In a painful 3-2 loss against Ghana, one bright spot for South Korea was the stellar performance of Cho Gue-sung, who scored a brace in his first World Cup.
With South Korea down 2-0 heading into the second half, Cho scored at the 58-minute mark with a header from Lee Kang-in’s cross. Just three minutes later, he soared above the defense for the second goal, this time assisted by Kim Jin-soo.
This is the first time a Korean has ever scored more than once in a World Cup match.
Only three Koreans have more World Cup goals than Cho: Ahn Jung-hwan, Park Ji-sung, and the incumbent South Korean captain Son Heung-min, who each have three.
Cho, 24, has only recently joined Paulo Bento’s squad by playing in the World Cup qualifier against Lebanon in September of last year. While he has always been a reliable member of the national team, he was often eclipsed by world-class teammates like Son and Kim Min-jae.
But the young striker’s popularity has been rapidly growing since his World Cup debut last Thursday against Uruguay, a brief appearance off the bench. The number of followers on his Instagram page skyrocketed from around 20,000 to over 750,000, a figure which jumped again to over 1.3 million as of Tuesday, the day after the Ghana match.
Prior to Monday, attention toward Cho’s good looks possibly outweighed his considerable skills on the field. When you type in his name in Google, the autocomplete recommends words like “type of woman Cho likes,” “Cho dating,” “Cho marriage” and “Cho Park Seo-joon,” with many fans comparing his looks to the Korean actor Park.
But Cho has proven time and again his presence in the field. He played a crucial role in Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors winning the K League championship and the Korean FA Cup in 2020. In 2022, he was named to the K-League Best XI and was the league's top scorer.
After Monday’s heroics he is establishing himself as one of the most prominent young players in South Korea, despite not playing in a high-profile European league.
Another thing that stands out about Cho is his humility. Despite the only Korean to score so far in Qatar, his first words after Monday’s defeat was, “I apologize to the fans who stayed up late (in South Korea) to watch the game.”
“I was just an insignificant player, and I can’t believe I’m playing in the international level,” he added.
The World Cup is often an opportunity for players playing in relatively less prestigious leagues to showcase their talent to the world. The aforementioned Park Ji-sung, former midfielder of Manchester United and longtime captain of the national team, was picked up by European scouts after his standout performance at the 2002 World Cup, when he was just a 21-year-old with little international profile.
Fans of Cho are keen to see if he will be able to do what others before him have done, and ride his newfound fame all the way to the big leagues.