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.
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.
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.”
There was a danger that sudden celebrity and sex-symbol status could interfere with his focus, but Cho claims that the only pressure was self-imposed.
“There weren’t any obstacles during the World Cup. I was only focusing on football. I usually don’t care about people’s high expectations, but I put a lot of pressure on myself, which became a bit of a burden.”
Cho enamoured himself yet more to the watching public by briskly telling off Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo for not departing the pitch quickly enough when substituted in their final group game.
South Korea got through the groups but were knocked out in the round of 16, losing 4-1 to Brazil. Their World Cup was over, but things were only just beginning for Cho.
He became just the fifth man and the second sportsperson to ever appear on the cover of Vogue Korea, shot in moody black and white, holding a football but having carelessly forgotten to put a shirt on. His celebrity skyrocketed.
He was sought after for TV appearances, guesting on a Korean show called I Live Alone, which is designed to go behind the scenes of a celebrity’s life and is, apparently, not as bleak as its title suggests, and also the popular quiz show You Quiz on the Block.
He reached the level of celebrity where his personal grooming choices caused great furore. In September, pictures of his hair in cornrows sparked a lengthy internet debate. A poll saw him voted him 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 with assorted models and celebrities during and after the World Cup.
Cho seemed to deal with all of this relatively well, even though he did occasionally find it quite alarming. South Korea played a couple of games in the UK in September, and he couldn’t escape the attention there either.
“Since I became more famous, many people have recognised me. People were even recognising me when I travelled to London with the national team — that was really surprising.”
Not so surprising is being spotted out and about back home, but it sounds like he’s in ‘causing a minor riot in a local coffee shop’ territory, even when he tries to go out in disguise. “When I am back in Korea, I wear a hat and a mask but people still recognise me,” he says. “One time, people started chasing me down the street. That was crazy.”
Thirsty members of the public weren’t the only people chasing him. After his goals for Jeonbuk and his performances in Qatar, the offers from people who wanted him for his goals rather than his looks came flooding in.
Cho, though, took his time. “In the winter transfer window, there were many offers from a lot of different clubs, but I waited until the summer. There were several unofficial offers, from England and Scotland. But once I made my decision, I stuck with it.”
Leicester City, Watford and Celtic were said to be among the many teams interested but, in the end, he made the perhaps slightly surprising choice to sign for Midtjylland in Denmark, who picked him up for a relatively modest £2.6million ($3.27m).
It’s tempting to wonder if he picked Denmark because, after his explosion of celebrity and inability to walk down the street without causing an incident back home, it is slightly more understated in terms of attention.
He says that wasn’t a factor, though. “I wasn’t afraid of the media attention, but I only wanted to focus on football. I wanted a club where I would start in every game. I was sure that Midtjylland could offer me that. Midtjylland was the most interested, so that’s why I picked them.”
Luckily, he knows a few people who have been in similar situations who can offer him advice on how to deal with the sudden fame. Regardless of how well-known Cho becomes because of his looks, it’s unlikely he will reach the god-like status of his international captain Son Heung-min.
Cho has benefited from a mentor, too — another countryman who became an icon in South Korea and was faced with the delicate decision of choosing the right club when moving to Europe.
“Park Ji-sung is a director of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, my old club,” Cho says. “He didn’t give me advice in terms of how to deal with fame, but he gave me a lot of advice about moving to Europe, about building 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 looks like Cho made a shrewd choice. Midtjylland are top of the Danish Superliga as they break for the winter, and he has eight goals in 16 league games.
Who knows whether his footballing achievements will ever quite square with his levels of fame, but Cho doesn’t seem to be overthinking it.
“I consider how I lead my everyday life and being happy now, rather than looking to the future. I don’t think about that yet.”
(Top photo: Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)