There aren’t many footballers who have gone from playing in a military team to the cover of Vogue in just a few months.
But that’s just one of the ways South Korean forward Cho Gue-sung’s life has changed in the last year or so.
Last year was a decent year for Cho. He joined Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, one of Korea’s top teams, in 2020, but it took him a while to find his feet. He had been a defensive midfielder until a few years earlier, moving into attack to better exploit his 188cm height and pace, but he was still relatively young in that position.
As Korean players sometimes do, he used his mandatory military service period as a reset and to improve his physical condition. He joined Gimcheon Sangmu – a team made up of serving players who were in the second division at the time – on loan from Jeonbuk, where he rediscovered his form and started scoring goals again, which helped them win promotion .
He also earned a call-up to the national team and, in the second half of the year, returned to his parent club, finished as joint top scorer in K League 1 (level with Joo Min-kyu) and established himself as one of the main options in forward for South Korea as the World Cup in Qatar approaches.
Even then, though, he was relatively low-profile: “insignificant,” in his own words, known mostly to Korean fans but not to many beyond.
But then the World Cup came and everything was different.
“There have been so many changes in the last year,” says Cho, 25 Atletico now, using a notable understatement. “But I liked them.”
In Qatar, Cho was brought into the South Korea squad for the second match, against Ghana, and scored two goals despite his team losing 3–2. But it was during the first match against Uruguay – in which he played just 16 minutes as a substitute – that the madness began.
That’s when people started to notice that, wanting a more elegant phrase, it was actually sexy. Photos of him sitting on the bench while warming up made the rounds on social media, proving that if the internet is good for nothing else, it is spreading images of very attractive people.
TikTok was flooded with clips celebrating her beauty, videos of Cho doing outrageously saucy things like walking along the edge of a soccer field and sitting with her arms folded. It didn’t seem to matter what he was doing; The Internet seemed to find even his most mundane activities devastatingly sexy.
Before the tournament he had around 20,000 followers on Instagram. This number rose to around 1.6 million during the World Cup, then peaked at around 2.7 million. It didn’t seem to matter that she barely posted; any image of his broad shoulders and razor-sharp cheekbones was worth following.
The story was that he had to turn off his phone for much of the tournament because dealing with notifications had become a full-time job, although Cho downplays this. “It was a little exaggerated,” he says. “I already turned off notifications (before the World Cup) so I could focus on the tournament.”
There was a danger that her sudden celebrity and sex-symbol status might interfere with her focus, but Cho says the only pressure was self-imposed.
“During the World Cup there were no obstacles, I just concentrated on football. “I don’t usually worry about people’s high expectations, but I put a lot of pressure on myself, which has become a bit of a burden.”
Cho endeared himself even more to the crowd by brightly berating Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo for not leaving the pitch quickly enough when he was substituted in the final group match.
South Korea topped the group but was eliminated in the round of 16, losing 4-1 to Brazil. Their World Cup was over, but things were just beginning for Cho.
He became the fifth man and second sportsman to appear on the cover of Vogue Korea, shot in moody black and white, holding a soccer ball but having forgotten to wear a shirt. His fame skyrocketed.
He was sought after for TV appearances, as a guest on a Korean show called I Live Alone, which is designed to go behind the scenes of a celebrity’s life and, apparently, is not as dark as the title suggests, and also on the popular quiz show You. Quiz about the block.
She has reached the level of celebrity where her personal grooming choices have caused quite a stir. In September, photos of her hair in pigtails sparked a lengthy debate on the Internet. One poll saw him voted the second most desirable Korean male celebrity, behind only actor Song Kang. And, of course, speculation about his personal life became rampant, with a spike in stories linking him to assorted models and celebrities during and after the World Cup.
Cho seemed to deal with this relatively well, although he occasionally found it rather alarming. South Korea played a couple of matches in the UK in September, and couldn’t escape attention there either.
“As I became more famous, many people recognized me. People also recognized me when I went to London with the national team: it was really surprising.”
It’s not that surprising that he’s spotted hanging out at home, but he appears to be “causing a little riot at a local bar,” even when he tries to go out in disguise. “When I go back to Korea, I wear a hat and a mask, but people still recognize me,” he says. “Once, people started chasing me on the street. “It was crazy.”
The thirsty public wasn’t the only one chasing him. After his goals at Jeonbuk and his performances in Qatar, offers from people who wanted him for his goals rather than his appearance poured in.
Cho, however, took his time. “In the winter transfer window there were many offers from many different clubs, but I waited until the summer. There have been several unofficial offers, from England and Scotland. But once I made the decision, I stuck with it.”
Leicester City, Watford and Celtic were said to be among the many interested teams but, in the end, he made the perhaps slightly surprising choice to sign for Midtjylland in Denmark, who took him for a relatively modest fee of £2.60 million pounds ($3.27 million). .
It makes you wonder if she chose Denmark because, after her explosion of stardom and inability to walk down the street without causing accidents at home, she is slightly more discreet in terms of attention.
He says this wasn’t a factor, though. “I wasn’t afraid of media attention, but I just wanted to focus on football. I wanted a club where I would start in every match. I was sure that Midtjylland could offer it to me. Midtjylland was the most interested, that’s why I chose them.”
Luckily, he knows a few people who have been in similar situations who can offer him advice on how to deal with sudden fame. Regardless of how famous Cho becomes thanks to his appearance, it is unlikely that he will reach the godlike status of his international captain Son Heung-min.
Cho also benefited from a mentor, another compatriot who became an icon in South Korea and faced the delicate decision of choosing the right club when he moved to Europe.
“Park Ji-sung is the director of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, my old club,” Cho says. “He didn’t give me advice on how to deal with fame, but he gave me a lot of advice on how to move to Europe, how to build a new life there. “He told me to choose a team where I knew I would play, because that’s what he did when he moved to PSV Eindhoven.”
It seems Cho made a shrewd choice. Midtjylland are top of the Danish Superliga during the winter break and have eight goals in 16 league games.
Who knows if his football successes will ever match his levels of fame, but Cho doesn’t seem to think about it too much.
“I consider how I lead my daily life and my happiness now, rather than looking to the future. “I don’t think about it yet.”
(Top photo: Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)