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
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”