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Cho So-hyun: "It doesn't matter how old you are, players should let their ability do the talking."

 Cho So-hyun

Cho So-hyun is an iconic figure in Korean football. Regarded as one of the country's finest ever players, she has gone onto become the most capped player for the national team. The 33-year-old recently became the latest permanent recruit for Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Women's Super League. The Spurs midfielder spoke to K League United about her incredible career. Shibajee Das traces the journey of the national team captain from her early days right up to her new adventure. (Image via Tottenham Hotspur)

Cho So-hyun completed a switch to Tottenham Hotspur at the beginning of this month. The North London club finished in 8th place last season and Rehanne Skinner will be assisted by the newly appointed Vicky Jepson next season. Cho has already set her sights on driving the team further forward. Speaking on her ambitions for the upcoming season, the midfielder said:

"I want to be at five combined goals and assists or more at Tottenham. I think the team goal is about 5th place in the table and at the same time as that, I want to achieve my personal goals."

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UEFA recently announced a ground-breaking deal with DAZN and YouTube to stream the UEFA Women's Champions League matches. The dynamic midfielder has also set her sights on competing in the Champions League once again:

"One of my goals is to play in the Champions League this season or next season. It's not easy to beat the top teams and get points. However, the club is generous with its support and I think it is getting better every year. I hope to get a chance to play again in the Champions League."

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Cho also got to experience playing in the North London Derby at the majestic Tottenham Hotspur Stadium:

"It's a really good stadium. Among the Korean women's football players, no one else has played at that stadium except me. I consider it a great honour as a player, and I hope to play more matches at that stadium this season as well." 

However, the journey to reach European football's promised land was the result of several years' passion, determination and self-belief.

Universiade 2009 - A new star is born

In the year 2009, a talented group of Korean players travelled to Serbia for the Summer Universiade Games. Among them was a certain Cho So-hyun. The 21-year-old was representing the Yeoju Institute of Technology.

Not many fancied the chances of the Korea Republic, having been clubbed in a tough group alongside Brazil, Germany and South Africa. In the opening match versus Germany at the Stadium Vozdovac, the team laid down a marker with a stunning 4-0 victory. The following match was a cakewalk for the team, as they humiliated South Africa 12-0. A narrow 1-0 loss to Brazil brought them back down to earth. Korea finished in second place and progressed to the quarter-finals.

A gritty defensive display against Russia meant the Koreans took the match all the way to the penalty shootout. A 5-3 victory on penalties followed for the Korea Republic. The trick was repeated in the semi-finals. Another goalless draw and a 3-2 win on penalties over a strong French side enabled the Koreans to reach the final.

In the gold medal match, they would go on to face neighbours Japan. The Japanese team was completely outplayed by the Korean girls, as they went onto register a memorable 4-1 triumph. Ji So-yun and Jeon Ga-eul's brace did the damage in the final. However, Cho So-hyun played an instrumental role at the heart of the midfield. A talented troop of Korean players had emerged, and Cho So-hyun was at the forefront of it.     


WK League domination

Cho So-hyun's performances didn't go unnoticed. For the inaugural WK League season, she was the No. 1 pick in the draft signing for Suwon UDC. After two seasons, Cho earned a move to the ambitious Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels. The Incheon-based side began to turn the tables after four consecutive runners-up finishes. Cho won four WK League titles overall, in a period where the club started to absolutely dominate the league.

The club has won an extraordinary eight successive league titles, and other clubs are finding it hard to keep up pace with them. Speaking on the issue, Cho So-hyun said:

"I think the players need to develop further, but the coaches also need to develop. Rather than what teams have to do, I just hope that there will be more good players and more competition by nurturing youth." 

Exploits on the continental stage

In May 2014, Cho So-hyun travelled to Vietnam as the captain of the Korean national team for the AFC Women's Asian Cup. The Universiade winning team had now transitioned into the senior national team squad. As such, the belief was high in the camp and they were confident of putting up a good showing. The opening game witnessed the Korea Republic trounce Myanmar by a 12-0 scoreline, with Cho scoring a hat-trick. A victory over Thailand and a stalemate with China meant the team progressed to the semis. A narrow defeat to Australia meant the Koreans bowed out of the tournament. Despite that, it was a fairly successful tournament with the team looking to build on their progress.

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Four months later, the opportunity to test themselves in yet another continental competition arrived. This time Korea Republic were the host of the Asian Games. It was plain sailing in the group stages, with the team picking up comfortable victories over Thailand, India and Maldives. Cho scored against the latter, with the team in a buoyant mood going into the quarters. A narrow 1-0 win was picked up over Chinese Taipei. However, yet another closely fought contest ended in defeat for the Korea Republic over North Korea. A victory over Vietnam in the bronze medal match meant the host nation achieved a podium finish.         

World Cup 2015 - A summer to remember

At the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 held in Canada, South Korea arrived with a determination to showcase their abilities on the biggest stage. They had managed to qualify for the World Cup after a 12-year hiatus. A defeat to Brazil and a late equalizer conceded against Costa Rica meant, the Koreans were staring at the prospect of an early elimination. The team knew that three points were a necessity in order to progress to the knockout rounds. 

Their opponents were Spain at the TD Place Stadium in Ottawa. South Korea was trailing 1-0 at half-time. In the 53rd minute of the contest, the ball was swung in from the right and Cho So-hyun scored a fantastic header to level the match. The goal gave the team belief and they went onto win 2-1. That victory meant the Taegeuk Nangja created history by progressing to the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time ever. 

Despite being outplayed by France in the Round of 16, the Korean girls came back home having made the nation proud on the global stage. And it was that Cho So-hyun strike that will continue to live long in the memories of Korean football lovers! Her efforts were duly rewarded when she was awarded the 2015 KFA Women's Player of the Year Award.

Move across the sea

In January 2016, Cho So-hyun completed a season-long loan transfer to Japanese outfit INAC Kobe Leonessa. She made her Nadeshiko League debut in a 3-1 win over Speranza Osaka-Takatsuki. Cho helped her side to a runners-up finish in the league. The team also went onto reach the Empress's Cup final that season. Leonessa would face the challenge of Albirex Niigata. A penalty shootout ensued after a goalless draw. Cho would go onto converting her penalty in a 5-4 shootout victory. She helped the club capture their sixth Empress's Cup title.

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The standard of football in Japan was certainly a notch above that of her home nation. Reflecting on the differences, Cho So-hyun remarked:

"The intensity and detail of training were different, and the training itself was not easy. It is because if you are not always smart, you cannot understand the training. It is difficult to explain in words, but the Japanese football that I learned was so much that my head was cramped with my movement and thoughts every minute of every day. I think Japanese football is like this."

The European journey begins

After a lone season back home, Cho So-hyun became the first-ever South Korean player to sign for a Norwegian club. The midfielder penned a one-year deal with Avaldsnes in 2018. Cho knew it was a massive step up, and it was going to be a completely different challenge in Europe. In addition, she would get the opportunity to rub shoulders with the very best players in the UEFA Women's Champions League.

Avaldsnes was clubbed in a group alongside Sporting Lisbon, Osijek and ZFK Dragon. Cho started in all three group matches, helping the red and whites to victories over Sporting and Dragon. A draw with Osijek meant Avaldsnes progressed to the next round, after topping the group. A tough draw meant the team faced perennial winners Olympique Lyon in the knockout round. A 7-0 aggregate loss followed, but it was a massive learning curve for the South Korean.

Avaldsnes and Cho So-hyun had a tough time in the league that season. A ninth-place finish in the Toppserien was way below the team's aspirations, but Cho was a pivotal member of that team. In spite of all the difficulties adjusting to a new league in a new continent, Cho So-hyun had swiftly made a name for herself in her debut season in Europe. However, it wasn't easy by any means:

"In Korea, I would say I am one of the stronger players, but in Europe, it is definitely very physical. To be honest, I was afraid to fight. But the more I played, the more I got used to it, the more I learned how to adjust my game, I think."


Joining the elite

The following year, London rivals West Ham United secured the services of Cho So-hyun to bolster their midfield. She made her FA Women's Super League debut against Manchester City. This was followed by a hard-fought 2-1 win over Reading, with Cho providing both assists in the match. After a mid-table position was achieved in the league, West Ham turned their attention towards the Women's FA Cup. 
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The Hammers had defeated Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield Town and Aston Villa to make it to the last four of the prestigious competition. West Ham and Reading played out a 1-1 draw. The team could not be separated hence, a penalty shootout was needed to determine who would progress to the final. With the scores tied at 3-3, Cho So-hyun stepped up to convert the decisive spot-kick and send West Ham to Wembley. She went onto receive the Player of the Round trophy for her display. 

Despite losing to Manchester City in the final, Cho earned plenty of plaudits for her performances that season. Cho So-hyun was now part of a select group of individual footballers and was leaving her mark in one of the elite leagues in the world.      

World Cup 2019 - Tough time in France

The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup in France was a disappointing outing for the Korea Republic. The Taegeuk Nangja exited after losing all their group stage matches versus hosts France, Norway and Nigeria. 

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However, Cho So-hyun is always someone who focuses on the positives rather than the negatives. The opening match against the hosts in front of a 45,000 crowd at the Parc des Princes continues to be one of her favourite memories donning the national team colours. Speaking about the World Cup opener, she quipped:

"I want to talk about the opening game (of the 2019 World Cup) against France (4-0 loss). The score would be different, but I think about whether I would ever be able to play that type of game in my football career. I was able to realise my level against a strong team, and I was happy to be playing in front of such a large crowd."    


Adieu Hammers

Cho So-hyun returned to club duties for West Ham United. She helped the East London club to an 8th place finish in the league. By now, she had become one of the fan favourites for her club. However, manager Matt Beard who had brought her to England departed for Liverpool via Bristol City. Olli Harder was appointed as the new man in charge of the Hammers. 

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Cho soon realized that a change of scenery was necessary for her career. Speaking about that period, she said:

"The new manager is a good person, but it's not a tactical style that suits me, so I thought I had to leave. Actually, I gave it a lot of thought. I had settled in well at West Ham and it wasn't easy to let go of. Still, it was a time when something needed to change."    

Tokyo 2020 - So close, yet so far

Back with the national team, Cho So-hyun and the Taegeuk Nangja were aiming to create history by qualifying for the Olympic Games for the first time in their history. The Korea Republic topped a group, containing Vietnam and Myanmar without much fuss. They were then slated to face China in a two-legged play-off affair to determine who goes through to Tokyo.

The Koreans suffered a 1-2 defeat at the Goyang Stadium to China in the first leg. However, in the away match at the Suzhou Olympic Sports Centre, the team gave it their all. The girls showed immense grit to win the match 2-1 and take the tie to extra time. But backed by the raucous home support, the Chinese scored an extra-time goal which ultimately proved decisive. 

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Despite the disappointment, Cho So-hyun is focused on the future rather than dwelling in the past:

"The results are what they are and I think this is our limit. It is important to acknowledge and accept the result. Only then can you properly prepare for the next competition."     

Inspiration for the next-gen

Cho So-hyun is an iconic figure not just in Korean football, but in the entire Asian football fraternity. At 33, she continues to raise the bar and perform consistently at the highest level. 

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There are several young girls who look up to her as an inspiration. Cho So-hyun has some words of advice for the talented crop of players who are waiting in the wings to come up the ranks:

"I hope that the young players will do well so that they can make it to the national team quickly. It doesn't matter how old you are, players should let their ability do the talking. Don't see it as just needing to compete with players of the same age, I want you to aim higher." 

Shibajee DasJung Mu-yeol & Paul Neat

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