Heung-Min Son was a Bayer Leverkusen regular before moving to Tottenham Hotspur. - © AFP via Getty Images
Heung-Min Son was a Bayer Leverkusen regular before moving to Tottenham Hotspur. - © AFP via Getty Images

Heung-Min Son, Bum-Kun Cha and the top 5 South Koreans in Bundesliga history


Min-jae Kim's transfer to Bayern Munich makes him the 23rd South Korean to arrive in the Bundesliga, following on from the likes of Heung-min Son, Bum-Kun Cha and Ja-Cheol Koo. We take a closer look at the top 5 to have made an impact in Germany's top flight.

1) Heung-min Son

Arguably the most famous and successful Korean ever to have laced their boots in Germany is current Tottenham Hotspur attacker Son. He arrived in Germany at the tender age of 16, joining the Hamburg youth academy as part of a deal between HSV and the South Korean football association.

The club soon realised they had a major talent on their hands, and within a few years Son was training alongside established first-team stars, picking up valuable advice from the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Rafael van der Vaart.

"I didn't know anybody and no one came with me [from home]," Son later explained. "I felt so alone but so humble, because everyone was helping me. Sometimes I missed Korea, but I wanted to play professional football in Europe and this was what I had to do. Van Nistelrooy helped me a lot. He saw my first training session and he talked to me, told me I was a good player. He gave me confidence and I want to thank him for that."

Germany and B04 legend Rudi Völler described Son as, "Quick, agile and technically strong." - Bongarts/Getty Images

Despite his relative inexperience, the pacy left winger stood out for his remarkable movement, technique and dribbling, with former Hamburg coach Armin Veh quickly falling under the spell: "At 18 years of age, Son can already do so much that others aged 30 can't!" the ex HSV tactician noted at the time.

Having scored 24 minutes into his Bundesliga debut against Cologne in October 2010, Son continued to go from strength to strength and enjoyed a breakout 2012/13 campaign, notching 12 goals and two assists to help Hamburg finish in an impressive seventh place. Bayer Leverkusen came calling that summer, securing Son's services for a club record fee.

"Heung Min Son is quick, agile, technically strong and has a fantastic shot," enthused former Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler. "He will help us achieve our goals in the Bundesliga, DFB Cup and Champions League."

Bum-Kun Cha broke new ground for a South Korean player by becoming the first to lace his boots in the Bundesliga. - imago sportfotodienst

Völler's prediction proved to be true. Son helped Bayer to a top-four finish in each of his two seasons at the club, hitting double-figures along the way, and also shone on the European stage. He netted five Champions League goals in the 2014/15 season and might have scored more had Leverkusen’s run not ended with an agonising penalty shootout defeat against Atletico Madrid in the last 16, before his summer 2015 move to England with Tottenham.

2) Bum-Kun Cha

Comparisons with Bum-Kun Cha - the first South Korean to play in the Bundesliga - were inevitable.

A pioneer for South Korean players in Europe, Cha represented Darmstadt, Eintracht Frankfurt and Leverkusen between 1979 and 1989.

Cha’s spell at Darmstadt was interrupted by military service, but he more than made up for lost time at Frankfurt, where he won the 1980 UEFA Cup and scored in the 1981 DFB Cup final triumph over Kaiserslautern.

The man who would go on to be named the Asian player of the 20th century enjoyed further success after moving to Leverkusen in 1983. His new team lifted the UEFA Cup in 1988, with Cha finding the net in a second-leg comeback against Espanyol.

Du-Ri Cha counts Freiburg among his former clubs. - Bongarts/Getty Images

All told, Cha - nicknamed 'Cha-Boom' on account of his thunderous shooting ability - netted 98 goals in 308 Bundesliga matches, as well as 10 in 21 DFB Cup games and four in 19 outings in European competition. To this day he remains the South Korean player with most Bundesliga appearances, having featured in a whopping 308 games.

3) Du-Ri Cha

His son, Du-Ri Cha, also played in Germany, scoring six Bundesliga and 11 Bundesliga 2 goals during stints with Frankfurt, Arminia Bielefeld, Mainz, TuS Koblenz and Fortuna Düsseldorf.

Cha junior grew up in Germany, only leaving the country when he was nine years old as his family headed back to South Korea. Later spotted by former South Korea coach Guus Hiddink, Du-Ri Cha impressed his way into his country's squad for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, held partly on home soil. He played four times at the finals, with the co-hosts finishing fourth.

After that success, he followed in his father's footsteps and signed for Leverkusen from where he was loaned out at Bielefeld and later Eintracht, the latter move eventually made permanent.

Understated and softly-spoken he may have been, but Ja-Cheol Koo has developed into a key player at Augsburg. - 2018 DFL

4) Ja-cheol Koo

After impressing in his homeland with Jeju United, Koo arrived in Germany as a 21-year-old, joining Wolfsburg in January 2011. He made 22 league appearances over the following year before heading to Augsburg on an 18-month loan deal in January 2012 and making an instant impact in a more attacking midfield role. Having failed to score once for the Wolves, the Korean chipped in with five goals in the second half of 2011/12 – including one against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena – as Augsburg comfortably avoided relegation.

Following an injury-hit 2012/13 with FCA, Koo returned to Wolfsburg over the summer for another six-month spell, although he never really settled in Lower Saxony. Limited to just 10 Bundesliga outings by an ankle injury, the South Korea midfielder was snapped up by Mainz in January 2014, and enjoyed a relatively successful stint with the 05ers before returning to Augsburg – this time permanently – in the summer of 2015.

"Augsburg has become my second home," Koo told Sport In Augsburg in 2016. "I'm very happy here with my family, there's a lot of greenery and clean air. I want to stay in Germany for a long time, especially in Augsburg. At the beginning of my time here I didn't feel great and I was a bit lonely, not knowing the language. But I told myself that I had to score at least once in Germany before going back home. I got the goal and things started to go well, so I've been here ever since!"

Indeed, he went on to become one of Die Fuggerstädter's most influential players. A versatile midfielder who can play as a No.6, 8 or 10, he notched a career-high eight goals and four assists in 2015/16 to finish as the club's top scorer in the Bundesliga. Despite a few injury niggles he has continued to pull the strings in midfield, helping to keep his side clear of the relegation scrap, and reaching the 200-appearance mark against Mainz.

Koo was also an important player for the South Korea national team, having scored 19 goals in 76 appearances after making his international debut in early 2008. He helped the Taegeuk Warriors win bronze at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, meaning that he was given an exemption for the two-year military service that is mandatory for all South Korean men.

He also featured at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, and though the Koreans suffered a group-stage exit after defeats to Sweden and Mexico, they also claimed one of their biggest ever scalps by beating reigning champions Germany in their final outing in Kazan. Koo eventually departed the Bundesliga in August 2019, his 211 top-flight appearances putting him behind only Bum-Kun Cha in the record books.

Jae-sung Lee (c) is a firm favourite with fans of Mainz. - Getty Images

5) Jae-sung Lee

Following successful stints at Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Yokohama F. Marinos, Lee made the move to Germany to sign a three-year deal at second-tier side Holstein Kiel in 2018. The South Korea international burst out of the blocks with the team nicknamed The Storks, impressing onlookers with his astute attacking play.

It wasn't long all that long before he made the step up to the Bundesliga with Mainz, where he has become a local hero and is soon to be featuring in his third season at the 05ers. Lee has managed 11 goals and seven assists in 66 appearances for Mainz to date, with last season proving his most productive in the Bundesliga so far.

After recently penning a contract extension with Bo Svennson's side that runs until 2026, Lee - who boasts a tally of nine goals in 71 senior internationals with South Korea - drew the praise of Mainz sporting director Christian Heidel. "Jae-sung Lee and Mainz 05 is simply a great match," the club official said. "He has become a key player with his intelligence, danger in front of goal and his fighting mentality, plus he’s a real fan favourite too. Jae-Sung is a hugely likeable guy. We’re pleased that he will continue to play for Mainz 05."