The North Korea team that took the 1966 World Cup by storm are returning to England, as a new film documents their triumph. Harry Pearson has a preview
On Friday October 25 a worker from a North Korean textbook factory will return to the scene of his greatest triumph. Pak Do Ik has not been back to Middlesbrough since his goal set up what remains arguably the greatest shock in World Cup history, his country’s 1-0 win over Italy in 1966.
Ayresome Park is now a housing estate. The Holgate End, where support for the North Korean outsiders was so vociferous it fused the press-box lights (“They’ve never cheered Middlesbrough like this for years,” bellowed BBC commentator Frank Bough), is a communal garden. The area to the left of what was once the Holgate End penalty spot is somebody’s front lawn. But if you look very carefully you will see in among the neatly clipped grass the bronze cast of the imprint of a football boot – a sculpture by the artist Neville Gabie – that marks the spot from which North Korea’s No 7 struck his shot.
Pak Do Ik, along with the six other surviving members of that North Korea team, are coming to England for the first time since Eusebio’s barnstorming display at Goodison Park in the quarter-final removed them from the tournament. Daniel Gordon and Nicholas Bonner have spent the past five years making a wonderfully entertaining and moving documentary, The Game Of Their Lives, which tells the story of the North Korea team at the World Cup. They are the first Westerners to have been given permission to meet and film the players who caused such a sensation 36 years ago and then, apparently, disappeared without trace.
David Lacey, Bernard Gent and a clutch of the Middlesbrough fans who idolised them also contribute, as do a couple of the vanquished Italians. Gianni Rivera, looking like a wealthy technocrat from a Fellini movie, is still pleasingly grumpy about the whole business, disdainfully dismissing the North Koreans as an inferior team, though his former team-mate Sandro Mazzola is altogether more engaging, merrily chuckling as he recalls the Italians’ arrival back home to a hail of rotten fruit: “I didn’t get hit by anything. I was quick in those days!”
The film effectively juxtaposes archive commentary from the BBC and previously unseen footage shot by the North Korean documentary crew that accompanied the team throughout the World Cup, with film shot in the People’s Democratic Republic over the past few years. The latter varies from the spectacular, to the grim, to the downright eerie. Anyone who wonders what a team from east Asia would make of training at Billingham Synthonia should take a look at the playing surface of the pitch at the Ryongsong Cigarette Factory, a ruckled mud-patch on which we see The Tobacconists doing battle with The Paper Rollers under the watchful if slightly rheumy eye of Pak Do Ik’s old colleague, Yang Song Guk.
Most of the spookiness comes courtesy of Kim Il Sung, The Great Leader – a man so revered in North Korea that he remains head of state despite having been dead for eight years. At one point in the film the players in their medal-bedecked baggy suits and ill-fitting military uniforms (what has communism got against tailoring?) gather in the shadow of an enormous statue of Kim Il Sung and recall their meeting with him before they left for England. Suddenly one of them, the half-back Rim Jung Song, blurts out “I wish he was still alive!” and bursts into tears, sending several other team members into convulsive sobs. It is a moment at once touching and yet unnerving, like watching an elderly German weeping over his old comrades.
Kim Il Sung loomed large in thoughts of the players throughout the World Cup. Recalling a period of self-doubt before the qualifying game against Australia, centre-half Rim Jung Song says: “Then I remembered what The Great Leader had said to us, ‘In order to be a good footballer you must run swiftly and pass the ball accurately.’” This suggests that had the bottom ever fallen out of the dictatorship market The Great Leader could have found gainful employment as an east Asian Trevor Brooking, yet such is the belief in his wisdom among North Koreans that this bland comment was enough to refire Rim Jung Song’s belief in himself. The team thrashed Australia 9-2 on aggregate.
Those games highlighted some of the problems surrounding the North Korean team. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the north had been completely isolated. Since Australia and North Korea did not officially recognise each other, both games were played in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Similar troubles attended the trip to Britain. The foreign office thought of refusing visas, but that might have lead FIFA to move the World Cup, so instead they came up with a series of diplomatic compromises. The team would be called “North Korea”, never the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; the flag could be flown, but national anthems would be played only before the first match and the final – neither of which was expected to involve Pak Do Ik and his fellows.
And so the North Koreans arrived at London Airport and then trundled northwards on British Rail singing their patriotic songs (“Carrying the nation’s honour on our shoulders” runs one) and signing autographs for ladies with beehive hair-dos and wing-tipped spectacles. In Middlesbrough, the mayor, mindful of the fact that many locals might be mistrustful of the visitors with whom this country had so recently been at war (“We were the enemy,” Pak Do Ik observes candidly) made a whole-hearted effort to ensure the North Koreans were given a warm welcome. It succeeded beyond all hopes. “It remains a riddle to me,” says Rim Jung Song. “The people of Middlesbrough supported us all the way through – I still don’t know why.”
One Boro fan who watched the games offers an explanation: “They were small for a start, which was a novelty. They were like a team of jockeys. But they moved the ball around. They played good football.” The size thing (the average height of the team was just 5ft 5in) was indeed a factor. In their first game against the Soviet Union the North Koreans were knocked flying by their much larger opponents who, to use a technical term, simply kicked the shit out of them. As David Lacey says, it was the sight of small men being bullied that really awakened the sympathy of the crowd.
After that, North Korea became the home side at Ayresome Park and hundreds of people travelled from Teesside to Liverpool to watch them take on Portugal, where they amazingly took a 3-0 lead after 24 minutes, only to succumb 5-3 thanks to the brilliance of Eusebio. “His shooting was so accurate and so powerful. I was just not good enough to save it,” recalls the goalkeeper Ri Chan Myong, with an honesty and frankness some Premiership net-minders might learn from.
In the end, though, the result was hardly the point: “The English people took us to their hearts and vice versa,” says Pak Do Ik. “I learned that football is not about winning. Wherever we go… playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.” The North Koreans’ trip back to England this autumn should prove his point.
From WSC 189 November 2002. What was happening this month