Three years ago, the North Korean inhabitants were jumping for joy as their media broke the news that, just four years after becoming the lowest ranked side ever to reach the World Cup finals, their soccer heroes had launched their way, like a ballistic missile to the final of the World Cup 2014, in Brazil.
Of course, everybody outside of the Democratic People’s Republic knew that they hadn’t really turned the World Cup into a sea of fire. They hadn’t really beaten sworn enemies USA, 4-0. They hadn’t really put seven past the Japanese ‘puppets’. And they hadn’t even beaten their Chinese friends 2-0 on the way to ‘reaching the final’. In fact, they hadn’t even qualified for the tournament. But what the North Koreans don’t know, won’t hurt them, right?
But half a century ago, there was no need for spurious news reports of falsely-claimed success stories, as North Korea genuinely did shock the world, in England in 1966. OK, they didn’t quite reach the final, but they gave it a right good go – bowing out in the quarters. Whilst last-eight doesn’t seem like no great shakes these days (after all, even England usually manage it) for North Korea it was seen as a huge feat – especially as they managed to beat world-class Italy along the way.
The achievement was seen as even greater, owing to the fact that they almost didn’t make it to our isles. Amongst the controversy of the African, and some Asian nations withdrawing from the qualification campaign, the North Koreans had qualified for the tournament fair and square. However, the English government were reluctant to even grant the team visas. This was due to concerns over the political shockwaves that may occur with their involvement, following the Korean War.
But after threats from FIFA to strip England of hosting the World Cup should they block the DPRK from entering (oh yes, the same FIFA that awarded Qatar the tournament) and so the government backed down. Even after agreeing to let them in, the idea of not allowing the North Korean flag from being flown in England was considered as the government did not want the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ to be recognised as a bona fide nation.
But once again, the government would back down. They were, however, successful in preventing the North Korean national anthem to be played out, as all national anthems were not to be played out at the beginning of every game, but were to be played only at the beginning of the opening game, and before kick off in the final. Somewhat of a victory, then.
After reluctantly allowing the North Koreans to compete at the eighth World Cup, there was no real concerns that they might cause any problems when it came to on-the-pitch matters, as it was widely believed that their side was amateurish at best. It was expected that they would simply be swept under the carpet in the group stage by Italy, Chile and the Soviet Union. And in their first game, against the Soviet Union, that was very much the case.
But it was during this match that public opinion of the North Koreans started to sway. At an average height of just 5’5, DPRK were bullied by their national allies Russia, who used their height and weight advantage to toss their opponents around the pitch like rag dolls. But the spectators in attendance at Ayresome Park started to rally behind North Korea, putting political unrest to one side in order to throw their weight behind the underdogs.
Despite losing their first game, North Korea remained confident of qualifying – even if nobody else shared that optimism. As they came up against Chile, who finished 3rd in the 1962 World Cup, Korea were playing with a feeling of home-advantage, as the Middlesbrough public had adopted them as ‘their’ side. They were also the opposite of the amateurish and sluggish team that they had been predicted to be, as they played with pace and flare and looked the most likely to break the deadlock. And although it would be Chile who grabbed the first goal, via the penalty spot, with just two minutes remaining on the clock and the likelihood of elimination looming, number 8 Park Seung-Zin volleyed home to keep Korean dreams alive. After the game, the Ayresome Park crowd delivered a raptuous applause. Children even queued to get the autographs of the North Korean players.
Despite those last minute heroics, the underdogs still had to face Italy – who were two-time World champions, and powerhouses on the international football stage. A win was needed to progress, but despite finding their way into the hearts of the Middlesbrough residents, very few would have backed Korea to manage even a draw, let alone a win. Not less Italy, who would have seen the game as a formality of making their way into the quarter finals.
The Italians started off the game with dominance, as again was expected, and it took a few fine saves from nineteen year old Lee Chang Myung to keep his side in the tie. But the underdogs would not be intimidated by the Italians attacking intent and instead of sitting back and keeping a tight defence, North Korea fought back. In a twist-of-fate, an unfortunate incident that saw Italy captain Bulgarelli stretchered off, before the days of substitutions, gave Korea an extra-man advantage. And just before half time, a superb strike from Pak Doo-Ik handed them a shock lead – causing the Ayresome Park crowd to burst into cheer.
In the second half, even with a one goal and a one man advantage, North Korea did not sit back. They continued to attack Italy which proved to only frustrate their opponents. The Azzurri still managed to create a few chances, but they were all covered by the young goalkeeper.
North Korea had managed to hang on until the final whistle. Italy had crumbled, but North Korea, underdogs, minnows in the football world, had managed to defeat a huge footballing nation, who two years later would win the European Championship, and just four years later would become runners up in the World Cup. They defied the odds by reaching the quarter finals of the World Cup.
Heavy celebrations from the spectators ensued, as the Korean players wept tears of joys. No one would have believed that was possible, but they proved a lot of people wrong on July 19th, 1966, as the Italian team returned home to be pelted with eggs and rotten tomatoes. In fact, even to this day; whenever Italy are humiliated on the pitch, their fans will refer to it as ‘another Korea’.
After becoming the first Asian side to reach the quarter finals of the World Cup, the North Koreans had to leave Middlesbrough – which had become almost like their home-away-from home, where all their new fans were based – to set up camp in Liverpool, where they would prepare to meet Portugal at Goodison Park. Upon arrival at the train station, the team were given a celebrities’ welcome, as locals greeted them and asked them to sign autographs.
Minnows North Korea were living the dream, but they still had a huge task ahead of them. Even after those terrific results against Chile and Italy, the North Koreans’ chances were still written off by most fans of the game. But this time it was not a scoff at the North Korea team, but instead it was the sheer weight that was carried by Eusébio’s Portugal, who had won all three of their group games, scoring nine times and knocking out world champions Brazil in the process. 40,000 spectators would attend Goodison Park, including 3,000 fans who had made the 150-mile trip from Middlesbrough to cheer on their new, adopted team, whilst millions back home in the DPRK huddled around radio sets (back when they were allowed news from the outside world) – listening on in the hope that their footballing heroes could defy the odds once again.
North Korea were living the dream and having the time of their lives. They did not want to return home just yet. But they knew that they would have to give their all to defeat Portugal, and give it their all they surely did. The team left the tunnel and made their way out on to the pitch, to a heroes’ welcome. The whistle blew, Korea attacked and Pak Seung-Zin, inside of the first minute, rifled the ball off the bar and behind the line to stun the Portuguese. But they’d not seen anything yet.
Lee Chang-Myung defended his goal as if his life depended on it. Whilst Portugal peppered him with shots, the short ‘keeper pulled off fine save after fine save to keep the favourites at bay. It then got worse for Portugal as Dong-Woon capitalised on a defensive error to double the underdogs’ lead in the twenty second minute. And shortly afterwards, Yang Seung-Kook slotted home to make it three nil. Just 25 minutes on the clock, and it was Portugal 0 North Korea 3. The crowd started to chant ‘Easy! Easy! Easy!, they could not believe what they were witnessing. And the players could barely believe it either; they had one foot and four toes in the semi-finals of the World Cup.
‘We want four’ chanted the crowd – almost all 40,000 were rooting for North Korea now. They really were witnessing something special. But that special moment would not last for too much longer, as the Portuguese looked towards Eusébio to save the day, and just two minutes after going three-down, the 60’s answer to Christiano Ronaldo pulled one back for his side.
In most cases, and especially those with so much riding on it – like a place in the World Cup semi-final – teams that are two goals to the good, whether they’re underdogs or not, would sit back on their lead and hope to see the game out without conceding anymore damage. But that was not the North Koreans’ style. They played with flair, they played with intent and they played with balls. And it cost them. Eusébio made it 3-2 just before half time, from the spot.
In the second half, the Koreans continued to attack Portugal, instead of keeping them at bay. They allowed their defence to be opened and it wasn’t long before Eusébio brought the affair level again, completing his hat trick in the process. And three minutes later, the game had been turned completely on its head; a fourth goal from the Portuguese wizard, his second from the spot, all but ended the hopes and dreams of the North Koreans. There was to be no way back now.
North Korea did not give up hope, nor did they cease to try, but a Jose Augusto goal sealed it for Portugal, and broke Korean hearts along the way. They had come so close to a dream match against the hosts England at Wembley stadium. But ultimately it was to be a combination of a lack of experience and the wizardry of one man that derailed their tremendous run.
The North Koreans were applauded off the pitch like winners. And in many ways, that’s what they were. That team had made the whole world stand to attention, and definitely made the whole of Asia proud. And upon their return to the home land, were greeted like national heroes. The nation’s newspaper described their players as having played like ‘magic’ and like ‘spiritual gods’. But it wasn’t just the North of the Korean peninsula where that team would be treated like heroes. They had also been taken to the hearts of the English public, and more specifically, they would always be welcome in the town of Middlesbrough.
There’ll always be fond memories in the history of football of those underdogs. Before Greece, before Wales, before Leicester… It was North Korea who shocked the world.