Thursday, May 23, 2024

There can’t be many footballers who have gone from playing for a military team to the cover of Vogue in a few months. But that’s just one of the ways South Korean striker Cho Gue-sung’s life has changed in the last year or so.

Last year was a decent one for Cho. He joined Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, one of Korea’s top teams, in 2020 but took a while to find his feet. He had been a defensive midfielder until only a few years before, moving up front to take better advantage of his 6ft 2in (188cm) height and pace, but he was still relatively young in the position.

As Korean players sometimes do, he used his mandatory period of military service as a bit of a reset, and to help improve his physical condition. He joined Gimcheon Sangmu — a team comprised of players on military service that was in the second tier at the time — on loan from Jeonbuk, where he rediscovered his form and started scoring goals again, which helped them win promotion.

He earned a call-up to the national team too and, by the latter half of the year, he had returned to his parent club, finished as joint-top scorer in the K League 1 (level with Joo Min-kyu) and established himself as one of the main forward options for South Korea as the World Cup in Qatar approached.

Cho in action at the World Cup last year (Khalil Bashar/Jam Media/Getty Images)
Even then, though, he was relatively low-key — “insignificant”, in his own words, mainly known by Korean football fans but not too many beyond that.

But then came the World Cup, and everything was different.

“There have been so many changes in the last year,” Cho, 25, tells The Athletic now, employing considerable understatement. “But I have enjoyed them.”

In Qatar, Cho was brought into the South Korea team for their second game, against Ghana, and he scored twice despite his team losing 3-2. But it was during the first game against Uruguay — in which he only played 16 minutes as a substitute — when the madness began.

That’s when people started to notice that he was, for want of a more elegant phrase, smoking hot. Shots of him sitting on the sidelines and warming up went around social media at pace, proving that if the internet is good at nothing else, it’s disseminating images of very attractive people.

TikTok was flooded with clips celebrating his beauty, videos of Cho doing such outrageously saucy things as walking down the side of a football pitch and sitting with his arms folded. It didn’t seem to matter what he was doing; the internet seemed to find even his most banal activities devastatingly sexy.

Before the tournament, he had about 20,000 Instagram followers. That shot up to about 1.6million during the World Cup, and peaked at about 2.7m after it. It didn’t seem to matter that he barely posts on it; any images of his broad shoulders and razor cheekbones were worth the follow. Cho at a Louis Vuitton show in January (Han Myung-Gu/WireImage)

The story was that he had to turn his phone off for most of the tournament because dealing with notifications had become a full-time job, although Cho plays that down. “It’s been a bit exaggerated,” he says. “I already turned off my notifications (before the World Cup) so I could focus on the tournament.”

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