North Korea's Unbelievable Triumph and Tragedy at the 1966 World Cup

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The North Korean team lines up before its match against Italy at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, during the 1966 World Cup.
The North Korean team lines up before its match against Italy at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, during the 1966 World Cup.Credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images
Eitan Bekerman
Eitan Bekerman

Sixteen teams took part in the eighth World Cup soccer tournament, in 1966. The soccer associations of Africa, Asia and Oceania were allotted just one slot between them. At the demand of the African confederation, apartheid-era South Africa was banned from the tournament. But 31 African nations, most of which had only recently become independent, had another demand as well: that a slot be reserved for one of the member states of the Confederation of African Football. When FIFA, the governing body of association soccer, refused, all the African teams left.

In Asia there was hardly any demand to participate in the event. Israel and Syria were assigned to Europe; most of the other national teams were apprehensive that they would embarrass themselves. Only two teams from Asia had managed to get into the seven previous World Cup tournaments, and they hadn’t left much of an impression. In 1938, Dutch East India (Indonesia) was thrashed 6-0 by Hungary, and in 1954 South Korea was trounced 9-0 by Hungary and 7-0 by Turkey. Not exactly performances that stirred a lot of motivation.

Still, in 1966 both Koreas wanted to take part in the Cup. But when the decision was made to move the qualifying games from Japan to Cambodia, South Korea dropped out for political reason. North Korea was left alone to take on Australia.

The amateur Australian team, consisting mainly of British expats, hadn’t played an international game for the seven preceding years. The Koreans, in contrast, had been preparing for a long time in order to make good on the dream of the “Great Leader,” Kim Il-sung, who wanted to display his ideology of “Juche” (“self-reliance”) to the world by fielding a winning soccer team.

The modus operandi, as in other areas of life, was to embody the spirit of “Chollima” (named for the swift, mythical winged horse commonly depicted in East Asian cultures), which also became the nickname of the national team. In practical terms, this meant absolute effort and sacrifice, physical and mental, for the sake of the homeland, which had been devastated during the civil war in the early 1950s. Some 2.5 million Korean civilians, on both sides, were killed during three years of war, along with a million or so soldiers, in which the United States and China played leading roles. The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, was largely razed to the ground by the U.S. Air Force. Much work still lay ahead for the Koreans, and it was best not to be slipshod.

The country’s best soccer players spent months at a closed training camp, to improve their fitness and the quality of their game, to generate blind understanding between them, and to imbue them with readiness to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the “eternal leader” and the homeland. The players trained with elastic bands on their legs in order to strengthen their muscles, and the goalkeeper Lee Chang-Myung, who was just 1.70 meters (about 5 feet, 7 inches) tall, leaped hundreds of times a day toward the crossbar of the net, until he was able to touch it from slightly above his elbow.

The Australians were far more relaxed than their rivals when they arrived for the two games in Cambodia. They’d learned the basics of the game in the “homeland of football,” their physical condition was far better, and lording it over Asians wasn’t foreign to them. The Cambodian ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, ordered the stadium in Phnom Penh to be filled with 55,000 viewers. One side of the arena was given the task of rooting for the Australians, the other for the North Koreans.

The Chollima burst onto the field at the opening whistle – and vanquished the Australians 6-1 in the first game and 3-1 in the second.

The diminutive Lee Chang-Myung, aka the “Flying Panther,” thwarting a kick on the North Korean goal during the July 15, 1966 game against Chile, at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough.Credit: PA Images via Getty Images

Soccer experts around the world barely took notice of the results which, after all, only determined the weakest team that would play in the final rounds of competition in England. The British Foreign Office, in contrast, was not pleased by the turn of events. Although 13 years had passed since the Korean War, in which Britain fought with the allies on the side of the South, London had not recognized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Formally, in fact, the two countries were still in a state of war. The British announced that they would not issue visas to the Koreans, whereby FIFA threatened to move the World Cup tournament elsewhere. The British said they would agree to a compromise – not flying the Korean flag – but that idea, too, was rejected. Finally they made do with an unusual decision: No national anthems would be played during the games, with the exception of the opening and final matches, when the anthems of both teams on the field were played. A kind of honorable loss, from their point of view.

In the meantime, back in Pyongyang, before their departure, the Korean players enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime thrill: They were invited to meet with the Great Leader. Kim Il-sung wished them success, emphasizing that they were representing not only Juche Korea but all of awakening Asia against the corrupt Western world. “One or two victories” would definitely satisfy him, he declared. Left unsaid was what they could expect if they returned without “one or two victories.”

Kim Il-sung wished them success. 'One or two victories' would satisfy him, he declared. Left unsaid was what they could expect if they returned without a win.

Even a single victory looked about as likely as landing on Mars in the face of the three soccer powerhouses the Koreans faced in the group stage: the Soviet Union, the European championships runner-up; Chile, third-place finisher in the previous World Cup, which it had hosted; and Italy, with its galaxy of stars, which had already won two World Cups. The only question that vexed the world was which of the three would not make it to the quarterfinals. The games between the three favorites were scheduled for Sunderland; the Koreans would play their three matches against the rest of the group in Middlesbrough.

‘Hoist the national flag’

Most of the 74 members of the North Korean delegation – players, coaches, managers, medics, cooks, photographers and a few individuals with unspecified roles – had never been out of their country. Nervously, they made their way from London to Middlesbrough, in North Yorkshire, by train. To cheer themselves up along the way, they sang “The Chollima Team,” a song they’d made up themselves: “We bear on our shoulders the national pride / We’re the acclaimed Chollima team / Who can beat anyone / Even the strongest team / We’ll show them all who we are / That’s right, we’ll fight until victory / Let’s hoist the national flag / That will fly festively as high as the sky.”

At the time, Haim Baram – Israeli politician, writer, journalist and soccer expert – was living in England and watched the tournament from start to finish.

“Middlesbrough,” he recalls, “was a gritty working town in northeast England, industrial, gray, gloomy, where the people wore faded clothes and caps. The local soccer team was also going through a horrible time. For the people of Middlesbrough, the very fact that they were hosting three World Cup games, even if they were all with the weak North Korean team, was cause for a festival of unprecedented dimensions. The Koreans were an attraction that drew the masses.”

On July 12, at 7:30 P.M., before 23,000 fans in the city’s Ayresome Stadium, the North Korean team took the field to play against the Soviet Union. The talented, beefy Soviet side played very aggressive soccer against a team of unknown players whose average height was 1.65 meters – but won by only 3-0.

A British Navy sailor on the field with Pak Seung-zin, who chalked up the one Korean goal against Chile.Credit: PA Images via Getty Images

More interesting was what happened in the stands. As the game went on, the crowd began to grow fond of the short-of-stature, but agile and energetic team, whose red uniform evoked that of the Middlesbrough team. The Soviets’ brutal playing style turned off the English fans with their tradition of fair play. In short order, every successful Korean move drew loud cheers. “English fans have a special fondness for the underdog,” Baram notes.

North Korea quickly became the “home team” of the Middlesbrough fans. Groups of young people clustered around the team’s training ground at the sports facility of a giant chemicals factory, watching the Koreans practice and hoping to get an autograph. Astute merchants manufactured and sold scarves and jerseys bearing the symbol of the North Korean flag.

For the second game, against Chile on July 16, a match that took place at the same time as the broadcast of the England-Mexico game England and Mexico, about 14,000 people local folk turned out to urge on the Koreans.

Chile, which had lost its first game to Italy, needed a win to advance. They took a 1-0 lead with a penalty goal by Ruben Marcos in the 26th minute. The Koreans displayed potent Chollima spirit, scurrying across the field like mercury, cheered on by the local fans wearing the scarves and hoisting the North Korean flag as they roared, “Korea! Korea!” As the minutes passed, the meeting with the “eternal leader” probably loomed large in the Koreans’ consciousness.

Most of the 74 members of the North Korean delegation – players, coaches, managers, medics, cooks – had never been out of their country.

The Korean goalie, Lee Chang-Myung, also known as the “Flying Panther,” leaped and darted out to prevent the Chilean team from scoring again. And then, two minutes before the end of the game, a Korean midfielder aimed the ball toward the Chilean penalty box. The captain, Pak Seung-zin, allowed it to bounce once and then booted it in the air, right into the corner of the goal.

After four losses and 26 goals scored against them in all seven of the World Cup games, an Asian team had not only scored but had achieved a sensational tie. A photograph in the next day’s local papers showed a British Navy sailor on the field, doffing his white hat in a gesture of esteem to the Chollima warriors.

‘Who would’ve believed?’

On July 19, again at 7:30 and this time before a crowd of 18,000, who passed up the television broadcast of the game between Portugal and world champions Brazil, the whistle blew to mark the start of the match between North Korea and Italy. The Italians had some of the best-known – and richest – players in the world, among them Giacinto Facchetti, Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera. The tough Italians, who were known for their defensive tactic, called the catenaccio (after the “chain” that locks doors), needed only a tie to advance into the quarter-finals, but there was no doubt in their hearts that they would win.

The Chollima team, too, was now more confident, and the crowd cheered them on, even as the Italians, appearing calm and sure of themselves, dominated the game. Three times in the first half the Flying Panther leaped high and wide to block what looked like certain goals. In the 34th minute, the Italian center back and captain, Giacomo Bulgarelli, collided with Pak Seung-zin, pulling a muscle, and having to be carried off on a stretcher. Substitutions were not allowed back then; the Italians had to play the rest of the game with 10 players.

The Italian defense found it difficult to reorganize without Bulgarelli. In the 41st minute, they distanced a harmless ball to the center of the field, and it was headed back to the right side of the box. Pak Doo-ik, Korea’s No. 7, broke loose from the dreaming defender at his side, coolly allowed the ball to bounce twice on the grass and then, with the inner side of his shoe, sent it toward the low, near corner of the net. The goalkeeper, Albertosi, leaped, but too late: The ball slid under his arm into the net. “Who would have believed it?” the British television commentator shouted.

Under pressure, the Italians abandoned their group game, as player after player tried by himself to salvage the honor of the homeland, but to no avail. The Koreans won. Some call it the greatest upset in World Cup history. “Many of us cried in the dressing room,” Mazzola related years later. North Korea advanced to the quarterfinals, together with the Soviet Union.

After the game, the North Korean team was invited to a festive meal hosted by the mayor of Middlesbrough. The next day, the team traveled by train to Liverpool, for the quarterfinal game against Portugal. Throughout the trip they sang, had their pictures taken with British women in floral hats and gave autographs to awestruck fair-haired children. No one in the world was happier than the North Korean soccer team: The Great Leader’s request had been fulfilled.

Jesus statue

The Koreans were staying just outside Liverpool, at a Jesuit retreat center called Loyola Hall, which had originally been booked by the Italians. The small rooms, each with a single bed, bore icons and crucifixes on the walls – objects the Koreans had never before encountered and which upset them. The center’s staff acceded to the team’s request and removed pictures and statues, but outside, visible from every window in the dark of night, was a large, projector-lit statue of Jesus nailed to the cross.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 fans made the 250-kilometer journey from Middlesbrough to Goodison Park stadium in Liverpool to watch the game on July 23. It was impossible to miss them with their North Korean scarves and red clothing, amid the more than 40,000 people who packed the stands.

North Korea quickly became the 'home team' of the Middlesbrough fans.

The Chollima team opened with a driving attack. In the very first minute, Pak Seung-zin scored with a rocket-like kick from outside, which hit just below the crossbar, to give Korea a 1-0 lead. Twenty minutes later, Yang Seung-kook played the ball into the center of the box, and Lee Dong-woon was there to boot it home. The whole crowd, which apparently preferred North Korea over Portugal as England’s rival in the semifinal, went wild. With typical British irony the fans burst out emotionally with the traditional chant, “Ea-sy! Ea-sy!” – meaning that they foresaw an easy win for the Koreans. In the 25th minute, the ball reached Yang Seung-kook in the center of the field and he drove it into the net easily. It was 3-0 against the team that had ousted Brazil in the previous stage. Madness.

But then Eusebio, the “Black Diamond,” Portugal’s greatest player, who had been born in the colony of Mozambique, showed his stuff. Two minutes later, he scored from the center of the box and then rushed to retrieve the ball and take it back to the center of the field. Three minutes before halftime, he scored again on a penalty kick. Portugal was back in the game. In the 56th minute, Eusebio took a pass on the right side and blasted the ball into the high opposite corner of the goal. The game was tied. Three minutes later as he burst through with the ball, he was tripped. He didn’t miss on that penalty kick, either. Then, 10 minutes before the end of the game, he executed a corner kick toward Jose Augusto, who shot it into the net. Portugal won, 5-3. End of game.

‘Sweatbox’ punishment

North Korean documentary footage shows the team’s stars alighting from the plane in Pyongyang and being welcomed with smiles and floral wreaths. They look happy. The mission assigned to them by the Great Leader had been carried out successfully. But over time, rumors circulated in South Korea and worldwide about what transpired next. The story was that the North Korean team had been accused of collapsing against Portugal because a few days earlier, after their victory over Italy, the players had spent the night carousing with women. According to the rumors, they were tried, convicted and sent to North Korean gulags.

In 2000, Kang Chol-hwan, who escaped from North Korea to the West, published “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag” (in French, co-written with Pierre Rigoulot; English translation by Yair Reiner, 2001), in which he describes his life as a prisoner in the notorious Yodok concentration camp. He writes about a form of solitary confinement known as the “sweatbox”: “The sweatbox is one of the harshest punishments imaginable, and since it could be used as retribution for the most trifling of offenses – offenses that would seem downright ridiculous on the outside – it was perpetually dangling over our heads... Stealing three ears of corn, responding to a guard’s command with insufficient zeal, missing a roll call, even if the absence clearly had no wrongful intent – any of these was reason enough for being sent to the sweatbox.”

The North Korean team celebrates defeating Italy at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, during the 1966 World Cup.Credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images

The “sweatbox,” Kang writes, was “a kind of shack... devoid of any openings... The box is shrouded in total darkness and its occupant is given so little to eat that he will devour anything that comes within arm’s reach, which is most often a wayward cockroach or centipede.

“Among the prisoners I met in the camp,” he continues, “was a former celebrated athlete who made a name for himself in Yodok by making it through a very long stint in the sweatbox. According to rumor, his survival secret was to eat every insect he could get his hands on. Whether or not true, it won him the nickname Cockroach. Park Seung-jin [Pak Seung-zin], as he was really named, had lived his earlier moment of glory back in the 1966 World Cup in England...

'Upon arriving back in Korea, the whole team – save for Pak Doo-ik, who, suffering from stomach pains on the night of the party – was sent to the camps.'

“To celebrate their victory, the players went on a wild drinking binge, and by the end of the night, were seen carrying on in public with some girls... In Pyongyang, the national team’s barroom antics were judged bourgeois, reactionary, corrupted by imperialism and bad ideas. Upon arriving back in Korea, the whole team – save for Park Dou-ik [Pak Doo-ik], who, suffering from stomach pains on the night of the party, had been forced to stay in his hotel room – was sent to the camps. Unfortunately for Park Seung-jin, his celebrity won him few favors in Yodok, as he discovered when he was caught stealing nails and cement from the camp’s construction materials shop where he worked... His punishment was a three-month stint in the sweatbox, which he somehow miraculously survived... By the time I arrived at Yodok, he’d been there almost 12 years.” He was still there when Kang left, looking even feebler.

About a year after the book’s publication, the English film director Daniel Gordon received rare permission to visit North Korea and meet with some of the key figures of the 1966 team, including the head coach, Myung Rye-hyun, the goalkeeper Lee Chang-Myung, Pak Doo-ik, who scored against Italy, and also with the captain, Pak Seung-zin. Other players, Gordon was told, were no longer alive. In his marvelous documentary, “The Game of their Lives” (2002), the players, wearing an array of medals, tell emotionally about the bond that was formed with the English fans, describe their feelings as the representatives of North Korea and of the Asian continent, express their pride in having lived up to the expectations of the Great Leader, and shed tears when they lay a wreath on his grave.

To a non-objective eye, Pak Seung-zin looks sadder and wearier than the others. A postscript to the film states that the players deny outright what they describe as the Western propaganda alleging that they were punished after the tournament.

Even more than 50 years later, there’s no way of knowing what the truth was.

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