Frankfurt - South Korean players are making an impact on the Bundesliga this season like never before.
Alongside 's scoring exploits for UEFA Champions League aspirants Bayer 04 Leverkusen, left-sided defensive specialist has been a revelation in his first season at 1. FSV Mainz 05. He was joined there recently by national team skipper , already a three-year veteran of the German top flight and long coveted by Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel for his box-to-box qualities in the middle of the park.
hit the ground running in his second half-season stint with FC Augsburg, helping them to a point at his future employers Borussia Dortmund, while centre back is in it for the longer haul with the Bavarian Swabians after signing up on a four-year contract from Jeju United last summer. The South Korean influx is a recent phenomenon, but one player was decades ahead of the curve: Bum-Kun Cha racked up 307 top-flight appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen between 1979 and 1989, scoring 98 goals in the process and winning the UEFA Cup with both clubs.
Now 60, the hard-shooting forward voted Asia's Player of the (20th) Century still keeps a close eye on the German game. In this exclusive interview he discusses the growing role being played in it by his fellow South Koreans, the changes since his own playing days and the prospect of further stars from the Far East landing in the Bundesliga spotlight.
bundesliga.com: Bum-Kun Cha, South Korean players are playing an increasingly prominent role in the Bundesliga. What do you see as your compatriots' greatest strengths as footballers?
Bum-Kun Cha: They're very hard-working and adaptable and always put themselves fully at the service of the team, which is just the mix required for the modern game. They follow the coach's instructions as well and don't make a fuss.
bundesliga.com: What's been the driving force behind the growing number of South Korean players earning a living in Germany and elsewhere these days?
Cha: The 2002 World Cup finals co-hosted by South Korea were a defining experience for today's younger players. Our team made it through to the semi-finals and that showed the kids they could be a match for the Europeans and South Americans. It boosted the self-confidence of an entire generation. They're not afraid to try their luck abroad now and feel they're good enough to compete in European club football.
bundesliga.com: What sort of standing does the Bundesliga have in South Korea – do a lot of young players dream of moving to a German club?
Cha: Last year's all-German Champions League final and the recent performances of the national team have made a big impression across Asia. The young German players are really popular here. And people are seeing as well that a lot of players from the Far East are making a name for themselves in the Bundesliga. It started with the Japanese and now they're being joined by ever more South Koreans. Up-and-coming players have different ambitions now.
bundesliga.com: Do you actively recommend the Bundesliga to South Korean footballers?
Cha: I do. The style of play there suits them. Until very recently, the English Premier League was the dream destination for most Korean players and Ji-Sung Park at Manchester United was the ultimate career role-model. But the Bundesliga's come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years and now it's one of the best leagues in the world.
bundesliga.com: When a club has two Korean players on the books, they seem to play even better. Is that just a coincidence, or is it helpful to have a fellow countryman close at hand?
Cha: It's certainly a plus and it does usually lead to an improved performance level. It's a great help to have someone there to chat with away from the pitch, and who can get you back on your feet after a poor game. But the same applies to players from other countries. In my own day, Lothar Matthäus, Andi Brehme and Jürgen Klinsmann were all on the books together at Inter Milan, while AC Milan had their own clique of Dutch players. That no doubt helped all those players as well.
bundesliga.com: Do you foresee more Korean players arriving in the Bundesliga in future?
Cha: It won't just be Koreans, there'll be an on-going influx into the Bundesliga from other Far Eastern nations over the next few years. Seeing Japanese and South Koreans perform well for top clubs week-in, week-out is just adding to the self-belief and making young players even keener to test themselves in Europe. They're good enough to do it.
bundesliga.com: You yourself remain a role-model and source of inspiration for those players who do make it into the Bundesliga. Do you have any particular tips or advice for them?
Cha: The most important thing is to have a good relationship with your team-mates. You need good friends in the team, away from the pitch as well, in order to bond properly on it. You can't afford to cut yourself off, and should make a point of going out for a meal together from time to time.
bundesliga.com: Is that what you did during your own time in Germany?
Cha: Yes, at Eintracht Frankfurt for example I got on very well with my colleagues Bernd Hölzenbein, Bernd Nickel and Charly Körbel. We spent a lot of time together. You're going to have a few off-days every season and that's when you need people there to lift your spirits again.
bundesliga.com: What differences do you see between playing in the Bundesliga back then and the situation for players today? What's become easier and what's more difficult?
Cha: The overall situation's easier for the players. In my day, teams could field a maximum of two foreign nationals so there was more competition for a place. Back then, you couldn't follow the European leagues on TV either, so Europe was like a different planet for me. Nowadays, the contrast between a lot of countries isn't so extreme and it's easier to adapt to a new environment. Young players are a lot better prepared for the change as well. Given all of that, the Bundesliga's going to see plenty more good players arriving from the Far East over the coming years.
Interview by Alexander Dionisius
See for yourself how well some of the Bundesliga's South Koreans are settling into life in Germany courtesy of the Bundelsiga's official YouTube channel: