Germany’s adopted footballing heroes, the forward was more than just an exceptional player; he was a trailblazer who would inspire many both back home and on foreign shores.

Asia had hardly boasted a reputation as a hotbed of footballing talent. Players from the continent had barely infiltrated the European leagues, nor were they deemed necessarily good enough to make such a step up into the more competitive landscape in other parts of the world. Their pathway into high-level football was also undoubtedly restricted by strict rules regarding the number of foreign players who were allowed on European clubs’ books.

It would take something, or someone, special to prove themselves as the exception to the rule among Asian footballers. Thankfully for South Korea, a precocious centre forward was emerging and would establish himself as the most iconic player to have hailed from the country, and arguably, the continent.

Cha Bum-kun took plunges into unchartered territories and did not look back. His route to the top, however, was more than just unconventional, and only his relentless desire to succeed, coupled with unwavering work ethic and commitment, would ensure that his talents would not go to waste.

Having quickly acknowledged his ability to play football at a high standard, Cha’s education and development centred around sports. Having learned his trade at Kyoung-shin High, he would join the Korea University to hone his skills and master his craft during his formative years. After arriving at the university in 1972, the bright striker was quickly making a name for himself and became the youngest-ever debutant for South Korea at senior level in the same year.

Aged just 18, he took to the field as his country locked horns with Iraq in the AFC Asian Cup in Thailand. Although Cha did not score on his debut, with South Korea held to a 0–0 draw, he was the only player to dispatch a penalty as his side suffered a defeat in the resulting shootout, only highlighting his composure in pressurising situations.

South Korea did not manage to win the Asian Cup, falling short to Iran in the final, but silverware did not elude Cha in the 1972 Pestabola Merdeka tournament. The forward was, by his own admission, “brilliant” in the final of the competition as he inspired a 2–1 win over hosts Malaysia, contributing with a crucial goal.

Cha would later reflect upon this match as something of a watershed moment, when the people of Korea would recognise that before them stood a player unlike any who had come before, still only at the earliest stage of what promised to be an exceptional career. His assertion was only evidenced further by his place in the Korean Team of the Year in 1972, the first of seven consecutive inclusions.

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Cha’s time playing for the Korea University was successful. In 1973, he was crowned the country’s Player of the Year, a remarkable feat for a teenager still adjusting to the demands of senior football, and also won the National Championship with his side in 1974. Having departed the University, Cha joined the Korea Trust Bank in 1976, but his stay was short-lived as a consequence of his requirement to complete mandatory military service. Still, he would make his mark and was named the Player of the Season in the Korean Semi-professional League as he helped the Trust Bank to secure the title.

Cha prepared to begin his military service and signed for the South Korean Air Force FC. Football hardly took a backseat for the forward despite his challenging circumstances, and he cemented his status as the national team’s talisman. Cha was particularly outstanding in the 1976 Pestabola Merdeka tournament, and his iconic display against Malaysia is still fondly remembered in Korea to this day.

With his side 4–1 down and seemingly defeated, Cha inspired an incredible comeback, netting a five-minute hat-trick to prevent his side from falling to a loss. Two days later, he scored in a 4–0 win over India before contributing with another two in a 7–0 victory against Singapore. The honours were shared between São Paulo’s Under-21s and the national team in the final, though, as the scores finished level at 0–0.

South Korea were unable to reach the World Cup in 1978 despite Cha’s five goals in qualifying, but the striker still led his side to the gold medal in the Asian Games. He scored and assisted twice in his team’s successful campaign, but a defining moment came in the President’s Cup just months before when the catalyst for Cha’s European adventure would surface.

Eintracht Frankfurt travelled to South Korea to participate in the tournament, and although their aim was to win the competition, their reward for attending would prove far more significant; they unearthed a gem who would later accomplish success beyond all expectations in their infamous black and red strip. Eintracht assistant manager Dieter Schulte spotted the potential of Cha, prompting him to urge the Korean Football Association to enable an early discharge for the forward, affording him the chance to prove himself during trials in Germany. After the conclusion of the Asian Games, Cha took the plunge and jetted off to Europe as he chased a footballing dream unlike any Korean before.

Unfortunately, however, his decision to pursue a life in Germany appeared to signal the end of his international career after several disagreements amongst South Korean authorities as a consequence of his early release from military service. Nevertheless, only midway through his 20s, he had been capped more times than any other player for South Korea at senior level, with initial records stating that he had scored 55 times in 118 appearances between 1972 and 1978.

Cha’s trial period in Germany was promising, and although it was Eintracht who pushed to offer the player a route out of his homeland for the first time, Darmstadt swooped to secure his signature on a six-month deal until the end of the 1978/79 season. The striker’s persistence and dedication had paid off; his chance to take Europe by storm and wave the South Korean flag in the Bundesliga had arisen.

Except, in reality, it hadn’t. Cha became the first Korean to ever play in Germany’s top flight as he made his debut for Darmstadt in a fixture against Bochum on December 30. However, it would be his only appearance for the club as he was recalled to resume military service in South Korea, meaning he had spent little more than a month on German soil as he returned just a week after his bow for the club.

Cha was forced to remain in his country until May, effectively concluding his contract at Darmstadt and temporarily crushing his hopes of a career in European football before it had even begun. However, Eintracht were unprepared to let such a clearly gifted footballer escape their clutches for a second time and signed the 26-year-old ahead of the 1979/80 season.

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Cha had waited patiently for his chance to shine and set out to deliver his lethal goalscoring exploits on a far bigger stage. Sure enough he succeeded, and to devastating effect. “We saw him during a tournament in South Korea,” said then-Eintracht boss Friedel Rausch. “No other player has convinced me during trials as quickly as he did. He was the best and most willing forward I’ve ever seen.”

Little was expected, nor known, of Cha upon his return to the Bundesliga given that he had spent the duration of his career, with the exception of a disappointingly brief stint at Darmstadt, in South Korea. However, he immediately endeared himself to the Frankfurt crowd, scoring in each of his first three games against Stuttgart, Braunschweig, and Bayer Leverkusen respectively. He developed a formidable relationship with Bernd Hölzenbein and the team began to show serious signs of attacking promise, with defences unsure as to how Cha would be best dealt with; his movement, expertise in aerial battles and thunderous technique caused problems.

Tscha Bum, as he was now coronated after his shots stung the hands of goalkeepers on countless occasions, had a maiden season to remember in Germany. Having acclimatised well to the intense demands of European football, he scored 12 Bundesliga goals, earning a place in Kicker’s 1979/80 Team of the Season. The Korean found himself in good company as his efforts received recognition, with Kicker naming Kevin Keegan of HSV and Bayern Munich front-man Karl-Heinz Rummenigge as the other two forwards in their line-up.

Despite Cha’s exceptional introduction to life in the Bundesliga, it was not domestically that his most memorable moment arrived. He was instrumental in Eintracht’s 1980 UEFA Cup triumph, the player’s first major honour on European soil. Cha was marvellous throughout and opened his account in the competition against Aberdeen, prompting Ferguson’s claim that he was “unstoppable”. He would score only twice more – against Dinamo Bucharest and Feyenoord – in the campaign, but he more than played his part in deciding the outcome of a dramatic two-legged final.

Eintracht defeated Borussia Mönchengladbach 1–0 in the second leg, ergo settling the scores at 3–3, and Cha’s side reigned victorious on a margin no finer than that of away goals. Fred Schaub stole the headlines as he poached the goal that won his side the UEFA Cup, but Cha’s shrewd movement in the box saw him slip away from Gladbach defender Lothar Matthäus before putting the ball on a plate for his teammate.

Following the disappointing defeat for his side, Matthäus could only hold his hands up and concede the brilliance of his counterpart. “I am young,” he said. “Tscha Bum is the best attacker in the world.” The Korean had only been in Europe for less than a year, but few were hesitating to lavish him with praise. Some 35 years on, Matthäus would again reflect upon the impact of Cha in Germany. “He was the face of Frankfurt then,” the Die Mannschaft legend recalled. “He had pace, great technique, was a great dribbler, and scored goals. And most importantly, he was the ultimate team man.”

Cha took to German football like a duck to water on the pitch, but his cultural adaptation was understandably somewhat less smooth. Though perennially open-minded and receptive to his new surroundings, the forward needed time to adjust to life away from South Korea. “Germans enjoy cold buffets, meals consisting of an assortment of cold foods, including bread, cheese and ham,” Cha reflected in 2017. “It was hard for me to enjoy or get used to eating cold food, especially for dinner. During the training season, we were served steak along with the cold buffet, but as I didn’t eat any of the cold food, I was very hungry. So I asked for another serving of steak, despite being embarrassed.”

Such a culture shock was unlike anything most players in the Bundesliga had experienced at the time, but Cha was not the first Asian to ply his trade in Germany’s top flight. Japan midfielder Yasuhiko Okudera joined Köln in 1977, but it was hard to argue against Cha’s status as the most influential player from his continent, nor was it deniable that the supporters in the Bundesliga treasured him more greatly than other foreign footballers who had arrived. In fact, such was the way in which the German public took Cha in, writer Eckhard Henscheid penned a poem  to wax lyrical about the Korean in 1979.

Cha’s confidence was high ahead of his second full season in Germany, but his campaign came under threat early on. A reckless challenge from Jürgen Gelsdorf of Bayer Leverkusen in August 1980 sent him straight to hospital and prompted outrage from the Eintracht supporters watching on. Thankfully, Cha was able to bounce back and he enjoyed another successful campaign, this time netting eight times, but more significantly, inspiring his side to the DFB-Pokal.

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He scored six goals in as many games, including one in their 3–1 final victory over Kaiserslautern, to help Eintracht secure the trophy in style. With remarkable discipline – he received only one yellow card in the entirety of his professional career – and exceptional ability in the final third, Cha was a fans’ favourite and then some.

The Korean continued to flourish. He scored 11 times in the 1981/82 campaign before his most fruitful season in Germany followed. With an impressive return of approximately one goal in every two games, on average, Cha found the back of the net on 15 occasions in 1982/83, which would prove to be his final year in Frankfurt after a glorious tenure at the club.

Eintracht were struggling to balance the books and had no choice other than to allow their star man to depart, with Leverkusen gratefully accepting the opportunity to recruit one of the Bundesliga’s most consistent forwards. Die Adler were loath to lose such an iconic figure, whose relationship with the club dated back to before they had even officially recruited him, but his legacy remains prevalent to this day. Cha was named in Eintracht’s all-time greatest line-up in 2013, while indie-rock band Bum Khun Cha Youth was formed by musicians in Germany as something of an ode to the Korean.

Having finished 11th in the 1982/83 campaign, the mood was somewhat bleak in Leverkusen. As such, the club identified Cha as the man to spearhead their rise up the table and into the upper echelons of the Bundesliga. The Korean duly delivered and scored 12 goals – one of which came in a 2–2 draw against his former club Eintracht – to fire his new club up to seventh in the table. Decisive strikes, notably against Köln and Nürnberg left the Leverkusen faithful enamoured of him as he continued to prove his credentials as one of the most reliable goalscorers in Europe.

The 1984/85 season was not a success for the club, however. Cha got off to a flying start as he netted a last-gasp winner in a 4–3 victory over Fortuna Düsseldorf, but his influence somewhat waned as the campaign progressed despite match-winning performances against Gladbach and HSV. The Korean missed four of his side’s final five games as they slumped to a disappointing 13th-place finish.

Doubts began to slowly creep in after Cha and Leverkusen had fallen short of expectations after a bright start, but the striker was prolific in 1985/86. The striker was faultless as he orchestrated his team’s sixth-place finish, booking their place in the UEFA Cup for the first time and scoring 17 goals in the process. At one point on his way to achieving the highest goalscoring return of his professional career in a single season, Cha had plundered ten goals in 11 games, enabling Erich Ribbeck to enjoy greater success at the helm in Leverkusen than Dettmar Cramer had managed. Unsurprisingly, the experienced striker reclaimed his place in Kicker’s Bundesliga Team of the Season.

What did come as a shock, however, was Cha’s decision to come out of international retirement in 1986. South Korea had qualified for their first World Cup since 1954, and after a seven-year absence, their most decorated player was ready to lead the national team once again. However, a fairytale was not on the cards as the challenges in Mexico proved too complex to overcome.

Eventual winners Argentina, reigning champions Italy, and Bulgaria were in South Korea’s group, and they stood no chance of progressing. For a second and final time, Cha’s international career concluded, and revised figures from the Korean Football Association stated in 2014 that he had scored 59 goals in 132 matches for the country following his unfruitful solitary World Cup campaign, a notably different account to the previous claims that he had netted 58 times in 118 appearances.

The 1986/87 campaign signalled the beginning of the end of Cha. He was unable to replicate his goalscoring exploits from the previous season, mustering only six in the Bundesliga this time around, but still impressing with his selfless work off the ball and persistent harrying of defenders. Leverkusen disappointed in their maiden UEFA Cup campaign, exiting in the second round after a shock two-legged defeat at the hands of Dukla Prague. Still, following another sixth-place finish in the top flight, the club would have a second bite of the cherry in 1987/88.

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Cha was approaching the twilight of his career, and he arguably saved his best until last, with his crowning achievement coming in his penultimate season at Leverkusen. He was only able to score a paltry four league goals for his club, highlighting his decline in output, but he became the leading foreign goalscorer in Bundesliga history with a consolation effort in his side’s 4–1 drubbing at the hands of Stuttgart. Despite a generally unimpactful campaign at the club, though, Cha’s apex and most pivotal strike came in Leverkusen’s final outing of the season.

The club had reached the UEFA Cup final after the previous campaign’s shortcomings, but they had appeared destined to fall at the final hurdle. Espanyol had beaten Leverkusen 3–0 in the first leg and a comeback of seismic proportions was required in Germany. At half-time in the second leg, the scoreline left the Spaniards with one hand on the trophy as they held their counterparts at 0–0. However, Leverkusen burst into life as the second half wore on, racing into a 2–0 lead, but still in desperate need of a third goal.

Step forward Tscha Bum, who connected perfectly with a free-kick to nod the ball beyond Thomas N’Kono in the Espanyol goal to send the clash to a penalty shootout. Leverkusen completed a miraculous comeback and held their nerve from the spot to lift the UEFA Cup in front of their adoring fans, inspired by Cha’s late header.

The 1988/89 season would be the last of the Korean legend’s professional career. His contributions to German football and status as a trailblazer for Asian players in Europe were celebrated as the curtain fell on his time as a footballer with 98 goals across his two stints in the Bundesliga with Eintracht and Leverkusen. He was more than just a pioneer, though, and proved to be a genuinely world-class forward for much of his tenure on German soil, scoring goals freely and leading by example with near-perfect discipline and an impenetrable mentality.

“I always look back on the ten years I spent in Germany with joy,” Cha recalled. “I still remember the emotions I would feel when the home fans cheered for me during the games, and the festivity of the city when I lifted the winning trophy. [The] Bundesliga gave me the most wonderful moments of my life. I’m still filled with happiness whenever I think of Germany. I received a lot of love from the fans during my German years.”

The Korean’s son, Cha Du-ri, would also follow suit, representing seven different professional clubs in Germany throughout his career.

Of course, he went down in history as the most prolific player in Korean history to have set foot in Europe until Son Heung-min broke his compatriot’s record in 2019. The Tottenham forward has often spoken about how highly he regards Cha, and once rebuffed claims that he is of a similar level to the iconic striker. “Every time when I am compared to Cha, I feel embarrassed as well as very honoured,” he said in a post-match interview. “I will try harder to make sure that I deserve such a compliment.”

Cha blazed the trail for players like Son to take to European football and flourish, but it was hardly a straightforward journey. “Expectations were high back at home, and the only way I could repay my Korean fans was by performing my best on the field,” he would reflect. “During my years in Germany, I constantly practised self-discipline, and fiercely so. This state of mind was what helped me to survive those years, walking a path no one had taken before.”

Son’s affectionate tribute to the influence of Cha was one of many. Several footballing greats have spoken of the Korean as though he were an idyllic figure. Portugal legend Luís Figo revealed that Cha was his “biggest hero”, while Paolo Maldini once admitted that he was grateful to have avoided facing the two-time UEFA Cup winner. The iconic Pelé also reserved praise for the player. “Tscha Bum really knows how to play football,” deduced Brazil’s most revered footballing figure.

In Germany, though, such appreciation was commonplace. Oliver Kahn admitted that he had been desperate to receive Cha’s autograph, while Michael Ballack also professed his admiration for the player. “Is this Tscha Bum’s country?”, he asked ahead of the 2002 World Cup finals in South Korea. “I’ve always wanted to come here. Cha is my idol.”

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Günter Netzer believed that Cha would have been a mainstay at “any club in the world”, and Jürgen Klinsmann rubbished suggestions that he was at the Korean’s standard during his playing career, insisting that he was “not at the level of Tscha Bum”. Outside of the footballing circle, Cha was also admired, with Gerhard Schröder, the former Chancellor of Germany, revealing his desire to meet the man. “The purpose of my visit to South Korea is to promote both countries’ progress and to strengthen our friendship,” Schröder begun. “But I want to meet Tscha Bum first.”

Cha decided to take the leap into management following his retirement but was unable to replicate the success he had enjoyed as a player. He spent three years in charge of K League club Hyundai Horang-i between 1991 and 1994 before he was tasked with leading South Korea into the 1998 World Cup as the national team manager. What followed, however, was a disaster on a cataclysmic scale, as Cha was sacked after just two group-stage games in France. Mexico defeated South Korea 3–1 in the opening fixture, but a 5–0 demolition at the hands of the Netherlands proved fatal for the footballing legend, who was mercilessly sacked before the final group-stage match against Belgium.

Controversy followed, as Cha blamed the Korean Football Association for the national team’s failure at the World Cup, alleging that top-flight matches in the country were fixed, while also stating that the bonuses, or lack thereof, led to disgruntlement amongst the playing squad. Predictably, the governing body reacted furiously, banning Cha from management in the country for five years, prompting him to move to China to manage Shenzhen Ping’an. Still, however, the Korean’s footballing achievements remained at the forefront of his image; in 1999, he was named as Asia’s Player of the Century.

Eventually, Cha found his way back into management in his homeland and enjoyed plenty of success. He won his first league title in football with Suwon Bluewings after taking charge in 2004, citing the achievement as a more significant one than either of his two UEFA Cup triumphs in Germany. Cha would procure another K-League title, as well as a host of other honours, including the K-League Manager of the Year award on two occasions before he resigned in 2010.

Nowadays, Cha’s focus lies away from management. Immediately after his retirement from playing football, he aimed to help the development of promising Korean footballers, organising the Cha Bum-kun Award to celebrate the country’s most promising footballers on an annual basis, with one famous recipient being former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung. Team Cha Bum is a youth outfit run by the South Korea legend and is made up of those who have won the award, with the core principles focusing upon commitment, attitude, and work ethic.

“I believe the concept of fair play should be learned at a young age, through sports,” Cha said in 2017. “The reason why I run my youth football school is to teach kids, in a natural way, the importance of fair play so that they can become healthy members of society when they grow up.”

In 2018, the Team Chaboom Plus Project was created with the intention of allowing promising Asian players the opportunity to test themselves and develop against Bundesliga youth teams. The former Leverkusen star has always been determined to provide young footballers from across the continent with the best possible chance of following in his footsteps.

Cha, who received the Federal Cross of Merit from the German government for his role in soothing relations between the two countries close to his heart in 2019, regularly hosts a national talk show revolving around religion, explaining his beliefs and discussing passages from the Bible, which he is understood to know off by heart. “Three things are most important in my life,’ Cha once observed. “Family, religion, and football. Football is my life’s work but when I’ve suffered setbacks in my career, my family and religion have always helped me recover.”

His comebacks have always been far stronger than his setbacks: from mandatory military service to two UEFA Cup triumphs, and from his failings as the manager of South Korea to his success with Suwon, Cha’s faith has led him to glory. His remarkable journey to the bright lights of European football paved the way for countless Asian players after him, and those who have hailed from the continent all share a collective debt to one of football’s most influential pioneers, Tscha Bum.

By Luke Osman @lukeosman_

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