Fifty years ago today one of the most remarkable of all World Cup upsets took place when 1,000:1 outsiders North Korea (or to be accurate, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), defeated Italy, twice previous winners of the trophy by a single-goal margin at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park.
Korea, both North and South, still lived in the shadow of the Korean War which had ended with the armistice of 1953. Technically the two were still at war and the United Kingdom, an ally of South Korea, was also at war with the North. North Korea, it should be noted was somewhat different to how it is today. The country had recovered well from the Korean War supported at times by both the USSR and China and in fact economic growth in the 1960s was much greater than in South Korea.
Their presence in the tournament meant some minor alterations to procedures arising from the fact that the British Government did not recognise the North Korean state. A set of stamps from the Royal Mail that depicted the flags of all 16 participants was cancelled and it was agreed that national anthems would only be played before the opening fixture and the final, all but guaranteeing that the North Korean anthem would not be heard.
The team was a mystery to the English press and fans but were far from being the complete outsiders that was expected. Although their qualification was overshadowed by a withdrawal of all the African nations from the competition, it was achieved in style. A three-team tournament in Japan, also involving Australia and South Korea, became a two-legged play off with Australia in Phnom Penh. Both matches attracted huge attendances of more than 50,000. The first tie was fairly even after 45 minutes with the Koreans 1-0 up, but in the second half they scored almost at will, finishing up 6-1 winners. The second leg was very much a formality as they took the aggregate score to 9-2.
Having qualified, North Korea found themselves in the north-east group alongside Chile, Italy and the USSR. Despite the region’s reputation as being a hotbed of soccer, the group was the most disappointing of the four which comprised the opening round of the tournament. According to The Guardian’s Word Cup Diary (16 July 1966), “It was taken for granted that the Scots would qualify and bring thousands of supporters South.” Instead the organisers were faced with Italy and three of the nations with the smallest fan bases at the tournament: Chile, the Koreans and the USSR. Furthermore, the original choice of venues (Newcastle and Sunderland) had to be changed at relatively short notice due to problems with the lease of St James’ Park. Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park was the replacement, rather unfortunately coinciding with Boro’s worst-ever season which had ended with relegation to Division Three for the first time in their history.
North Korea, everybody’s ‘mystery’ team would play all three of their group games at Ayresome Park. The mystery was revealed in their first match, against the USSR when they were overwhelmed physically and lost 3-0. According to David Lacey in The Guardian they were “a side of moderate ability, fit and fast.” Alec Cameron in the Daily Mail also noted the team was “superbly fit” but The Times offered little more than patronising comments. The Koreans were “these little men from the land of the Morning Calm,” and, “these little orientals.” Despite their defeat, the Middlesbrough crowd supported the Koreans, showing their appreciation for the underdog.
By the time of the second group game against Chile North Korea had won over the Ayresome Park faithful who adopted them as their own. Despite trailing to a first-half penalty, the Koreans more than held their own and a goal from Pak Seung Zin three minutes from time gave them an equaliser. The attendance was just 13,392 and the only 150 of the 4,000 seats installed in the “Bob End” were occupied.
And so to the final group game, against Italy, which took place on Tuesday 19 July. The Italians, confident of victory, rested several players but included Bulgarelli, who had been injured in the opening game with Chile. The match hinged around two incidents in the closing stages of the first half. On 35 minutes Bulgarelli was injured again and had to leave the field; there being no substitutes Italy continued with 10 men. Then seven minutes later Pak Doo Ik shot home from 15 yards to score what proved to be the only goal of the game. The Italians huffed and puffed in the second half but were fortunate not to concede more goals. Roared on by the home fans who chanted, “KO-RE-A! KO-RE-A! incessantly, the Koreans scraped home for the biggest World Cup upset since 1950, when the United States had defeated England 1-0 in Brazil. The Times, now less patronising noted “We came expecting the inevitable. We left having witnessed the impossible.” For the Daily Mail, “The Koreans were a team while the Italians looked like stragglers.” The Guardian noted at the final whistle, “One would have thought that Middlesbrough had won the FA Cup.”
North Korea had to wait 24 hours to confirm their place in the quarter-finals, but USSR duly despatched Chile to confirm that they would now meet Portugal at Goodison in the last eight of the competition. There was more drama at Goodison when the Koreans raced to an amazing three goal lead, but Portugal hit back, scoring two before half time and adding a further three after the break to win 5-3. Thus ended the fairy tale of North Korea.
The North Koreans were ‘The People’s Team’ of the 1966 tournament because they played football as it should be played, with attack first and foremost on their minds. The players may have been small in stature but the squad was tremendously fit and well prepared, and their complete enthusiasm for the game won over the fans at Ayresome Park, and then nationally following their quarter-final performance at Goodison. In many ways the tournament as a whole was a depressing one, dominated by defensive play and cynical tactics. It was so grim that Eric Batty, writing in Soccer Star, announced “We have entered the era of anti-football.” North Korea proved to be one of the few teams who came with a positive attitude to play football and entertain, and thoroughly deserved their moment of glory.