The year North Korea shocked football
North Korea 1 Italy 0. Four decades on, the sensational defeat of the
two-time world champions by a team of unknowns from the insular nation
ranks as perhaps the greatest shock in World Cup history.
The North, heading to South Africa for only their second appearance
in football’s showpiece, scripted their own fairytale in a remarkable
campaign 44 years ago that gripped the imagination of the English
Largely written off as exotic no-hopers, fans took the “Chollima” to
their hearts as they reached the last eight, threatening another huge
upset in the quarter-finals before bowing out.
Coming into the 1966 tournament, there was little to suggest that
North Korea were about to rock the boat.
They reached the finals by beating Australia in a play-off after
African nations withdrew from qualifying, protesting against a decision
to allow only one qualifier from Africa, Asia and Oceania. South Korea
also pulled out.
The run-up to the finals in England had its glitches, with a design
for a Post Office stamp to commemorate the tournament banned by the
Foreign Office because it featured the flag of North Korea, not
recognised by Britain just 13 years after the end of the Korean War.
There were also to-ings and fro-ings over the flying of the flag and
the playing of anthems.
When they did finally arrive in Europe, Britain’s Times newspaper
gave them no hope.
“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,”
its correspondent said.
But Rim Jung-Son, who appeared in a 2002 documentary “The Game of
Their Lives,” telling the story of the 1966 team, said North Korea had
left with the words of the “eternal” president Kim Il-Sung ringing in
“He embraced us lovingly and said ‘European and South American
nations dominate international football.
As representatives of the Asian and African region, as coloured
people, I urge you to win one or two matches,” Rim said in the film.
Their first match, against Russia, resulted in a 3-0 defeat with The
Times unimpressed with the “little orientals” from the “land of the
In their second outing North Korea drew 1-1 with Chile, and the Times
reported: “Rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts as the
football followers of Middlesbrough have taken these whimsical
But the match that defined their campaign was their 1-0 defeat of
10-man Italy, who lost their skipper, Giacomo Bulgarelli, to injury,
through Pak Doo-Ik’s solitary goal at Ayresome Park.
Followed to Liverpool by swarms of fans from the northeast, North
Korea were not done yet, almost penning an even more dramatic chapter at
Goodison Park when they raced into a 3-0 lead before a Eusebio-inspired
Portugal hit back to win 5-3.
Nick Bonner, an associate producer of the 2002 documentary, said to
this day the team is feted in North Korea and members were involved in
football until recent years.
“I think this was a team that was recast in the limelight when we
made the documentary but they’ve always been well known,” he said.
“When the current team came back after they’d qualified to go through
there was a massive reception for them and there were the players of
1966 in the front row,” he added.
For the team of 1966 it was more than just a game.
“I learned that football is not only about the winning,” said Pak in
the film. “Wherever we go, playing football can improve diplomatic
relations and promote peace.”
HONG KONG, AFP