On the first day of the transfer window, struggling Bundesliga outfit FC Augsburg were eager to announce the signing of young South Korean striker Ji Dong-Won from Sunderland. His defining Premier League moment has been the late winner he scored on New Year’s Day last year to give Sunderland an unexpected victory over eventual champions Manchester City, but other than that his time in England has been largely unproductive. Despite the cult status guaranteed by his match-winning goal, he has fallen out of favour this season and has not featured at all in the first team. But he can now count himself as the latest of a string of East Asian players to be making a home in the Bundesliga.
The history of East Asian players in the Bundesliga starts in 1977, with the arrival of Japanese midfielder Yasuhiko Okudera to FC Köln. At this time, football in Japan was codified only at amateur level, and the Japan Soccer League, the top flight of Japanese football between 1965 and 1992, was where Okudera started his career. Teams were owned exclusively by corporations, and for the early portion of the league’s history, the players were mostly employees of the owning company. Okudera spent seven years playing with Furukawa Electric, who had the unique honour of being the only club never to be relegated from the JSL.
In 1977, ‘Oku’, as he became affectionately known to his Köln teammates, was spotted when in Germany on a trip with the Japanese national team, for whom he’d already been playing for five years by that point. National team manager Hiroshi Ninomiya made a point of showcasing his most promising players to Bundesliga scouts and coaches, and Oku oozed enough talent to be spotted by Köln coach Hennes Weisweiler. The decision to leave for Germany was not an easy one. After all, leaving his club in Japan would mean that he would also leave his position at the company. But encouragement from the Japanese football authorities and a guarantee that his job would be there when he returned meant that he was willing to give it a shot. Weisweiler duly signed Oku, and he made the first of seventy five appearances for the club a couple of weeks later. In doing so he became not only the first Japanese player to play at the highest level in the Bundesliga, but also in the whole of Europe.
As an intelligent midfielder who could glue the midfield together, Oku was an essential part of the Köln lineup, and it shows. During his first season at the club Köln captured a league and cup double, and in his second season they captured the cup again. During the 1978-79 European Cup, he became the first Asian player to score in the tournament’s entire history when he netted against eventual winners Nottingham Forest in the semi-finals.
1980, however, saw the departure of Weisweiler—who had nurtured Oku well—for American football and later that year Oku also left, moving down a league to play for Hertha Berlin. But it was not long before he was back in the top flight, as he signed with Werder Bremen in 1981. He made over 150 appearances in a five-year career with Die Grün-Weißen, during which time they finished as runners up in the Bundesliga three times.
In 1986, Oku returned to Japan, rejoining former club Furukawa Electric. Despite the fact they had guaranteed him his old job back within the company, there was no need for this now, for upon his return he would become the first native-born fully-professional player to play in the JSL, providing the vital impetus needed to kick start the professionalization of the game in Japan. Oku’s success had given those at the top of Japan’s footballing organisations sufficient confidence that they were able to produce the kinds of talent necessary to compete at the highest level. He later went into management in Japan, and is still active in global football to this day—having last worked as the president of Plymouth Argyle (although Argyle have since incurred severe financial difficulties as well as being relegated).
Next comes a boom. Or Tscha Bum, as the Germans call him. Cha Bum-Kun is more than familiar to anyone who has followed South Korean football over the past decade, having managed Suwon Samsung Bluewings for six years between 2004 and 2010, during which time he led them to two league titles. But his long and successful career in football started when he was a player.
The Boom started out semi-professionally with Seoul Trust Bank FC. The Korean league was, like the Japanese league in this period, not yet fully professional, with individual corporations owning clubs and fielding teams of players who were employees. Cha then played for the South Korean Air Force team during his obligatory military service, but also importantly for the South Korean National Team. Cha had debuted at the age of eighteen—the youngest ever debutant at the time for the senior squad.
It was as an international player he was spotted by then-Bundesliga side SV Darmstadt, which he transferred to in 1978, becoming the first ever South Korean footballer to play in Europe. Owing to difficulties with his military service, Cha only mustered a single game with Darmstadt. Despite a lack of Bundesliga playing time, his impact was such that he had fans in the Eintracht Frankfurt camp, who secured his signing for the subsequent season.
It was at Frankfurt that Cha carved himself out as one of the most lethal strikers in the Bundesliga—some would say one of the best of the 80s within the league—with 46 goals in 122 league appearances. It’s also where he earned the Tscha Bum nickname—such was his proclivity for powerful striking. His prominence extended far beyond the Bundesliga into European tournaments, too. He was responsible for terrorising Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side, who Frankfurt knocked out of the 1979-80 UEFA cup which they went on to win with Cha’s help.
He spent four years with Frankfurt, before moving to Bayer Leverkusen in 1983, the club at which he would spend the rest of his career. Cha scored 52 times in over 180 appearances. Not one to limit his achievements to the league alone, Cha came out of international retirement to play for South Korea who had qualified for their first World Cup since the 50s. South Korea went out in the first round, and Cha duly retired from international football. By the time he retired from club football in 1989, he had another UEFA cup under his belt and held the record for the most goals scored by a non-German player in the Bundesliga, and although this record has since been broken, it stood unbroken for fourteen years as a testament to the contribution of Cha to German football.
A host of other East Asian players would punctuate the Bundesliga’s history throughout the 90s and early 00s, including the league’s first Chinese player Yang Chen at Eintracht Frankfurt and Cha Du-Ri, son of the aforementioned Cha Bum-Kun. The last few seasons, though, have seen what can be described as a Bundesliga revolution for young East Asian players.
Shinji Kagawa, who left Borussia Dortmund for Manchester United in the summer, is the obvious prime example. 23-year-old Kagawa, recently named AFC International Player of the Year, joined Dortmund from J-League team Cerezo Osaka in 2010, and his rapid ascendency to world class player has been well-documented elsewhere. In his short time at Dortmund, Kagawa helped Klopp’s well-balanced team to a league win in the 2010-11 season and a league and cup double the year after. He serves as an inspiration to the current clutch of new East Asian talent that has been imported to the league.
The young South Korean striker Ji Dong-Won, joining Augsburg from Sunderland on loan this month, was first spotted by Sunderland’s then incumbent coach Steve Bruce at the 2011 Asian Cup (the AFC equivalent of the UEFA Euros), where he scored four goals. The only player to score more than him was fellow South Korean Koo Ja-Cheol—an even more impressive feat for Koo given that he plays in midfield. Like Ji, Koo also caught international attention and thanks to the convenience of having the tournament held in January while the transfer window is open, he was snapped up by Wolfsburg.
Koo has been afforded little time at Wolfsburg, which is not much of a surprise given former-manager Felix Magath’s tendency to bulk buy players. Unable to get the crucial playing time he needed at Wolfsburg, he has been loaned out to Augsburg, where the incoming Ji will link up with his international team mate. At Augsburg, Koo has been the best of a struggling team, and his vision, creativity, intelligent reading of the game and creation of chances are one of the major reasons Augsburg didn’t tank last season. He also regularly demonstrates his attacking prowess and ability to go forward, netting seven times in almost 30 appearances for Augsburg, and ten times in 27 appearances for the South Korean national side.
Another young and promising South Korean in the Bundesliga is Hamburger’s 20-year old forward Son Heung-Min. Son was signed in 2008 as a youth after dropping out of high school to pursue his career in football. Son has been coveted by the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, who has hailed him as the new Cha Bum-Kun. And it’s little surprise, given his performances. Appearing as a substitute for most of his two seasons at Hamburg, Son still managed to impress. In the pre-season to the 2011-12 campaign, he managed an impressive 18 goals in just nine games. But, with the departure of other senior strikers, it is this season that Son has been able to show his real quality. With six goals in sixteen appearances, Son is Hamburg’s joint top scorer and has formed a productive partnership with the young Latvian striker Artjoms Rudņevs.
The Bundesliga can also boast a range of promising young Japanese defenders. Chief among them is Schalke’s right-back Atsuto Uchida, who at the age of just 24, has already had over fifty international senior caps for the Japanese National Team. Signed from Kashima Antlers in 2010, Uchida was an indispensable part of the Schalke defence that managed a third-place Bundesliga finish last season, and has appeared in their 2012-13 Champions League campaign, helping them out of the group stage and into the round of 16. He is in fact the first Japanese player to reach a Champions League semi-final, which he achieved with Schalke last year.
Uchida’s fellow countryman and right-back Gōtoku Sakai is another Japanese player making waves in the Bundesliga. The 21-year-old is an American-born Japanese-German, and plays on loan at Stuttgart from Albirex Niigata, whose youth academy he graduated from. Sakai has been a regular in the Stuttgart team, and earned his first international cap back in September. An astute defender, Sakai also provides a threat going forward, and managed five assists in just fourteen starts last season. Stuttgart have the option to bring him permanently to the Bundesliga at the end of the season, which is looking increasingly likely as he cements his place as their first-choice right-back.
The Bundesliga’s Japanese contingent is not lacking in attacking power, either. Diverse midfielder Takashi Usami, currently on loan to Hoffenheim from Gamba Osaka failed to make the cut at Bayern Munich last season (although he did blossom in their second team), but his spell with Hoffenheim is proving a success. With regular first team appearances and two goals to his name already in thirteen appearances at Hoffenheim, an international call-up does not seem far off for the 20-year old, who has represented and blossomed at every youth level for Japan—particularly for their Under-19 squad where he scored five in thirteen appearances, and was involved in many more.
The Bundesliga is bustling with young East Asian talent, and the players profiled here are just those who have managed to establish themselves so far. This season will be vital for two young Japanese players, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Takashi Inui and Nuremberg’s Hiroshi Kiyotake, both of whom are spending their first seasons in the league, and we may hear their names being mentioned in the same breath as of Kagawa soon enough. Germany is proving fertile soil for these youngsters, and it is little wonder with the international relationship between East Asia stretching back to the days of the legendary trailblazers Cha and Okudera.
By David Dodds
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona