North Korea is once more among headlines after the death of Kim Jong-il and the succession by his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. This is the story of them reaching the sports headlines in 1966.
The North Koreans were the underdogs of the football world cup in 1966 which was the only football world cup tournament they qualified in the last century. But in that tournament, they unceremoniously threw out one super power in football and nearly gave the same treatment to another.
North Korean qualification may have been helped by many Afro-Asian countries boycotting the qualifiers to protest against the allocation of only one place in the tournament to the two regions. The North Koreans had to overcome the Australians in a play-off which they did comfortably and they were on their way to England.
Diplomatic Issues with the United Kingdom
But getting into England was easier said than done. Because the United Kingdom had no diplomatic ties with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the foreign office took its time to grant special permission for the Koreans to get in. The foreign office finally agreed on the ground that North Korean national anthem was not to be played before the matches. A commemorative stamp had to be redesigned as the foreign office objected to having the North Korean flag in it.
The Reception at Middlesborough
The North Koreans were to play their group matches in the North East of England, at Ayresome Park, Middlesborough. No one in England or much of the rest of the world gave them a big chance of advancing to the next stage. But surprisingly, the people of Middlesborough gave them overwhelming support.
Their first game against the formidable Soviet Union proved the point of the majority of football world as North Korea were defeated 3-0. Their next game against Chile also would have been lost had not Pak Seung-Zin equalized in the 88th minute. The greatest triumph of the little Koreans was yet to come.
With the home crowd backing them strongly, the underdogs met Italy on the 19th of July, 1966. The Italians needed at least a draw to advance but no one doubted them losing except a few. But, the Koreans had something else in mind. In the 42nd minute, a nicely timed shot by Pak Doo-Ik found the lower right corner of the net. North Korea was up 1-0, and the Italians could not change the score despite all their effort. It was perhaps the greatest upset in world cup history. Furthermore, it is considered to be the biggest humiliation suffered by Italy in a world cup tournament if not in any international game.
Portugal also Baffled
The Middleborough fans were so thrilled that around 3000 accompanied their heroes to Liverpool for the quarterfinal against Portugal. They were not disappointed as after just 25 minutes, the Koreans were leading 3-0! The North Koreans for their part just waltzed around the Portuguese continuing the attacking game plan with little thought of defending their gain. Even then, the Koreans may have won if not for Eusebio, the African born Portuguese genius who personally took command of the game. He scored four as North Korea went down 5-3.
The Game of Their Lives
What happened to the team after their return to North Korea remained a mystery to the outside world until recently and speculations of mistreatment was common. But a team of BBC filmmakers found out that this was not so when they interviewed 7 surviving members of the legendary team to produce a documentary aptly named “The Game of their Lives.” They had been heroes then and heroes now.