North Korea’s un­likely he­roes

The Pyongyang pari­ahs stunned the foot­ball world by elim­i­nat­ing Italy in 1966, and the bond they made with Mid­dles­brough has lasted a life­time

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It’s May 3, 1966 and the ref­eree has sounded the fi­nal whis­tle at Ninian Park, home of Cardiff City. Over in the away end, a pun­gent smell of res­ig­na­tion hangs in the Welsh air as Mid­dles­brough fans wind their way out of the ground. A dis­mal cam­paign has ended in rel­e­ga­tion to the third tier for the first time in Boro’s his­tory.

A few hun­dred miles east, within the cor­ri­dors of power in White­hall, there’s sim­i­lar con­cern over what lurks around the cor­ner. With a home World Cup just a month away, politi­cians fran­ti­cally try to de­cide what to do about the thorny is­sue of North Korea.

It wouldn’t be the last time the na­tion, one still not of­fi­cially recog­nised by the UK gov­ern­ment, will prove a headache.

“The sim­plest way to solve the prob­lem might be to refuse the visas to the North Korean team,” ex­plains a For­eign Of­fice state­ment. “But FIFA has made it very plain to the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion that if any team [that] has won its way to the fi­nals is de­nied visas, then the fi­nals will take place else­where.”

Send­ing the North Kore­ans to Coven­try isn’t re­ally an op­tion. In­stead, the British gov­ern­ment dis­patches the squad north to Mid­dles­brough.

The team’s Teesside ar­rival – Myung Rye-hyun’s men would play all three of their group games at Ayre­some Park – was as an­tic­i­pated as any in the en­tire tour­na­ment. North Korea were the only rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Asia, Africa – who boy­cotted the event in protest at a lack of au­to­matic qual­i­fi­ca­tion spots – and Ocea­nia in a global ex­trav­a­ganza that, in re­al­ity, was any­thing but.

This group of mys­te­ri­ous foot­ballers, from a coun­try that was still tech­ni­cally at war, pro­vided a much-needed dose of ex­oti­cism. How­ever, the au­thor­i­ties feared pub­lic protests at North Korea’s pres­ence on British soil, so they would stay at the St Ge­orge Ho­tel, a stone’s throw from the Teesside Aero­drome.

There was just one prob­lem, though. It wasn’t fin­ished.

“The ho­tel de­vel­op­ers were asked to get their back­sides in gear and en­sure that at least half of it was done by the time they ar­rived,” re­calls life­long Boro fan Peter Hodg­son, who watched all of North Korea’s games in Mid­dles­brough.

“It was the per­fect place – nice and iso­lated and easy to move them out via the air­port if things turned nasty.”

Un­wanted by the British gov­ern­ment, the North Kore­ans were in no mood to spend the trip cooped up in their ho­tel rooms. In­stead, they vis­ited the mar­ket in Stock­ton, took lo­cal trains and were even treated to a tour of the steel­works.

This, though, was no hol­i­day for a side who had qual­i­fied for the tour­na­ment cour­tesy of a 9-2 ag­gre­gate maul­ing of Aus­tralia, with both matches staged in Cam­bo­dia’s cap­i­tal, Phnom Penh.

Back on Teesside, the next job was to make sure North Korea’s train­ing pitch at the ICI chemical works repli­cated the con­di­tions they’d en­counter when they tack­led the USSR, Chile and Italy in their group matches.

“They went to Ayre­some Park in the day and in the evening to check out the an­gle of the sun dur­ing the times they would play,” says Hodg­son. “They then headed back to ICI’S Syn­tho­nia Sta­dium and told the au­thor­i­ties they were not happy, as the pitch was the wrong way round in com­par­i­son to Boro’s ground.”

The squad set up camp on an ad­ja­cent cricket square in­stead, with many of the 30,000 ICI work­force reg­u­larly watch­ing on dur­ing lunch breaks.

The thor­ough prepa­ra­tions seemed to have missed the mark when North Korea suf­fered a 3-0 Soviet de­feat in their first game, and they were los­ing 1-0 to Chile as the clock ticked down on their World Cup ad­ven­ture.

Among the press corps was a cer­tain Frank Bough, an ICI em­ployee who was moon­light­ing as a ra­dio com­men­ta­tor al­most 20 years be­fore be­com­ing one of break­fast tele­vi­sion’s found­ing fa­thers.

“If the North Kore­ans score, the roof could be lifted off this sta­dium,” stated a re­mark­ably pre­scient Bough. Twenty sec­onds later, Pak Se­ung-zin smashed in a lev­eller that trans­formed Ayre­some Park into a mini, and less well-be­haved, ver­sion of Pyongyang.

“They never cheer Mid­dles­brough like this,” quipped Bough as the ex­u­ber­ant cel­e­bra­tions caused the fus­ing of lights in the press box ceil­ing.

“The North Kore­ans’ ar­rival could not have been bet­ter timed,” says An­thony Vick­ers, se­nior Mid­dles­brough writer for The Gazette on Teesside.

“There was a fledg­ling group of young fans called the Ayre­some Angels – the World Cup af­forded them a chance to, en masse, get fairly cheap tick­ets into ar­eas of the ground that they nor­mally wouldn’t be able to go in.

“The World Cup gave them the per­fect plat­form, and they set things off in that match by cheer­ing for North Korea.”

Sud­denly, Mid­dles­brough sup­port­ers still lick­ing their wounds af­ter rel­e­ga­tion from the sec­ond tier had some­thing to shout about. The Chol­lima, nick­named af­ter a myth­i­cal winged horse ca­pa­ble of cov­er­ing ap­prox­i­mately 250 miles a day, were a thrilling an­ti­dote which “brought some much-needed sun­shine into our lives”, ac­cord­ing to Hodg­son.

“I don’t know whether it was the red shirts or the fact they were such huge un­der­dogs that ap­pealed to ev­ery­one so much,” ad­mits Richard Piers-raynor, one of the 17,829 crowd who poured into Ayre­some Park for their fi­nal group game against Italy. It was a game that would go down in his­tory.

“We came ex­pect­ing the in­evitable,” wrote The Times af­ter Pak Doo-ik’s goal three min­utes be­fore half-time se­cured a stun­ning 1-0 vic­tory over the two-time cham­pi­ons. “We left hav­ing wit­nessed the im­pos­si­ble.”

The pres­i­dent of the repub­lic’s FA was quick to hail the sig­nif­i­cant “sup­port and en­cour­age­ment” of the Mid­dles­brough crowd, and had North Korea’s last-eight en­counter against Por­tu­gal been played on Teesside, rather than Mersey­side, the play­ers’ achieve­ments might have been even more re­mark­able.

“No­body was ex­pect­ing them to get out of their group, so the squad stayed in the same place that the Ital­ians were go­ing to stay in – a Catholic Sem­i­nary,” ex­plains Hodg­son.

“The play­ers were in sin­gle rooms with cru­ci­fixes on the walls, which lit up when the lights went out. They were pet­ri­fied, and spent the nights be­fore the game sat to­gether in the com­mu­nal lounge.”

They cer­tainly gave Euse­bio’s Por­tu­gal a fright. Pak Se­ung-zin scored in the first minute and North Korea were 3-0 ahead in­side half an hour fol­low­ing strikes from Li Dong-woon and Yang Se­ung-kook.

A four-goal re­sponse from the Golden Boot-win­ning Black Pan­ther meant they even­tu­ally suc­cumbed to a 5-3 de­feat, with 3,000 Boro fans mak­ing the trip to Good­i­son Park to cheer on their he­roes.

Their World Cup dream was over, but the love af­fair was only just be­gin­ning.

The ex­act spot from where Pak scored that fa­mous win­ner against Italy – now part of a pleas­antly ap­pointed gar­den on the site of the old Ayre­some Park – is for­ever im­mor­talised with a bronze cast car­ry­ing the im­print of a foot­ball boot.

“The lady who owns the house told me she’s had a steady stream of tourists,” re­veals Boro fan Si­mon Chad­wick, “and a North Korean gov­ern­ment del­e­ga­tion onced popped in for tea.”

The bond be­tween Teesside and the in­ter­na­tional pari­ahs was strength­ened fur­ther by an award-win­ning 2002 film ti­tled The Game of Their Lives, re­unit­ing the team of 1966. Cre­ators Dan Gor­don and Nick Bon­ner spent more than four years beg­ging Pyongyang suits to al­low them into the coun­try.

“We showed play­ers the Mo­ran­bong Park,” says Bon­ner, who also or­gan­ises tourist trips from China to North Korea.

“Some of the play­ers ap­proached us and said that they wanted to go back to Mid­dles­brough, to where it all started. It was their idea. I said yes, looked over at Dan and then said, ‘What have we both agreed to here!?’”

A year later, thanks to Boro fan Peter Hodg­son’s tire­less work, Pak Doo-ik & Co. were back at the ICI fac­tory.

Mid­dles­brough did more for diplo­matic re­la­tions in those three weeks dur­ing the sum­mer of ’66 than the rest of the world had man­aged be­fore or since. Now, has any­one got a num­ber for Don­ald Trump? Or Den­nis Rod­man?

“I DON’T KNOW WHETHER IT WAS THE RED SHIRTS OR THE FACT THEY WERE HUGE UN­DER­DOGS THAT AP­PEALED SO MUCH”

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