Last month, the North Korean football team created history by securing a place at the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa. It came second in its qualifying group (Asia B) with a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. While a commendable achievement in itself for a team ranked outside the top 80 in the world, North Korea’s second outing at the tournament will give football fans hope of some improbable upsets. After all, the team’s first outing is part of footballing lore.
Red Mosquitoes: The legendary North Korean team of 1966 after its upset win over Italy. AFP
The 1966 edition of football’s world cup was uncommonly blessed with classic footballing moments. There were plenty of great names at the tournament, including Brazil’s Pele, England’s two Bobbys—Charlton and Moore—Germany’s Uwe Seeler and the eventual top scorer, Portugal’s Eusebio. And plenty of teams to remember, including a uniquely lovable one from North Korea that, against all odds, reached the quarter-finals.
Few people know about the lasting impact of these events on the North Korean psyche better than Nicholas Bonner. Bonner, one of the few Westerners to have visited North Korea frequently, runs Koryo Tours, a travel agency that specializes in trips to the country. Bonner also worked as a Korea specialist on the 2002 documentary film The Game of Their Lives. The film chronicled the lives of the 1966 North Korean team members after they returned home.
Bonner, who spoke to us via email from Beijing, says the event continues to capture North Korean imagination. In fact, he attended an event in Pyongyang on 5 July to welcome the 2010 qualifiers home: “There was people lining the streets and I watched a one-and-half-hour tribute on the state television, Juche TV, to the players. The function had singers, entertainers and speeches, and in the first row sat the team of 1966.”
Taking guard: The 2010 Fifa World Cup team has a tough act to follow. Jung Yeon-Je / AFP
Then ruled by an autocratic dictator, Kim Il-sung, the North Koreans were fortunate to have qualified for the 1966 edition in England at all. It was only after several Asian and African teams withdrew in protest at the solitary berth reserved by Fifa for the two continents that the Koreans slipped in.
And even then the British foreign office was in no hurry to let the team in. The Koreans had to agree not to play their national anthem before they were issued papers to visit for the tournament. The visitors were not only written off with odds of 1,000:1 to lift the cup, they were also subject to considerable ridicule. One journalist for The Times quipped that the unknown Korean players had names that “have the sound of waterfalls”.
Housed in Middlesbrough, in the north-east of England, the Koreans began the tournament unremarkably enough. They lost their first match to a strong Russian team 3-0, but played with just enough pluck to make a name for themselves. Local Middlesbrough fans began to take a liking to them and called them first the “Orientals” and then the “Red Mosquitoes” as the team, with an aggressive game, drew its next game against Chile.
Bonner explains: “At the time the country was rebuilding itself after the Korean War and a national rapid advancement movement, known as the Chollima Movement—based on a mythical horse that could cover 400km in a day—was in effect. And the footballers played a similarly fast-paced ‘Chollima’ game.”
In their third group match, the Koreans had to face the mighty Italians, one of the four seeded teams in the tournament. No one, not even their entranced Middlesbrough fans, gave the Koreans a chance.
In one of the greatest upsets in world sport, the Koreans brushed past the Italians 1-0 and qualified for the quarter-finals. The highly regarded Italians were stunned. The reclusive North Korean government immediately arranged for a taped colour version of the match to be shipped from England. Meanwhile, Bonner says, people rushed to North Korean radio stations to check if news of the win over Italy was for real or just propaganda.
Some 3,000 Middlesbrough locals travelled 170km to Liverpool to watch the next game. Their quarter-finals would be against a supremely talented Portugal side led by all-time great Eusebio. By the time they played the North Koreans at Goodison Park in Liverpool, the Portuguese were emerging as potential tournament champions.
Just 25 minutes into the quarter-final match, the football world sat up stunned. The North Koreans were leading 3-0 and the Portuguese looked all but out of the tournament. Nothing, it seemed, could stand between the Red Mosquitoes and that semi-final berth. But then Eusebio happened.
He scored his first goal after 27 minutes and then followed with another three. Later, Jose Augusto scored a fifth for Portugal in the 80th minute. After a heroic run, the North Koreans returned home with their heads held high.
However, rumours floated that Kim Il-sung had been displeased with the team’s debauchery while in England, and many were imprisoned and subject to re-indoctrination. Bonner’s documentary tracked down the surviving players and the rumour was proved false: “The players dispute this absolutely. Certainly, the arrival at Pyongyang airport was a rapturous affair.”
Since 1966, however, many Asian teams, including South Korea and Saudi Arabia, have emerged as giant-killers. No one will take the North Koreans lightly like last time (in fact, at least one North Korean comes with a reputation. Jong Tae-Se, a forward, is already being dubbed the Asian Wayne Rooney).
But cold logic aside, fans will think back to the miracle of 1966 and hope for another one.