SEOUL (Reuters) - Cha Du-ri retired from international football after South Korea’s Asian Cup final defeat to Australia at the weekend and while his career never hit the heights of his legendary father, the destructive defender will be a tough act to follow.
The son of Bundesliga great Cha Bum-kun, he began life as a speedster winger but found his true calling as a galloping wingback, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake with trademark wide-eyed, full-blooded challenges.
Nicknamed “Cha-minator” and the “human weapon,” Cha was to be avoided at all costs, even on the training ground where his own team mates and coaches were left battered and bruised after tangling with the tattooed tough guy.
Tributes to Cha’s contribution to the national team poured in over the weekend, with team mates past and present leading the way.
“He was faster than the ball,” said captain Ki Sung-yueng said. “He devoted himself to the national team and he deserves respect.”
Former national team defender Lee Young-pyo highlighted Cha’s aggression and physicality as his biggest assets.
“One of his own coaches damaged his ribs when he bumped into Cha during training,” said Lee. “Even German players weren’t able to overcome him. His physical traits aren’t those of a typical Korean player.”
Cha’s father, dubbed “Cha Boom” in Germany for his thunderous shooting and who is regarded as one of the finest footballers of the 1980s, said time had gone by so quickly and he found it hard to take in his son was retiring.
“I still remember when Du-ri’s mother was pregnant, the pages of the Frankfurt newspapers were talking about a ‘zweite Cha Boom’ (second Cha Boom) about to be born,” said Cha, who played for Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen.
“And now he’s putting away the South Korean uniform,” he told local media.
“I was so proud to have a son who played for the national football team.”
At club level Cha was a fan favourite wherever he went, earning cult status with Scottish champions Celtic, where the crowd tweaked a Pussycat Dolls song in his honour by singing: “Don’t Cha wish your right back was Cha Du-ri, Don’t Cha?”
Picked for the national team by Guus Hiddink while still an amateur, Cha was part of South Korea’s sensational run to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup on home soil.
He was in and out of the national team over the next couple of years, missing out on a place in the 2006 World Cup squad, but made a big impression in 2010 when the Koreans reached the last 16, winning his 50th cap in a 2-1 loss to Uruguay.
Left out of the national squad again for the 2014 World Cup, Cha looked to have played his last game for the Taeguek Warriors until German Uli Stielike took over as coach late last year.
The two formed an immediate bond, with German-speaking Cha an invaluable conduit between Stielike and the rest of the squad.
At 34 he was the most senior member of the Asian Cup squad but his tireless energy and lung-bursting runs left defenders for dead and younger team mates struggling just to keep up.
Two trademark rampaging runs down the right led to crucial goals against Kuwait and Uzbekistan, while on Saturday he delivered a more disciplined defensive performance against Australia’s dangerous wide man Mathew Leckie.
The Koreans fell just short of winning their first Asian title in 55 years after a 2-1 defeat in Sydney, and while many have called on him to rethink his international retirement, Cha said he was leaving on a high.
“My last soccer journey has ended,” he wrote on his Twitter page. “I am a really happy football player.”
Additional reporting by Sohee Kim and Kahyun Yang; Editing by Patrick Johnston