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North Korea: The Secret Heroes of the 1966 World Cup

North Korea and the 1966 World Cup

Think about the 1966 World Cup. Now forget about England. Yes, forget that colossal, landmark, heart-tugging, endlessly poignant victory, and put aside that iconic image of Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. Because there was another story that unfolded during that epic tournament. A story of unlikely underdogs who overcame Cold War tensions and a befuddled British government to win over the hearts of the nation – and send a major footballing power home into the bargain. Take a bow, North Korea.

The saga of North Korea in the 1966 World Cup is like something out of a film. To begin with, let’s consider the context. Just over a decade earlier, the Korean War had come to an end. This was a violent flashpoint in the wider Cold War, with North Korea supported by the Soviets, and South Korea backed by the west. Tensions around the dictatorship in North Korea were still high, and when their national team qualified for the World Cup in the UK, the British government suddenly had a diplomatic crisis on its hands.

Stumped at the prospect of allowing in a team from a nation it didn’t even consider legitimate, the Foreign Office even contemplated refusing to grant visas to the North Koreans. They saw it as a neat way to nip the problem in the bud, and avoid rubbing the US or South Korea up the wrong way. But they were up against the forces of football. “If we do this the consequences could be very serious,” an internal Foreign Office memo said. “FIFA has made it very plain to the FA that if any team that has won its way through to the finals is denied visas, then the finals will take place elsewhere.”

British authorities reluctantly accepted there was no way of stopping North Korea’s entry without being accused of sullying the beautiful game with politics. Still, on the bright side, the North Koreans probably wouldn’t progress far in the competition, right? As one newspaper column sniffed, “Unless the Koreans turn out to be jugglers, with some unexpected ploy like running with the ball cushioned in the crook of their necks, it looks as though Italy and the Soviets should have the run of the place.”

This was a reference to some of North Korea’s rivals in Group 4. The other team they were up against was Chile. But first there was the matter of getting the North Korean players to their destination – Middlesbrough. On the train up from London, the team stunned and amused passengers by bursting into patriotic songs celebrating North Korea, but their enthusiasm dissipated as tiredness set in, and the language barrier began to make things rather tricky.

But the ice was broken when the local mayor accepted the team’s gift – an embroidered picture of a bird – and the players settled into training close to a chemical plant. The North Koreans’ gracious manners and good humour, not to mention the fact they played in red, like Middlesbrough, quickly endeared them to the locals. But there didn’t look to be any upsets when they were vanquished in the first group match against the Soviet Union. Their fellow Communist comrades beat North Korea comfortably, 3-0, at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough.

“Rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts as the football followers of Middlesbrough have taken these whimsical Orientals.”

But just a few days later, North Korea showed a glimpse of the brilliance to come, by drawing 1-1 with Chile. This wasn’t supposed to happen, and there was an upsurge in local enthusiasm for the plucky underdogs. As a Times journalist put it, in the typical tone of the time, “Rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts as the football followers of Middlesbrough have taken these whimsical Orientals.”

And then came the Italy game. As one local Middlesbrough fan later recalled, “Everyone had gone along to see a class Italy side. But the game was turned on its head.”

“Pak Doo-Ik last night detonated one of the great explosions in soccer."

One of the key Italian players, Giacomo Bulgarelli, made a rough tackle which injured him so badly he had to leave the pitch. In those days, substitutions weren’t allowed, so Italy found itself a player down. And then came the now-iconic goal from North Korean player Pak Doo-Ik – a lethal blow by these Davids against the European Goliath. In the breathless words of a newspaper journalist, “Pak Doo-Ik last night detonated one of the great explosions in soccer. He scored the goal that hurled the Italians out of the World Cup. That sent the non-entities of North Korea into the quarter-finals. That sent the Land of the Morning Calm into a Middlesbrough night of frenzy.”

Progressing to the knockout stages, and sending a humiliated Italy back to their homeland in embarrassed disgrace, the North Koreans became the champions of Middlesbrough. Thousands of locals followed them to watch them play against Portugal at Goodison Park, where the shocks kept on coming, with North Korea scoring three goals in succession. Could the underdogs really send Portugal packing as well?

It was not to be – Portugal came roaring back, winning 5-3, and the unlikely dream of North Korea was over. Yet their showing at the ’66 World Cup is still the stuff of legend, and the victory over Italy counts as one of the all-time greatest upsets in the sport.

Pak Doo-Ik himself felt the significance of that moment went far beyond beating Italy. “When I scored that goal, the people of Middlesbrough took us to their hearts,” he said. “I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace."

History of Football is a 14-day 24/7 mega television event, running from May 28 to June 10, 2018.