North Korea have clinched a place in the World Cup finals for the first time since 1966. That appearance in England remains one of the most extraordinary in the history of the finals — perhaps as extraordinary as the fact that the North Korean team of today is almost as much as an enigma emerging from a closed society as that of their predecessor over forty years ago.
Heading into the 1966 finals as Asia’s sole representative just over a decade after a war that had devastated and divided their country, North Korea were 1000-1 outsiders to win the World Cup, despite the proud boast of their specially composed World Cup anthem that proclaimed “We can beat everyone, even the strongest team”. North Korea had qualified by beating Australia in a playoff, after many other Asian and African countries had withdrawn in protest that only one team from the two continents would be granted a place in the finals.
Getting entry into the United Kingdom proved to be a considerable challenge in itself for the North Koreans. Lacking diplomatic relations with Great Britain since the Korean War, the British Foreign Office took their time granting the Koreans entry clearance, and only relented when it was agreed their national anthem would not be played before games. The British Post Office even had to redesign a planned commemorative stamp and remove the North Korean flag after the Foreign Office objected to the design.
The North Koreans entered the tournament an enigma to the British press. The Times‘ 1966 World Cup finals preview said that “the North Koreans, offering a string of names that have the sound of waterfalls, remain for the moment a mysterious, unknown quantity.” The Times‘ correspondent expected Italy and Russia to waltz through the group that also included the North Koreans and Chile, as the Italians have “the cut and look of finalists”. And despite the preview already admitting the North Koreans were an unknown quantity, the Times’ correspondent was dismissive of their chances:
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 Russia should have the run of the place.
The shroud of mystery was lifted from the North Koreans in their first match, a 3-0 loss to Russia that earned them plaudits as plucky underdogs (or the “little Orientals”, as The Times called them), who won the support of the Middlesborough crowd.
At Ayresome Park again for the second match, North Korea earned a draw with Chile, with The Times waxing that “rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts as the football followers of Middlesborough have taken these whimsical orientals.” Their teamplay and effort was praised to the hilt, but quite why the people of Middlesborough embraced the Koreans so strongly was a mystery to the players themselves.
“It still remains a riddle to me,” North Korea’s Ring Jung-sun told the BBC in 2002. “The people of Middlesborough supported us all the way through. I still don’t know the reason why.”
But it was against Italy, who needed a point themselves to qualify for the knockout stage, that North Korea staged one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport in front of 19,000 awed and partisan fans at Ayresome Park. A goal by Pak Doo Ik, struck sweetly into the bottom-right corner of the net in the 42nd minute, was roared in by the crowd. Perhaps more importantly, just minutes earlier the Italian captain, Giacomo Bulgarelli, was stretchered off and did not return. The Italians could not break down the Koreans in the second half, with the press praising Pak Seung Zin and Ha Jung Won’s monumental workrates.
3,000 fans from Middlesborough followed North Korea across the country to Everton’s ground Goodison Park for their quarter-final match-up against the legendary Portugese. The Koreans raced out to a remarkable 3-0 lead after thirty minutes, only to be pegged back by Eusebio’s genius, the Portuguese coming back to win 5-3.
What happened to the North Korean team once they returned home was for decades as shrouded in mystery as the team had been on their arrival in England. The 2002 BBC documentary, The Game of Their Lives, attempted to answer this question, with rumours swirling for decades that the team had been sent to labour camps for allegedly womanising in Middlesborough.
It was clear that their time in England, and the connection the North Koreans had made, had left a lasting impression on the players, as the filmmakers Dan Gordon and Nick Bonner recount in this interview:
If you interviewed football players of today, you would get the usual “Yeah, it was a good game of two halves” response. But what we got from our interviews was wonderful. Rim Jung Son and his quote: “We saw lightness out of the darkness.” Pak Do Ik and his quote: “I learned that football is not only about the winning. Wherever we go . . . playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.”
The filmmakers found no evidence that the players had been mistreated in their return to North Korea, and Dan Gordon concluded that “I know for certain that they were heroes on their return and are heroes now.” Seven members of the team returned to England with the filmmakers, where they received standing ovations at Middlesborough and Everton matches.
North Korea’s appearance in the 2010 World Cup is unlikely to repeat such a fairytale, but it’s a history worth remembering for perhaps the greatest underdog story ever in the World Cup finals.