When North Korea was everyone’s favourite country

North Korea

Every time I switch on the news these days or read the newspapers, there is often some really scary story about North Korea, ranging from nuclear bombs being tested to members of the ruling leader Kim Jong Un’s family being killed with a deadly poison at an airport. But, there was a brief moment in time, when North Korea became everybody in England’s favourite football team and took part in the best football match that I have ever seen in my life.

North Korea arrived for the World Cup in England in 1966 as the side that nobody knew anything about and nobody took seriously. They had no star players, no footballing history and no travelling support. Their qualification process had been bizarre in the extreme, which also prevented other countries finding out more about them. As the African and Asian countries withdrew en-masse, in protest after only being allocated one place in the finals, it came down to North Korea having to play two games against Australia in neutral Cambodia to qualify. Incredibly, the President of Cambodia had ordered half of the crowd to support Korea and the other half to support Australia, on the grounds of fairness!

Australia, a side with many seasoned European professionals were expected to win easily. North Korea won the first game 6-1 and the second game 3-1. The shocked Australian team could not believe how fit the Koreans had been. They obviously had not realised the Koreans had been preparing for this match in a high intensity training camp for six weeks. Sir Stanley Rous, the FIFA President, who was at both games warned that the North Koreans were not to be taken lightly. Few listened. When the group draw placed them with Russia, European champions in 1960 and runners up in 1964, Italy, twice World Cup Winners and Chile, World Cup semi -finalists in 1962, the quoted odds of at least 100-1 for Korea to progress from the group stage started to look generous.

However, as always with North Korea, there were a number of political issues to contend with. One of the unresolved issues of the Korean War which ended in 1953, was that the United Kingdom was still officially at war with North Korea and also it was in European and American eyes a country that did not officially exist. It was even suggested by some parliamentarians that North Korea be banned from entering. Frantic diplomatic discussions went on behind the scenes to ensure that North Korea could participate. Also how could a national anthem be played for a country that did not exist? A compromise was reached. Only two games would have national anthems played. The opening fixture and the final. Nobody seriously entertained the possibility of North Korea reaching the final! However, the North Korean flag was allowed to be displayed but the country could never be referred to as The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.

North Korea were to play all of their group games at Middlesbrough. It is fair to say that the prospect of watching North Korea did not exactly capture the public’s imagination. Their three games attracted crowds of 23006, 17829 and their game against Chile the lowest gate of the World Cup with 13792. However, this worked to the North Korean’s advantage as the Ayresome Park crowd took the underdogs to their heart, especially as they played in red, the colour of Middlesbrough.

They lost their first game 3-0 to Russia. The North Koreans, whose average height was only five foot three and whose tallest player was five foot seven, were physically intimidated by the muscular Russian side who weren’t afraid to use strong arm tactics to commit an excessive number of fouls. But the Middlesbrough crowd got behind the underdogs and the Korean team were pleasantly surprised by the level of support they received. After the game they returned to their hotel base at the St. George Hotel, by the newly constructed Teesside airport, only three hundred yards away from the runway. They were kept awake most nights by the noise of the aeroplanes!

In the next game , North Korea were losing to Chile , but they kept running and pressing until in the eighty eighth minute, Park Seung–Jin scored an equalising goal with a stunning shot from the edge of the area. The crowd went mad, celebrating as if North Korea had won the World Cup. In Middlesbrough the players had suddenly become stars, with people asking for their autographs and promising to support them against Italy. Most people were pleased that they had at least a goal and a point to show for their efforts. Their final game was against the Mighty Italians and a heavy defeat surely awaited them.

Except it didn’t. This was the basis of an Italian team that would go on to win the European Championship in 1968 and reach the World Cup final in 1970 but the pressure of the match seemed to unnerve them. The Italians were renowned masters of defensive solidity but the North Koreans had grown in confidence and constantly pressed and harried the Italians and in the forty second minute, Pak Doo–Ik , tackled the Italian captain Rivera and advanced towards goal, before unleashing a searing cross shot past the Italian keeper, Albertosi. The crowd could not believe what they were seeing and spent most of the second half chanting “Easy, easy” and “We want two”. North Korea won and Pak Doo–Ik is forever remembered for scoring one of the most famous goals in World Cup History. The Italians went home to be confronted by a seething mob of angry fans at Genoa airport who pelted them with tomatoes.

So, this meant that against all expectations, North Korea were coming to play Portugal in the quarter final of the World Cup at Goodison Park and I was going to be there! I had read all the match reports of the North Korea games and had watched all their games on the evening highlights programme. Suddenly North Korea were the team to follow.

North Korea lost a day’s training by travelling across from the North East to Liverpool. Once again, their hotel accommodation was totally unsuitable. The North Koreans had not reserved any lodgings in Liverpool in advance and therefore had to accept the offer of staying in the base which had been provisionally reserved for the Italian team. They ended up staying in the Jesuit Spirituality Centre, a nineteenth century country house in Rainhill near Liverpool. The concept of political correctness had yet to take hold in England in 1966, so the North Korean players who had grown up in an atheist state, suddenly found themselves sleeping in rooms with crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary. Most of the players were scared stiff by these religious images and were unable to sleep.

Incredibly, all the quarter final games were scheduled to kick off at the same time of 3PM on Saturday 23 July. This meant that both BBC and ITV chose to show the England v Argentina game live and so the best football game of the whole World Cup was not even broadcast live on television!

As I walked around Goodison Park, the streets were jam packed as a crowd of 51,000 turned up, including 3,000 fans who had travelled down from Middlesbrough to support their team! I knew that Liverpool had a long established Chinese population and it seemed as though every single one of them had turned up to support Korea. But it seemed as though every person with oriental heritage in the North West had turned up as well and brought their friends with them.

North Korea were playing in their second strip, an all-white outfit. Portugal wore their normal colours of red and green. I could not believe the difference in physique between the two sides. The Koreans were so small, thin and wiry compared to the much physically stronger Portuguese. The Portuguese striker Torres was six foot four and therefore a whole foot taller than most of the Korean team. How were they going to deal with him? And then there was Eusebio, the best player in the competition so far who had just scored two goals against Brazil. I sat back and waited for the slaughter to begin.

Portugal kicked off, but a loose pass in midfield gave possession to the Koreans who were attacking the end I was watching from, the Gwladys Street End. They played a series of swift passes, the ball ended up with Park Seung–Jin who drove the ball into the net from outside the penalty area. One – nil to North Korea after one minute! The crowd took a moment to take in what had happened and then utter bedlam as the Street End started to chant “Korea“, “Korea”. Many fans arriving late from the pub, rushed up to the terraces frantically asking “What’s the score mate?” Many took some convincing that North Korea were winning.

It couldn’t last could it? But the Koreans kept pressing, running and harrying at a blistering pace. Just like Italy, Portugal didn’t seem to know what had hit them but they started to recover and created a number of chances but the North Korean keeper, Li Chan Myung, was equal to them. Then after twenty two minutes, North Korea broke, the Portuguese keeper, Pereira completely misjudged a cross and Lee Don Wong was able to tap in from close range. Two – nil. Madness. Nobody could believe what they were seeing. The chant of “Korea” “Korea” grew louder and louder. This was followed by the sound of “We want three” echoing around the stadium. And then, unbelievably, the Street End burst into a chorus of “Easy, easy”

The Portuguese gave away possession again and the Koreans broke away. A shot from outside the box was deflected and ended up at the feet of Jang Sung Kook who swerved away from a defender and drilled the ball into the corner of the net. We were twenty five minutes into the game and North Korea were leading three –nil! The noise from the crowd was unbelievable. I looked around me, grown men were in a state of shock, shaking their heads, unable to take in what they were seeing. And then the chant went up “We want four”.

North Korea just needed to kill the game now, but they didn’t, they carried on attacking. It was to prove their undoing as Portugal’s skill and strength started to impose themselves on the game. Two minutes later Eusebio picked up a pass from Augusto and pulled a goal back. Portugal continued to create chances as the Koreans tired and Torres was brought down in the area to allow Eusebio to score form the spot to make it three- two. What a first half.

The Goodison crowd were vociferous in their support for the North Koreans to get them over the line. But the Portuguese were now in control and started to create more chances. Eusebio levelled the game with his third goal from a pass from Simoes. One player had single handledly brought his team back into the game. Three minutes later, Eusebio was hacked down in the area by two despairing defenders. He took the penalty himself and after fifty nine minutes it was Eusebio four – North Korea three. The Koreans were wilting and Augusto completed the fight back with a fifth goal in the eightieth minute.

At the final whistle the North Korean team slumped to the floor. They walked towards the Gwladys Street to take the applause of the crowd who carried on chanting “Korea, Korea”. We had taken them to our hearts and were so disappointed that they had lost.

But what a game! And I was there! I had seen Eusebio score four goals at Goodison. He was never to play in a World Cup again. I had seen North Korea play twenty five minutes of the most exhilarating football I had ever witnessed. They have never played in England since.

During my time on this planet, I have probably watched over two and a half thousand live matches, but to this day, I consider this to be the best football match I have ever seen!