Cha Bum-kun was the pioneer, moving to Germany when in his prime. When he arrived at Eintracht Frankfurt, the greatest footballer that South Korea has ever produced was 26.
He left Bayer Leverkusen a decade later, having won the Uefa Cup with both clubs. For years, Cha remained the gold standard for Asian footballers, proof that they, too, could mix it with the best in the game.
Hidetoshi Nakata left Bellmare Hiratsuka for Perugia in Italy in 1998, but is best remembered in Europe for the stunning goal against Juventus that helped Roma clinch the Scudetto in 2001.
His time in Italy was a qualified success, but he was never considered one of the league's elite as Cha had been in Germany. It was another Korean that eclipsed Cha, first with PSV Eindhoven and then Manchester United.
Park Ji-Sung was the first Asian to play in a Champions League final (2009). He appeared in another one two years later.
But for every Park, there's a Dong Fangzhuo, whose four years with United were mostly spent on loan at Royal Antwerp. For years it was hard to ignore the feeling that several Asian players were signed only to increase merchandising. Even Li Tie, China's best-known player at the time, arrived at Everton on the back of a deal with Kejian, their sponsors at the time.
In that context, Shinji Kagawa's move to United is a watershed moment.
United have invested in a young Asian who was a star of Borussia Dortmund's title-winning campaign. If it all works out, he could scale heights that even Cha and Park could not.
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