Top 100 World Cup Moments (From the Aussie P.O.V.): 38-The Magnificent Comrades of North Korea (1966)

World Cup England 1966 Italy v North Korea Ayresome Park

Previously in this countdown we’ve looked at the time when Australia first tried qualifying for the cup and went down to a well organised and strict North Korean side by some cricket score to get to England ’66. By the time this tournament had rolled around North Korea had given the odds of 1000/1 to win the tournament, this I guess is what comes with the territory when you’re a closed insular communist country.

The players were all based with North Korean clubs unsurprisingly and were all aged 27 or under and fit enough to not only run most teams off the pitch but probably kill them five different ways before they hit the ground thanks to their career in the army. The players were wined and dined at one of the million-and-one palaces of leader Kim Il-Sung (the grandfather of the current despot glorious leader) who implored them to go on and score a couple of goals to represent the ‘coloured’ people of Asia against the Europeans and South Americans.

With pride instilled North Korea almost never actually got to the World Cup with the home office in the UK taking for ever to process their visas. With only 14 years since the end of the Korean War (which technically was still raging between the Koreas) the UK Government were a little touchy about what the North Koreans might get up to with the whole cold war thing going but a last minute approval was given for them to visit the host country, with the proviso that their national anthem would not be played. God knows why. Didn’t seem to harm the North Koreans though, they just came up with a new anthem with lyrics such as “we can beat everyone, even the strongest team”…Jagger/Richards eat your heart out.

The North Korean side were based in Middleborough which may have made the Koreans feel at home with all the smog, awful weather, unemployment and poverty but it took a while for them to warm up in the tournament itself. In the first match they come up against the fancied Soviets and were done 3-0, whether it was because the call came in from Moscow on the hotline to Pyongyang for the side to lay down to their bigger socialist brothers is unknown but that’s one for you conspiracy types with tin foil in your hat to look into.

In the next match they were up against Chile and despite dominating play could not find a way through and were down 1-0 after half an hour thanks to a Marcos penalty. The North Koreans rallied and after what seemed like an eon finally equalized through Seung-Zin Pak who decided to have a crack (and a spectacular one it was) rather than try and pass the ball in to the net, their first ever goal in a World Cup to take a point through the 1-1 draw.

In the final match of their group they would come up against the mighty Italians who had a side full of manicured slick alpha males and superstars from the Milan sides, Bologna, Roma and Fiorentina. So with a win required this was to be North Korea’s end but this would turn out to not be the case in front of 18,000 at the crammed Ayresome Park in Boro. Italy were openly confident about making progress and dominated the early stages of the game, when Perani could have scored twice. On the second occasion, his close-range volley produced a stunning save from Lee Chan-Myung. Italy lost Bulgarelli after half an hour when he aggravated a knee injury and were forced to play the rest of the match with only 10 men. It proved crucial.

Just over ten minutes after Bulgarelli went off, Park Doo-Ik wrote himself into the record books. The ball was headed towards the Italian area, where Park collected it before hitting the ball across Albertosi along the ground. After that North Korea grew in confidence and could have scored two or three times in the second half with their peak fitness leaving the Italians floundering, it ended 1-0 and one of the great upsets was complete. Italy would go home to have their coach sacked and three players never picked for Italy again, even the plane carrying the team was pelted with objects and fruit when it landed back in Italy.

North Korea were unbelievably in to the quarter finals (the first Asian country to ever make it that far) and by now had attracted the support of the locals in Middleborough, something in which they were thankful and at the same bemused by. 3000 Middleborough residents made the trip over to Liverpool to support the side for the quarter final in which the North Koreans would face Portugal. Would this be the time that North Korea would finally fall? Well, for the first it definitely didn’t look like that would be the case. Pak scored straight from kick off and the Koreans were away running the legs off Portgual.

They were 2-0 up after 22 minutes through Dong-Woon Lee and then were up 3-0 through Yang! By now the folk of Middleborough were now debating the issues of whether they support North Korea or England in the semi final but they have been premature as the irrepressible Eusebio decided to take the game by the neck and virtually kick it’s head in with his hobnail boots, two goals each to Eusebio in either half and a finishing goal from Augusto saw the Portuguese win 5-3. Despite the loss the North Koreans were still heroes and not just for their repressed comrades back home.

North Korea 1966 squad in Middlesbrough in 2002

Maybe they were loved because they knocked Italy out or because they played a style of football way before its time but they left a huge mark on the tournament. In 2002 filmmaker Dan Gordon went to North Korea to track down the players from ’66 and made it in an excellent documentary called ‘The Game of their Lives’. He was surprised to see that only seven of the original squad of 22 were still alive behind the borders. 6 of those made it back to Boro in that same year and were paraded in front of the crowd at the new Riverside stadium, ‘paradise’ as some of the squad would call it. The Middlesbrough ladies team also did a tour of North Korea to cement the heartfelt relationship between them.

With North Korea making it to their second World Cup in 2010 you can’t help but think back to the heroes of ’66. One of the great pioneering nations from Asian football.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

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