U-20 team’s unsung star is happy outside spotlight
In 2017, Korea advanced to the round of 16, and this year, Korea advanced all the way to final, finishing in second place.
In terms of his performance at the U-20 World Cup, Cho has made quite an improvement. At his first U-20 World Cup, Cho finished without scoring a single goal, but this year, he put the ball in the back of the net on two occasions.
Despite playing in the largest number of matches and improving his performance, Cho wasn’t given much attention as Korea’s U-20 team has always had stars who play in European leagues.
During the 2017 tournament, it was Lee Seung-woo of Hellas Verona who received all the attention. This year, it was Valencia CF’s Lee Kang-in who took the spotlight.
At FC Seoul, Cho is also not the biggest star. The team has strong forwards like Park Chu-young and Aleksandar Pesic, so he doesn’t get to start much. In nine K League 1 matches this season, Cho has scored a goal and an assist.
Below are edited excerpts of an interview with Cho.
Q. You’ve set a record for the most matches played at the U-20 World Cup. How do you feel?
A. I don’t think of it as an amazing record, but since a lot of the people are recognizing it as a record, I’m grateful. Records are made to be broken. It can only be broken if they [Korea’s future U-20 team] finish better. I want the younger players to break my record quickly.
Two years ago, you were criticized because you didn’t score a goal. How did you feel?
During the 2017 tournament, I played really hard. My position is striker, so I need to be able to finish [the play]. But since I was unable to do that, it’s obvious for some people to criticize me. I think it’s right for them to criticize me. This time, I actually thought about whether I should quit if I didn’t score a goal. But we scored and our team played well. My U-20 World Cup was a happy ending. I think our quarterfinal match against Senegal was the best match of the year.
What was it like to play in the final at a FIFA tournament?
Since two days before the final, I just wanted to play. It was the first time [playing] in the final, so of course I was nervous. It was a match where we received a lot of attention and had a lot of fans watching. Before the match in the locker room, [Lee] Kang-in first said he was nervous. So I started asking our teammates if they were nervous and they all said they were. But after just running around in the first seven minutes of the final, my nerves went away.
In 2017, you played with Lee Seung-woo [of Hellas Verona] and in 2019, you played alongside Lee Kang-in [of Valencia CF]. How was playing with them?
They are players with huge potential. Personally, it was great that I could play with them. As a teammate, it was great. They are the players who gave me trust. They were probably given pressure as well and worked hard to overcome it.
The two of them are very different. Their playing styles and personalities are different.
They were given all the attention. Were you ever disappointed about it at some point throughout the tournament?
Of course, there were some disappointments - I’m sure there were matches where I performed well, but the attention still headed toward them - but I wasn’t jealous. For a team’s win, other players’ roles are just as important. I was satisfied with my role and there was quite a number of people who recognized my skills.
Although I didn’t get the spotlight, I’m sure there were people who noticed my performance. We were rated the players with the best potential ever, but within the team, we’re just teammates. We treated one another like normal teammates.
We didn’t look up to them or have difficulty [getting along with them]. Once you start getting jealous, then the team starts to fall apart. And they didn’t want us to treat them differently.
You played the supporting role rather than the star. Are you OK with that?
I didn’t think about being the star and I didn’t feel uncomfortable being the supporter. Just because I’m playing the supporting role, doesn’t mean I don’t feel any pressure - I tried my hardest to fulfill my task.
I was very well aware of my role, so I tried hard to fulfill my duty. We need talented players, but football is not an individual sport. There are roles that the talented players need to fill and other roles that need to be filled by other players: we have to work together to be stronger - that’s how we finished runner-up.
At your K League 1 club, FC Seoul, there’s another veteran star player, Park Chu-young. How do you feel about that?
He takes care of me a lot and gives me a lot of advice. I can’t overcome Chu-young. Once I think about wanting to overcome him, it feels like I’ve become an arrogant person. Chu-young is just Chu-young. He’s just someone whom I look up to. I feel a lot more comfortable when I play in a match with him. He’s really good with control and helps me mentally. On the pitch, he’s the manager.
What was the most disappointing part at the U-20 World Cup?
We received a lot of support. A lot of Korean residents came to watch us, and in Korea, fans cheered for us on the streets, despite the match being played in the early morning, Korea time.
More than the disappointments of our team not winning, we felt sorry for not being able to live up to our fans’ expectations. We missed our shot at making history - our biggest regret was being unable to reward our fans with greater happiness after they cheered us on in the early morning.
FC Seoul head coach Choi Yong-soo evaluated you as a player who doesn’t have a specific strength but who also doesn’t have a specific weakness. What do you think about that?
It sounds like a compliment, but it also sounds like there are areas that I still need to develop.
I want to become a player who doesn’t have weaknesses but who only has strengths. I want to show those strengths to head coach Choi.
Are you excited for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
I didn’t get to play at the Jakarta Palembang 2018 Asian Games. They won gold and I envied them. But I wasn’t disappointed. Looking at [the Korean team’s] Asian Games offensive lineup, there wasn’t a spot for me. I felt comfortable since they had such good strikers - I’m just waiting for the next opportunity. I have expectations for the Tokyo Olympics. I just experienced a runner-up finish at the U-20 World Cup. I know what kind of mindset I need to see good results at big tournaments. I’m going to work harder.
What are your thoughts on joining the senior national football team and playing in foreign leagues?
It would be good if I could get to the senior national team more quickly, but, honestly, now is not the time. I want to go once I perform better and make improvements. I want to go where I want, one step at a time, so as to play well and get recognized: I don’t just want to get there quickly.
It’s the same with playing in foreign leagues: if you’re a football player, you definitely want to go to Europe. But I can only go after I prove that I have great ability. If I continue to work hard with a goal, I’m sure I’ll see the change someday.
Even within FC Seoul, your team has a pretty strong lineup. What are your thoughts on competing for a spot in the lineup?
We have a lot of great strikers. There is a lot to learn from players like Pesic and Chu-young. I’m just honored to be training and playing with them. It will be great to be a starter, but I’m just trying to focus on my role. Whether it’s in the first or the second half, I want to show my competitiveness whenever I’m given the chance.
There had been concerns that the young players’ runner-up achievement at the U-20 World Cup might affect them negatively. What do you think?
We could get eaten up with conceit. I’ve seen it quite a few times. Since we’re young, I’ve seen people around me get worried. But the members at this year’s U-20 World Cup will be different. They’ve forgotten about the glory of our runner-up finish. We are well aware of our position at our respective clubs. We need to adjust well to our teams and survive. I think this is a part of the process of becoming a better player. I’m sure they’ll face a tough time ahead but if they can develop from that time and become mature players, they’ll experience glory again.
Following the U-20 World Cup, expectations have gotten higher. How are you going to manage that?
I think the U-20 team contributed to Korean football history. We didn’t really know in Poland, but once we returned to Korea, I felt that we’d accomplished something great. I gained confidence; I could struggle a little bit, but I’m confident that I can get through that time; I’m fearless, and I’ll show it by running a step or two more on pitch - I’ll live up to the high expectations.
BY CHOI YONG-JAE [firstname.lastname@example.org]