[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Cho Gue-sung breaks records on and off the pitch
Over the next few weeks, the Korea JoongAng Daily will meet with athletes from across the sporting world to discuss how they got their starts and earned their fame as well as their lives on and off the field.
This week’s interview is with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ forward Cho Gue-sung.
Over the past 10 years at Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, the uniform of the club’s legendary striker Lee Dong-gook has consistently topped sales. This season, Cho Gue-sung broke that trend.
Speaking of the achievement, Cho said, “It felt good.”
Considering he’s just joined the Jeonbuk on Jan. 29 this season, and the fact the 2020 K League 1 season has yet to kick off, it seems his good looks might be to thank for the sudden popularity of his jersey number, 11.
Such record stands out even more considering Jeonbuk is known as a club where it is particularly difficult for rookies to gain recognition, as the club already has a strong lineup of starting veterans.
He’s not just a pretty face though, and after success with both FC Anyang and the U-23 Korean national football team last season, he’s ready to prove his worth on the pitch for the K League 1’s top club.
Born on Jan. 25, 1998, the sport has always been around Cho as his father played club football growing up. Cho says his father heading out to play is one of his oldest memories.
“I can’t remember the very first time I saw a football, because I was so little,” Cho said.
However, his memory of first taking to the pitch is still clear in his mind.
“I think when I was in first grade in elementary school, I would go out to the field with my friends and kick a football,” Cho said. “I actually liked doing that more than studying.”
It didn’t take long for Cho to start taking the sport more seriously, but he says that was due to his dad’s influence.
“My father really liked [football],” Cho said. “He told me to go to this place so that’s how I got started.”
Cho says he really fell in love with the sport after he scored his first-ever goal during a tournament.
“The moment I scored, I got goose bumps,” Cho said. “I felt like I wouldn’t be able to feel that excitement from other things.”
It’s been years since he started playing, and despite scoring countless times throughout his career, he says that now that he’s in the professional league, the feeling of hitting the back of the net is even more thrilling.
Cho stands at 1.88 meters (6 feet 2 inches), making him one of the tallest players on the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ squad. But back in middle school, it was quite the opposite, and Cho was among the shortest. However, no one was worried about his height, and although he’s often asked how he managed to grow so much so quickly, Cho insists the only secret behind his height is “genetics.”
“My mom is tall,” Cho says. “She’s 1.77 meters. She used to play volleyball.”
Cho was benched for most of his matches in middle school due to his short stature, but his coach predicted that one day, he would become the tallest player.
Despite his limited playing opportunities in middle school, Anyang Technical High School scouted Cho for its team, simply based on his potential. Cho grabbed the opportunity with both hands and worked harder than anyone else on the team, arriving an hour earlier and staying an hour later to train.
However, his hard work didn’t pay off until his last year in high school. In his first year, Cho’s role on the team was to film the senior players on the pitch, and in his second year, he was once again a bench warmer. Finally, in his last season, Cho earned his spot on the starting lineup. By that time, Cho had grown and stood at 1.8 meters and only continued growing.
From college to pro
After a lackluster high school career Cho was accepted at Gwangju University to study physical education and continue playing football. But he still wasn’t a standout player. People began to advise him to give up on his dreams of becoming a professional and look at other career paths.
When asked about what he would have done if football had not have worked out for him, he says, “I don’t think I’d be doing something normal.”
“I don’t like doing things that everyone else does,” Cho said. “I think I would have done something challenging? Maybe something in the fashion industry because I like fashion and am interested in it.”
But such concern was no longer an issue when he changed his position during his sophomore year, from a midfielder to center forward.
“From that point on, I felt like I would go to the pros,” Cho said. “I just told myself to go with the flow. When I started playing with that mindset, it made me feel a lot more comfortable, and I think I enjoyed [playing football] more.”
In his junior year in college, Cho finally turned pro, getting drafted first by FC Anyang of the K League 2 in 2019. As he attended Anyang Technical High School and played football there, Cho says that Anyang was also his first pick among the K League clubs.
“Since I went to school in Anyang, I guess I was meant to become an Anyang player,” Cho says.
While playing for Anyang he also made club history by joining the U-23 national team in the shortest time after joining the club. He helped the Korean U-23 football squad earn its spot at the Olympic men’s tournament by winning the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Championship in Thailand, for the first time in the country’s history.
Throughout his career for the U-23 squad, he’s competed in five matches and scored two goals.
For Cho, last season was by far his best one yet, with Anyang and for the U-23 squad. For Anyang, which he joined in 2019, he’s scored 14 goals throughout 33 K League 2 matches, good enough for Cho to finish fourth in the scoring table. In part because of his performance, FC Anyang finished third in the K League 2 in 2019 by picking up 15 wins, 11 draws and 12 losses, totaling 55 points throughout 38 matches.
“To be honest, I feel like I achieved too much too quickly, just everything at once last year,” Cho said. “That’s made me feel pressure that I have to be better this year.”
Such performance allowed him to join the K League 1’s defending champion Jeonbuk on Jan. 29 this year.
The K League was the very first league in Korea to make a decision about what to do in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak and announced the indefinite postponement of the season.
Due to this, the season, which was originally supposed to start on Feb. 29 with a match between the defending champion Jeonbuk and Suwon Samsung Bluewings, will now start on May 8. Jeonbuk will be hosting Suwon at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju.
Until then, Cho will stay in his room at the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors Clubhouse with his teammates. As for his daily routine, he says there’s nothing special to note. He says there’s literally nothing to do.
“We train in the morning, eat and take a nap,” Cho said. “In the afternoon, we train again, eat and take a break. During that time I watch YouTube, read or sleep. It’s just the exact same repetition everyday.”
Despite having nothing to do on his off days, Cho says he does go out sometimes near the clubhouse area.
“These days, we just train, [and on off days,] I go out for a meal or go to a cafe [nearby],” Cho said. “There’s nothing really special.”
While the suspension had some players feeling claustrophobic, Cho wasn’t complaining. He says that he tends to find joy from small things.
There was one thing that really helped though. Cho says that at Jeonbuk’s clubhouse the food is amazingly good.
“We get like three different main course options,” Cho says. “Chicken is the best. It’s like fried chicken with some onion sauce on it, and it is amazing.”
Now that the starting date has been officially announced by the K League, Cho has no time to be bored. As for his daily schedule, he’s been focusing on improving his fitness so that he’s ready for Jeonbuk’s first match on May 8.
In terms of his mental game, he says he’s set himself the same goal as usual.
“Now that the official starting date has been set, I know that I have to be more prepared and be more ready,” Cho says.
As Cho just joined Jeonbuk this year, he didn’t get much action on the pitch, but the female K League fans were already well aware of him thanks to his posts on Instagram.
His stylish and chic photos immediately caught the attention of the fans. Behind those photos, Cho is no exception in agonizing over choosing the “right” picture. Like any other avid social media users, he too sometimes takes hundreds of photos to find the perfect one.
“Honestly, when I see it, normally, there’s this mood I want from the picture,” Cho says. “So I ask [my friends] to take a photo and show it to me. And if I don’t like it, I ask them to take it again. Sometimes, I get the picture in one shot.”
Cho’s most recent post only took one shot. In terms of the concept of his photo, he says it just comes to his head.
“It depends on the atmosphere,” Cho says. “Like I would see a road and would feel like, ‘Oh if I take a picture of myself just walking, it might look good.’ Then I would just take it.”
Best and worst moments
Cho may still be considered a baby when it comes to his career in the K League, but he says there are still moments that he wants to forget about, if possible.
“Last season, when I played for Anyang, there were a number of shots that I missed,” Cho said. “I think I’ve had quite a number of those matches, so if possible, I want to wipe those from my record.”
On the other side, he’s also made some memorable moments, which he says include all the matches that he’s won. But if he had to choose one, he says that it was his very first time on the pitch as a Jeonbuk player. Although Jeonbuk lost, it was probably Cho’s most unforgettable moment as it was his first time representing the best team in the K League.
“That moment, I had this thought in my head, ‘Wow, I’m finally playing for the top team,’” Cho said. “Our team lost, but I still scored a goal. I think that was really good.”
During Jeonbuk’s AFC Champions League group match against Yokohama F. Marinos of the J1 League on Feb. 12, Cho was substituted into the match for Lee in the 54th minute and scored his first-ever goal for Jeonbuk in the 80th minute. This was also Jeonbuk’s only goal of the match.
As for his short- and long-term goals, Cho said they overlap. As he hasn’t shown his dominant skills on the pitch yet, he is eager to be recognized by the fans for his performance.
“My goal for this season is to be recognized by the fans on the pitch,” Cho said. “In the offseason, I think it’s easy to forget who I am. But overall, my goal is to play football that the fans can enjoy watching. I think this can both my short- and long-term goal.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Cho Gue-sung breaks records on and off the pitch