North Korea took part in their first-ever World Cup in 1966 and, despite all the odds, the team won over fans and created memories to last a lifetime.
North Korea at the 1966 World Cup
The Biggest Yet
In 1966, England were the hosts of the eighth World Cup with a record of 70 nations taking part in qualification. One of those nations was North Korea: a newly-formed country that had a poor international reputation. However, the team exceeded all expectations and bonded with the fans more than anyone believed possible.
FIFA wanted to make the contest a global show. However, only one qualification place was given to nations from Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Subsequently, all African nations withdrew from qualification due to this discrimination. South Korea also withdrew from qualification due to the presence of North Korea. This left only two teams eligible to qualify for the single space allocated to Africa, Asia, and Oceania — North Korea and Australia.
The North Korean team had trained for ten months prior to the tournament and were buoyed by the support from their nation. The tight-knit group had a plan to compete against Western teams. Be as fast, fit, and strong-willed as possible. With an average height of 5’5, the North Koreans lacked a physical presence but made up for that with precise passing and speed.
The super-fit North Korean team stunned the Australians beating them in both qualification games with an aggregate score of 9-2.
The ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ had qualified for their first-ever World Cup and would be grouped with Russia, Chile, and two-time winners Italy.
A Tough Group
The successful qualification of the North Korean team caused controversy from the outset, as there was concern from one of the tournament favourites, England. The British Government was unsure of allowing the DPRK to compete as the two countries were still technically at war with one another.
Indeed, the very inclusion of the DPRK almost led to the World Cup being moved from England. FIFA could not dismiss North Korea from the tournament as they legitimately qualified. However, England fought alongside South Korea in the Korean War and did not want to admit North Korea’s legitimacy.
A fierce negotiation took place and a list of compromises was made. The title ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ was to be dropped in favour of ‘North Korea’. All nations were allowed to fly flags, but a minimum of other national symbols. And finally, no national anthems were to be played at the start of games, other than the opening match and the final. After all of the potential ramifications were summarised, FIFA and the countries in question came to an agreement and North Korea had been accepted into the World Cup for the very first time.
The first game against Russia went badly. The North Koreans were bullied by the much bigger Russians and took a 3-0 drubbing.
The next game against Chile was to be played at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough. The Middlesbrough fans watching the game took a liking to the North Koreans and continued to support the underdogs throughout the tournament. The affection shown by the English fans towards the Koreans is still honoured to this day.
Chile were the favourites to win, but once again the plucky Korean team would not be subdued. After being 1-0 down for almost the full 90 minutes, North Korea struck a late equaliser with five minutes left. Almost willed on by the cheering Middlesbrough fans, Pak Sung Jin, the number eight, fired in a lovely volley.
The final game against Italy was up next. North Korea had to win to qualify for the quarter-finals. Nobody gave them much chance against the Gli Azzurri. The spirited North Korean team weathered a difficult start as the Italians piled on the pressure. Disaster struck for the Italians as their captain, Giacomo Bulgarelli, was injured after making a tackle. With no substitutions allowed, Italy had no choice but to play on with ten men.
The North Korean team went on to beat Italy 1-0, cheered on by the jubilant Middlebrough audience.
Portugal had already displayed their skill in the group stages and were clear favourites. The team also included the one and only Eusébio, whose performance proved pivotal. The match was played at Goodison Park and after 22 minutes North Korea had scored three goals. Another upset looked to be on the cards as the crowd cheered the Koreans on. Enter Eusébio, who rampaged through the Korean defence, scoring four goals by the end of the game. Portugal won 5-3 as the Koreans struggled to hold out their lead, mostly due to a lack of game management experience.
Their World Cup run was over, but the North Korean team displayed heart, desire, and surprisingly good football.