North Korea: Chollima, 1966 and tragedy

North Korea: Chollima, 1966 and tragedy

SOMETIMES YOU HEAR A FACT, notice a name or log a date in your memory in the obscure hope that one day, you’ll be in a pub quiz team, or watching a television programme where someone will say something like, “Can anyone remember the name of the goal-scorer when North Korea beat Italy in the 1966 World Cup?” And up you’ll jump, full of a confidence bordering on arrogance and say, “Yes, I do. Yes, I do!”

I can’t recall when the name Pak Doo-Ik first found itself a long-term lodging in my personal memory bank, but it probably wasn’t at the time he notched the goal against the Azzurri. As a young pipsqueak at the time, such exotic things would surely have escaped me. Some years later, as football occupied more and more of my interest, however, the name must have cropped up, and it stuck; living in my memory, awaiting the quiz question that as yet, is still to arrive.

Whilst researching this article, however, I also discovered that what happened at Ayresome Park back in the 1960s was a mere chapter in a much longer story of the roller-coaster life of North Korean football and Pak Doo-Ik. The game and goal were only a small part of a difficult trail to the finals, and an uncertain fate afterwards.

For the North Koreans, just qualifying for the tournament was a strange mix of bans and withdrawals that seemed to conspire to open a path to the finals. Originally part of a surely unnecessarily complex system involving Oceanic and African countries, Fifa’s decision to ban South Africa due to the apartheid regime there meant there was no automatic qualifying place for an African country, and the continent’s remaining 15 aspirants all withdrew in protest. This left Australia, North Korea and South Korea to battle out qualification in a round-robin tournament in Japan.

For reasons that remain unclear, the venue was then switched to Cambodia and the South Koreans withdrew for political reasons. The game in Australia was still very much a minor sport at this time, and they lost both playoff games, meaning the North Koreans had qualified for the 1966 World Cup finals by playing a mere two games rather than the elaborate route that would otherwise have been required. Ironically, for this most politically sensitive of countries, politics had leant a guiding hand. Nothing is simple in sport when politics become entwined in events, and if the route to qualification had been smoothed out, the journey to England was still to be negotiated.

At news of the Asian country’s qualification, there was great consternation in British government circles about how the North Koreans should be received, and even to the extent of whether they should be allowed to enter the country at all. Entertaining Australia would have been much less complicated had they prevailed, but that was not the case. Britain had never formally recognised North Korea – or as it styled itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – and memories of the Korean War of the previous decade were still an open and painful wound for many.

Records released only in the last five years or so, and now accessible through the National Archives, reveal that serious consideration was given to refusing visas to North Korean players and officials as a means of solving the problem, with bureaucrats concerned that allowing entry would cause diplomatic ructions with South Korea, not to mention the USA.

The Foreign Office was, however, aware of the potential repercussions that any refusal to grant a visa would invite. An internal FO memo written just months before the tournament took place relates that, “If we do this the consequences could be very serious. Apparently Fifa has made it very plain to the FA that if any team has won its way through to the finals is denied visas then the finals will take place elsewhere. This would be a disaster for the FA. You can imagine what the papers would make of this. We would be accused of dragging politics into sport, sabotaging British interests and so on.”

It’s perhaps interesting to note that the discussion was not revolving around whether it was right to grant visas or not, but merely on the political fall-out that the decision could lead to. Seemingly feeling that they were backed into a corner, the FO relented and agreed to grant the necessary paperwork. By then, however, a further issue had raised its head.

Having the North Korean flag flying and playing the country’s national anthem would again prove problematic. Another memo written around the same time states that not doing so, however, could be just as incendiary: ”The North Koreans will probably object very strongly if they are prevented from playing their national anthem, displaying their national flag etc. when the other fifteen countries taking part in the finals are all permitted to do so.”

It’s a scenario that had an echo at the London Olympics in 2012. The Asian team were to play Colombia, but as the teams were listed on the scoreboard, the flag of South Korea was displayed next to the players’ name instead of the DPRK banner. Unsurprisingly, the North Koreans were enraged, with their protests causing the game to be delayed by an hour.

The FA were keenly aware of the danger of losing the finals should politics create an insoluble problem, and wrote to the government warning: ”We must not risk the possibility of these championships being taken away from this country after we have spent some four years in preparation and, of course, involved ourselves in a very considerable financial outlay.” Eventually, that most British of things, a compromise, was reached.

The North Korean flag could be flown alongside those of the other competing nations, but national anthems would only be played for the countries contesting the first match and the final. As the opening game was scheduled to be between England as hosts and Uruguay, and the chances of North Korea reaching the final were fairly remote, honour seemed to be satisfied. The government did insist on the name of North Korea being used as the official name of the team, however, hence its use in this article.

If the government then thought that all the legal niceties were in place, there was still the potential for the local people to display resentment to the North Koreans following the war. Logged in Group D, their games were scheduled to take place in the north-east, at Sunderland’s Roker Park and Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park stadiums. The squad flew into London, before being transported by rail to Middlesbrough where they were to stay at the George Hotel.

As they travelled north, fellow train passengers were bemused by the continual lusty singing of patriotic songs in a tongue totally unfamiliar to them. If the Koreans appeared strange to the English, the reverse was also very much the case too. Escaping the hermit nation, and entering into a western culture would surely have been a major shock to the North Koreans, and a difficulty to communicate can only have made this situation even more difficult.

Fears of any local animosity towards Middlesbrough’s guests, however, quickly evaporated. In more formal approaches, the town’s mayor, Jack Boothby, was presented with an embroidered picture of a crane – the bird, rather than the steel behemoths that populated the area’s dockyards. It was the more informal relations that carried more effect. Playing in red, the same colours as the local team, and being diminutive in stature, the people of Teesside quickly took the North Koreans to their hearts.

The squad trained at the sports ground of the giant ICI chemicals plant in the town, which at the time employed over 30,000 people from the area. It was perhaps not as elegant as Wembley, but still represented a significant step up from their Pyongyang training ground, based at the Ryonggang cigarette factory. They also drew large crowds of workers to watch their training regimes, and many were impressed by their technique and seemingly all-out attacking intent. The ethos of the team’s play was apparently modelled on the legend of the Chollima. The symbol of North Korea’s revolution, it was a winged horse that could leap hundreds of miles into the air. The spirit and speed of the Chollima was the squad’s driving force.

Despite the inevitable security and the fact that players were kept a respectful distance from having much contact with their hosts, the natural grace and manners of the North Koreans still beamed through to the local people. In a Guardian article from 2010, Bernard Grant, who back in 1966 had been a Teesside journalist embedded with the squad stated: “The whole town took them to its heart, North Korea became instant heroes with Boro fans.”

As the tournament got under way, it seemed that any government concerns regarding newsworthy items emanating from North Korean participation would quickly dissipate. In Group 4, they were matched with the physically powerful, if technically limited, Soviet Union, the unpredictable Chile and one of the tournament’s favourites, Italy. The North Koreans were not expected to progress, and a Times correspondent at the time was so dismissive as to declare that, “Unless the Koreans turn out to be jugglers, with some unexpected ploy like running with the ball cushioned in the crook of their necks, it looks as though Italy and the Soviets should have the run of the place.”

Their opening game in Group 4 took place at Ayresome Park on July 12 against the Soviet Union. The Europeans were much stronger physically and the Asians struggled to compete. They steamrollered the slighter built Koreans, average height of the squad a mere five and-a-half feet, to a 3-0 defeat. The Korean adventure seemed destined for an early end.

In the second game, they played Chile and found the South American approach – less muscular and more based on technique – much more to their taste. The Chileans scored first as Marcos netted a penalty halfway through the first period, but with the game drawing to a close, Pak Seung-zin scored an unlikely equaliser. The game ended 1-1. By now the Times had reappraised somewhat their initial assessment. A report stated: “Rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts as the football followers of Middlesbrough have taken these whimsical orientals.”

BBC commentator Frank bough remarked that the fans “don’t even cheer this loud for Middlesbrough!” With Italy also losing out to the Soviet Union, but defeating the hapless Chileans, a victory for the North Koreans in their final game against Italy would see them qualify for the quarter finals. As they had only netted a single goal, a draw would see the double world champions through, but North Korea amazingly had a chance. All they had to do was defeat the Azzurri.

This was, however, an Italy squad on a mission. After disgracing themselves in the so-called ‘Battle of Santiago’ in Chile in the previous tournament, when a despicable display of brutality shamed the game, there was much rebuilding to do if the nation was to regain pride in its football team. In the three previous years, the Lombardian clubs of AC Milan and Internazionale had begun the process by winning the European Cup on consecutive occasions, and the players that formed the Italian heart of these clubs now infused Edmondo Fabbri’s Azzurri with a belief and passion to succeed at international level. This was the task facing the Chollima-inspired team. It would take a gigantic leap of that fabled winged horse to get North Korea through. Enter Pak Doo-Ik.

It’s easy to get lost in the legend that the upstart North Koreans simply outplayed Italy. There is some measure of truth in that, but there are also mitigating circumstances. The first sign that all was not going well for the blue-shirted Italians came early on when captain and Bologna legend, Giacomo Bulgarelli, already struggling with a knee injury, aggravated the problem whilst attempting to tackle Pak Seung-Jin. At this time, no substitutes were permitted. For the remainder of the game, the Italians were a man short.

Just before the break came the fateful moment; a clearance from the Italians was headed back into the box and running onto the ball, Pak Doo-Ik let the ball run in front of him before hitting it low across Albertosi and into the net. “The North Koreans take the lead five minutes before the break,” screamed the BBC commentator. “What a sensation!” you can say that gain – and he did.

The Fiorentina stopper could perhaps have done better, but it was a moment of fate, and Italy were in trouble. The Chollima had taken flight. Although the game progressed with the Azzurri having a number of half-decent chances to level the scores – two particularly were squandered by Bulgarelli’s Bologna team-mate Marino Perani – the North Koreans stood firm and as the final whistle went, they had qualified, with the Italians facing a return home to shame and ridicule.

It was a result that dominated sporting news around the football-playing countries of the globe. In England, journalists vied for hyperbole. In the Daily Express, Arnold Howe wrote: “Pak Doo-Ik last night detonated one of the great explosions in soccer. He scored the goal that hurled the Italians out of the World Cup. That sent the non-entities of North Korea into the quarter-finals. That sent the Land of the Morning Calm into a Middlesbrough night of frenzy.” With hardly less overstatement,

Derek Hodgson commented: “Korean historians may write that this was the birth of them as a footballing nation.” I imagine they may not quite have done that.

Meanwhile, on a more local front, the aforementioned Guardian article quotes a local Middlesbrough fan, Neville Nichols, as relating: “Everyone had gone along to see a class Italy side. But the game turned on its head when Pak Doo-Ik scored a great goal. The whole place erupted, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. From then on we adopted them and we still talk about them now.”

No-one had seen it coming, but for a brief moment, even more extravagant news was to follow. With qualification to the last eight of the competition came a game against Portugal. Eusébio, Torres and Coluna were stars of world-renown. The North Koreans surely couldn’t pull off another surprise. Lightening doesn’t strike twice, and all that sort of thing.

The game was played at Everton’s Goodison Park, and I’ve seem reports that suggest some 5,000 fans from Teesside followed the North Koreans to Liverpool to support their new heroes. David Coleman commentated on the game for the BBC and whilst most people were expecting, perhaps even hoping for, a spirited show from the North Koreans, anything other than a Portuguese victory was surely unthinkable. If the Italians had been taken by surprise and hampered by being a man light, Eusébio et al were unlikely to fall into the same trap.

How many of the crowd were from Middlesbrough, or local Merseysiders is unclear, but Coleman commented that the North Koreans, now wearing all-white, with Portugal in their traditional blood-red shirts, were receiving massive support from the crowd. The game was less than a minute old when Pak Seung Jin hit a shot from outside the area that flew past the Belenenses ‘keeper Pereira and into the top left-hand of the net to give the North Koreans the lead. It was a surprise to all, not least to Coleman. “What a shock!” he bellowed. The Portuguese quickly responded, however, and in the Korean goal, Lee Chang-Myung was stretched on a couple of occasions to preserve the lead.

As the half wore on the Koreans seemed to be slipping away as the Portuguese recovered their composure. In the 22nd minute, however, a cross from the right eluded Pereira and when Seung-Kook Yang played back to the far post Dong-Woon Lee was there to put it into an empty net; amazingly the North Koreans were two up. The crowd was lapping up the excitement, and began chanting “easy, easy”. Coleman declared that the Portuguese were “in the most desperate trouble.” But worse was to follow.

“We want three,” shouted the crowd as the eager North Koreans continued to pour forward. Pak Doo-Ik hit a shot from outside of the area that was blocked by a defender, but it fell invitingly to Seung-Kook Yang. “He must score. He must score,” shouted Coleman. He did. “Well this is ridiculous,” concluded the gobsmacked Coleman, and indeed it was. A mere 24 minutes had elapsed and North led by three goals.

Where Italy had wilted, however, Portugal were made of sterner stuff. If ever a team had peaked too early, this was probably the occasion. Eusébio then took over the game and showed just why he was one of the best players of his era. The Mozambique-born striker dragged Portugal back into the game and then put them into the lead with four goals in just over a half-hour, including two penalties. José Augusto added a fifth at the end. Portugal went through and were beaten by England in the semi-finals, but aside from any fans who had journeyed from the Iberian peninsula, the North Koreans were the heroes of the hour. In typical BBC parlance of the day, Coleman remarked that they had “played their hearts out.”

If losing against Portugal seemed like the end of a dream, for many of the North Korean squad, that’s just how it turned out. Although they returned to their country as heroes, fame and celebrity in that particular corner of Asia comes with a price. Pak Doo-Ik was among a number of players awarded the country’s highest sporting honour of ‘People’s Athlete of the People’ initially being lauded for their exploits. The good life was not to last long.

Politics again took a hand in the lives of the players who had become heroes in north-east England, and ideological infighting saw them condemned for anti-government activities and but for a few exceptions, all were exiled to the provinces. Amazingly, their “crime” was to lose to Portugal after being three goals up.

Treated as political prisoners, they were sent to camps and mines run by the government security services. A former political prisoner, now a journalist in South Korea remembered seeing a player named Park Seong Jin – scorer of the opening goal against Portugal – at the Yoduk prison camp. As well as apparently being culpable for the eventual loss to Eusébio’s team, he was also charged with espionage for delivering a letter from an exiled Korean living in Japan.

There are also a number of reports from defectors that relate to the hero of the Italian game, Pak Doo-Ik, being expelled to Daepyong Workers District in Bocheon of Yangkang Province, and being compelled to work as a forest labour for a decade. It seems, however, that he was later ‘rehabilitated’ and worked as a director at Yangkang Athletic Committee directly at the behest of Kim Jong Il.

He later returned to Pyongyang and coached the national football team and the Lee Myong Soo football club, also serving as the manager of the May 1st Stadium. In 2008, his return to political respectability was confirmed as, at 78-years-old, as the Xinhua News Agency reported that he had been chosen as the oldest of 56 North Koreans to carry the Olympic torch across Pyongyang, on its way to Beijing.

It’s difficult to know what status Pak Doo-Ik and his colleagues of the Chollima squad enjoy in their native country, but they are still fondly remembered elsewhere. In the late 1990s, Daniel Gordon sought to make a documentary regarding the events of 1966 and how the North Koreans had become so popular in the north-east. After four years of diplomacy he was granted permission to enter North Korea. “The Korean authorities were quite curious and pleased we wanted to do something fairly neutral about their country,” Gordon related. “And the players were really delighted because they thought they had been forgotten about by the rest of the world.”

The film was called The Day of Their Life, and Gordon returned to Pyongyang for a special screening of the film. Whilst there, he decided to play a “wild card” and asked if the squad could be granted permission to revisit Middlesbrough. Perhaps persuaded by his sensitive handling of the film, the authorities agreed and, in 2002, the return took place.

Gordon described how “the players absolutely loved the trip.” And that, “We had a sign in the back of the coach saying: ‘North Korean World Cup squad tour 2002’ and, on the motorways, cars kept hooting at us.” The enduring affection for the players was perhaps best illustrated when they arrived at Ayresme Park. Gordon said: “The fact that North Koreans were underdogs and were so tiny appealed to the people of Middlesbrough, they empathised with them. But I also think the way the players conducted themselves ensured everyone warmed to them.”

On the Football Writers’ Association webpage, there’s an article by Richard Fleming from 2012, relating to a journey in North Korea, wherein he met some of the players from the squad. He describes how when once they were all donned in the playing kit of their country, they now all wore army uniforms. Fleming said:

“They were all given high-powered positions within various state-owned companies. I spoke to Pak Doo-ik at great length and he still has very fond memories of his time in the north-east. They still have their shirts and some they swapped with other players. They remember the warmth of the Middlesbrough people and their broad smiles when they recalled Ayresome Park made it obvious how much it still means to them.

“He is not really aware of his world fame because superstars do not exist in North Korea, apart from the Great Leader and his son Kim Jong-il. One of the things they could not get their heads around was the money footballers make these days. They had recently returned to Middlesbrough for a TV documentary, The Day of Their Life. When it was shown to the players it was censored despite being non-political and extremely positive about the country.” The documentary and Fleming’s conversations clearly took place after the rehabilitation of the squad.

At the time it was a seismic event in world football, but in retrospect, could North Korea’s exploits in the 1966 World Cup, in any way, be called significant? I mention above that journalist Derek Hodgson commented that “Korean historians may write that this was the birth of them as a footballing nation,” and comment that I imagine they may not quite have done that. Evidence suggests that may well be true.

The North Korean team that turned up in South Africa for the 2010 tournament was the first to qualify for the World Cup since 1966. Unfortunately, the Chollima approach seemed to have disappeared. In place of the ebullient attacking style, was a dour and defensive outlook, characterised by fear and doubt. It’s perhaps with little wonder when on return to their country, the squad and officials were humiliated during a six-hour public tirade where they were accused of betraying their country and their leader.

The players were then subjected to ideological criticism that compelled them to blame their coaches for their three defeats and elimination. What happened after that is unclear, but if the heroes of ’66 were treated as reports suggest, the fate of their 2010 counterparts can only be contemplated with sympathy.

Following that debacle, only victory in the 2014 tournament would suffice, and when North Korea got to the final and faced ‘old enemy’ Portugal, honour was restored. What? You didn’t know that? South Korean intercepts of an apparent North Korean television broadcast has shown – although through what seems to be oddly outdated film – North Korea’s run to the final wherein they defeated Japan 7-0, the USA – of course – 4-0 and China – just for old time’s sake – merely 2-0. If all of this sounds somewhat strange, as the country didn’t even qualify for the finals, you clearly don’t get your news courtesy of Kim Jong-Il.

Strangely enough, as recent as 2012, North Korea did actually have claim to call themselves World Champions. If you work on the boxing format of ‘the man who beat the man, who beat the man’ rather than awarding the accolade to the winners of a money-spinning jamboree tournament held every four years, then the heirs of Pak Doo-Ik and his compatriots held sway at the top of the tree for a while.

When Japan defeated Argentina, they took the linear crown from the South Americans and held it through a 15 match unbeaten run before a game in Pyongyang in 2012 saw a 1-0 victory for North Korea and the Unofficial World Championship changed hands. It’s doubtful whether such news filtered through to the north-east of England, and particularly to Middlesbrough and anyone who saw the exploits of the Chollima in 1966. If it did, however, it would surely a raised a smile, as it did for me. Now I’m just waiting for that quiz question.

By All Blue Daze @All_Blue_Daze

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