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Koo Ja-cheol Returns to Jeju United

In yet another big transfer window move, former South Korean international Koo Ja-cheol has returned to Jeju United as announced by the club on Tuesday night.  He was a standout player in high school and began his senior career with the islanders in 2007 after being selected in the draft.  He played four seasons in the K League before moving abroad to play in Germany with VfL Wolfsburg.  He spent the majority of his time in the Bundesliga, playing for FC Augsburg, and also had a stint in Mainz 05 before heading to Qatar, where he played for Al-Gharafa and Al-Khor.  KLU's Branko Belan takes a closer look at one of the most influential players in Korean football history.
(Photo Credit: Jeju Weekly)

Early Career

After leading Boin High School to a runners-up finish in the Baekrok High School football competition in 2006, a tournament held on Jeju Island, he caught the attention of then-manager Jung Hae-seong, who decided to take a chance on him in the draft.  Things didn't start well for him in his first two seasons, however, as his playing time was limited due to injury.

His breakout season came in 2010 when Jeju claimed a second place finish in the league, with Koo leading the league in assists and being selected to the K League Best XI that season.  His performances for his home club earned him the chance to move abroad, as he joined VfL Wolfsburg the following year.

Success in the Bundesliga

Koo Ja-cheol is one of the three most successful South Korean players ever to play in the Bundesliga. Photo Credit: Bundesliga.com.
As with Jeju, Koo had difficulty at first acclimating to his new surroundings in Germany.  Between 2011 to 2014, he made just 32 appearances for his new club before going out on loan to FC Augsburg, where he would spend the majority of his time in Germany's top flight.  He enjoyed great success with the Bavarian club, making a total of 155 appearances, scoring 23 goals with thirteen assists across all competitions, making a permanent move to the team in 2015.  His most successful campaign was in 2015/16, when he scored eight goals and added four assists in 27 matches but Augsburg would finish the season in twelfth place.

The team did have a measure of success in the Europa League that year, passing the group stage after finishing second behind Athletic Club in Group L.  Despite being level on points with Serbian side Partizan Belgrade, the German outfit had a better goal difference.  Koo featured eight times in the competition that year.

Koo also had a stint with Mainz 05 in the 2014/15 season.  While he had a good season personally, the club only managed to finish in eleventh place and was knocked out of the Europa League in the qualifying rounds.  

In 2020, he eclipsed 200 appearances in the Bundesliga and ranks third all-time in terms of the success of Korean players in German football alongside Son Heung-min and Cha Bum-kun.  He was offered a contract extension with Augsburg at the end of the 2019 campaign but declined to sign as he wanted to move to a bigger club but a deal could not be worked out and his time in Germany came to a close.  He spent the next three years in Qatar but now it's time for a change once more.

International Career

Koo Ja-cheol scored nineteen goals for his country over his international career. Photo credit: The Korea Herald.
Koo had a successful international career, helping South Korea to a third place finish at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, where he led the scoring chart with five goals, also adding three assists.  After finishing the group stage undefeated with wins over Bahrain and India and a draw against Australia, extra time would be needed to defeat Iran by a single goal in the quarterfinals.  A semifinal loss on penalties to bitter rivals Japan set up a third place playoff with Uzbekistan, where Koo would notch a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win.

The following year, he was selected and named captain of the Olympic team for the Summer Games in London.  The team once again went undefeated in the group stage with goalless draws against Mexico and Gabon, and also recorded a 2-1 win against Switzerland.  In what was considered the shock of the tournament, they knocked out hosts Great Britain 6-5 on penalties in the quarterfinals before losing to Brazil in the semifinals.  A measure of revenge was exacted in the bronze medal match, as Japan fell by a score of 2-0, with Koo scoring one of the goals.

His World Cup career was not as successful, as Korea failed to progress past the group stage on the three occasions he was involved.  He didn't play in South Africa in 2010 but captained the side four years later in Brazil.  He appeared twice at the last tournament in Russia, playing in the matches against Sweden and Germany.  In total, he represented his country on 76 occasions at the senior level, scoring nineteen goals.

Returning Home

When Koo first made the decision to move abroad to continue his football career, he made a vow to fans, promising to once again wear the orange of Jeju United when he returned to the K League.  According to team sources, there had been discussions for the move to happen at an earlier time, but final details could not be worked out.  Speculation had begun to swirl last season about a possible homecoming, but it didn't materialize.

This time around, however, despite making several moves in the winter transfer window already, it was determined that a move to bring him into the team was essential.  His return to the club will enhance the team culture and offers name recognition to the club and the league as a whole.  He will be an indispensable asset to the younger players in the team and can act as a bridge for the foreign players as well.

Once entering the country, he will undergo a seven-day quarantine according to a team source, after which he will start training with the rest of the team.  A meeting with fans is being arranged for the home match on March 6th against Suwon FC.  His actual role in the team is yet to be determined, but for now, he is not expected to be a standard first eleven player, at least until he works his way to full match fitness.  Several details of the move are yet to be worked out.  Financial terms of the deal are still undisclosed but will become official in the near future.

In any case, his return to Jeju and the K League will do much to boost the image of Korean football at home and will hopefully serve as a catalyst for the team to achieve success this year.  For Koo, this may likely be the final step in his career.  If so, it is fitting that he would come back to where it all started for him.  After having success abroad and with the national team, it would be a perfect final chapter to his football life.

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