The Neutral’s Favourite: North Korea in the 1966 World Cup

The following two tabs change content below.
I've moved up and down the UK working across academic and schools publishing, and I've marketed everything from dense reference works to beautifully illustrated primary school textbooks, to almost every country in the world. I'm a fanboy of social sciences (even though my own academic background is in Literature, Art History and Philosophy), and I can often be found in the wild doing vague imitations of exercise or listening to podcasts on a whole variety of things. Otherwise I'll be sighted reading overly complicated books to foster a self-delusion of intellectual grandeur, avoiding coffee and mustard, and making (poor) excuses for not watching all the TV shows everyone else does.

If you have ever met an English football fan, you will understand why the year 1966 is inscribed into the cultural memory. World Cup tournaments are generally remembered for three things: the winning team, the star players, and the surprise package that the neutral fans get behind. While England’s victory and Eusebio’s brilliance provide the first two, the third – the North Korean team – has been lost to history.

North Korea almost missed out on participating, as “in terms of political philosophies that now sometimes separate people, it has been agreed that although the British government does not recognize North Korea as a state, everything will be done to arrange for these Koreans to take their part in the tournament”.[1] Little was known about the team in the run up to the tournament. Reporting on North Korea’s first match, The Times mentioned the “veil of mystery which, for the best part of three years, has covered the World Cup activities” of the country.[2]

“Brazil’s eloquent reply to sceptics.” Times, 13 July 1966, p. 5. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9d78. Accessed 4 July 2017.

Luckily for the tournament, North Korea did participate, though they didn’t get off to a great start, losing 3-0 to Russia. Despite the result, they did provide an unexpected spectacle, and left the field after the match “with applause ringing in their ears”. Although they impressed to a degree, their “colour and spirit” did not compensate for their ability level, and their lack of height, The Times reported, proved a “serious handicap” alongside “lukewarm” tackling. But they had won fans, having “provided entertainment in a competition which, the day before, had begun on a defensive note”.[3]

By the end of their second match, their status as fan favourite was fully established, with a great crowd reaction after an equalizer from Pak Seung Zin two minutes from the end gained them a 1-1 draw with Chile. “Rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts” in such a way. For the second game in a row, North Korea put on a good performance, notably improving on the first match, being “quicker into the tackle” and having “better control of movement”, and “with every man sharing the load, the Chilean artistry was wiped from the board”. They seemed to be finding their feet, even if their chances of progression were doubtful.[4]

FROM OUR FOOTBALL CORRESPONDENT. “Brilliant Hungary topple Brazil.” Times, 16 July 1966, p. 5. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9dg4. Accessed 4 July 2017.

Nobody really expected anything from their third match, and many expected it to be their last one in the tournament. They were facing Italy, the pre-tournament favourites [5] to lift the cup (the next favourite were the current holders Brazil). On July 19th at Ayresome Park, North Korea “wrote a fairy tale into the history of the World Cup”. They beat Italy 1-0, and with Russia beating Chile 2-1, it eliminated Italy from the tournament and sent North Korea through to the quarter-finals. This was so unexpected, the North Korean commentator “left…with tears streaming down his face as he sent the fantastic news to the Far East”.[6] July 19th was possibly the most important day in the tournament: on the same day, Brazil exited the tournament after a 3-1 defeat to Portugal.

FROM OUR ASSOCIATION FOOTBALL CORRESPONDENT. “Italy likely to regain World Cup.” Times, 11 July 1966, p. 5. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9e32. Accessed 4 July 2017.

FROM A STAFF REPORTER. “North Koreans achieve startling victory.” Times, 20 July 1966, p. 5. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9eP7. Accessed 4 July 2017.

Although the quarter-final was to be North Korea’s last match in the tournament, they saved the best for last. While England vs. Argentina and Uruguay vs. West Germany were notable for the dirty play, and Russia vs. Hungary was an uninspiring watch, North Korea vs. Portugal was a contender for game of the tournament. “If Portugal were in any way complacent about the challenge North Korea offered, they were quickly jolted out of it” – the Koreans raced to a 3-0 lead in the first 25 minutes. Unfortunately, their “neat constructive work” was undone by the mercurial Eusebio, who single-handedly orchestrated “Portugal’s climb from the trough of adversity to tomorrow night’s semi-final against England”, scoring four goals and assisting a fifth.[7] Despite losing 5-3, North Korea’s ‘nothing to lose’ approach provided the entertainment lacking in the other quarter-final matches.

It was a startling run which nobody expected. To put it in perspective, England had only made it as far as the quarter-finals in their previous four World Cups: North Korea did it in their first.

While South Korea have grown significantly as a footballing nation in the past twenty years, North Korea have only appeared in the World Cup once since, in 2010. The sight of star striker Jong Tae-Se shedding tears of pride during the national anthem before kick-off provided one of the iconic images of the tournament, but unfortunately they lost all three games, including a 7-0 defeat to – you guessed it – Portugal.

FROM OUR FOOTBALL CORRESPONDENT. “Destructive attitude of South Americans.” Times, 25 July 1966, p. 4. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9ei3. Accessed 4 July 2017.

[1] ‘World Cup Draw Beckons England To Last Eight’, From Our Association Football Correspondent. The Times (London, England), Friday, Jan 07, 1966 – tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9c40
[2] Brazil’s eloquent reply to sceptics. The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Jul 13, 1966 – tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9d78
[3] Brazil’s eloquent reply to sceptics. The Times (London, England), Wednesday, Jul 13, 1966 – tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9d78
[4] Brilliant Hungary topple Brazil, FROM OUR FOOTBALL CORRESPONDENT. The Times (London, England), Saturday, Jul 16, 1966 – tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9dg4
[5] Italy likely to regain World Cup, FROM OUR ASSOCIATION FOOTBALL CORRESPONDENT. The Times (London, England), Monday, Jul 11, 1966 – tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9e32
[6] A STAFF REPORTER. “North Koreans achieve startling victory.” Times [London, England] 20 July 1966: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 July 2017. – tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9eP7
[7] OUR FOOTBALL CORRESPONDENT. “Destructive attitude of South Americans.” Times [London, England] 25 July 1966: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 July 2017. – tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4z9ei3

This entry was posted in Anniversary, Editorial and tagged , , , , , , , , on by .

About Kyle Sheldrake

I've moved up and down the UK working across academic and schools publishing, and I've marketed everything from dense reference works to beautifully illustrated primary school textbooks, to almost every country in the world. I'm a fanboy of social sciences (even though my own academic background is in Literature, Art History and Philosophy), and I can often be found in the wild doing vague imitations of exercise or listening to podcasts on a whole variety of things. Otherwise I'll be sighted reading overly complicated books to foster a self-delusion of intellectual grandeur, avoiding coffee and mustard, and making (poor) excuses for not watching all the TV shows everyone else does.