Outcast Soccer Legend Comes in From the Cold As a TV Commentator

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Outcast Soccer Legend Comes in From the Cold As a TV Commentator

Cha Bum-keun, the soccer legend and former national coach who went from hero to zero after Korea's collapse at the 1998 World Cup, has come out of his self-imposed exile and begun a long-anticipated comeback into the Korean soccer scene.

Cha will reportedly serve as a color commentator for MBC-TV broadcasts of national team matches, starting with the Confederations Cup in May. Local media reports say the network has signed a two-year deal with him worth 200 million won ($160,000), the highest for any sports commentator in the country.

With Cha in the booth, MBC is expected to draw high ratings for national team broadcasts. He has extensive experience and understanding of European and international soccer, having played in the prestigious German Bundesliga for 10 years in the 1970s. He won the UEFA Cup twice, with Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen, and still holds the record for most goals scored by a foreigner in Germany with 98 in 308 games.

The former superstar is also mending fences with the Korea Football Association, which fired him after Korea's 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the Netherlands in the 1998 World Cup.

Cha and the association's president, Chung Mong-joon, met for the first time since 1998 on Friday at the launching of Yoido High School's soccer department in Seoul. Chung asked Cha to help Korea's soccer development and Cha said that he would do "whatever is necessary."

Before accepting the MBC job, he shunned the limelight, rejecting numerous requests for interviews. He spent the last 18 months in Germany and coaching a team in China. Since he came back to Korea last September, he has spent much of his time working at his sports academy, Cha's Soccer Clinics.

The football association wants him to serve as the "chief of technical analysis" and the "promotional ambassador of the World Cup." Although he flatly refused the offer earlier, he hinted at a change of heart after meeting Chung. "I'll do whatever needs to be done for the World Cup," he said.

Soccer pundits have long wondered whether the greatest player from Korea would snub the World Cup. Cha had expressed no interest in helping the country's successful bid to be co-host, apparently still bitter over his humiliating ouster three years ago.

Life couldn't have been better for Cha just four years ago. In 1997, the football association hired him as the coach of the national team in the hope that he could duplicate the magic from his playing days. With Koreans looking for strong leadership amid the economic crisis, Cha was hailed as a national hero. His skyrocketing popularity led to lucrative endorsement deals and icon status, with some even crying, "Cha for president!"

A stellar 9-2-1 record leading up to the 1998 World Cup raised the team's hopes in France. Things began to unravel, however, when the team lost its first match 3-1 to Mexico and collapsed in the following game against the Netherlands.

Things then turned sour with Cha dropping a bombshell when he told the Chosun Monthly magazine that pro games in Korea were fixed and blasted the football association for the team's failure in France. The association retaliated by slapping a five-year suspension on him, which it lifted early last year.

Despite his tarnished image, Cha remains one of Korea's most eminent sports heroes. He was named South Korea's Player of the Century by the country's leading soccer magazine, Best Eleven, on Jan. 31 and is generally regarded as Asia's greatest soccer player.

by D. Peter Kim

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