You’d be forgiven for thinking that the 1966 World Cup was a London affair. After all, most of the big moments – like Bobby Moore wiping his grubby hands on the velvet drapes in front of the Queen before lifting the Jules Rimet trophy – are played out with a cast of southerners. Some of the most interesting stories, however, were played out in the North East.
Both Roker Park and Ayresome Park were great rattling relics of late Victoriana during the World Cup, the former built in 1897 and the latter in 1903. They could each cram in 40,000 supporters, so the FA decided to use them as the venues for Group Four’s games. That group included Italy, who’d won the World Cup twice and included greats like Gianni Rivera, the runner-up for 1963’s Ballon D’Or. They were among the favourites for the tournament when they arrived – The Times said they had ‘the cut and look of finalists’ – while fellow group members Chile were well-regarded outsiders.
Slightly more disquietingly, only three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union and its wayward cousin North Korea – which was yet to be recognised as a country by the UK – also arrived in the North East. There was such concern at their participation that a Foreign Office memo suggested denying the Korean players and staff visas on the grounds that their country didn’t officially exist, and plans for a commemorative World Cup stamp were shelved by the Royal Mail on the grounds that it would have included North Korea’s flag.
Nobody expected the Koreans to do much; even Prime Minister Kim Il-Sung had been circumspect in his encouragement. ‘Europeans and South American nations dominate international football,’ he told the team before they left Pyongyang. ‘As representatives of the Asian and African region, as coloured people, I urge you to win one or two matches.’ Billeted to the George Hotel, next to what was Teesside aerodrome, the North Korean team struggled to settle in.
Attitudes toward our guests were rather mixed, to begin with. A correspondent for The Times referred to the Korean team as ‘little orientals’ – the team’s average height was 5ft 5in – while a colleague dismissed their chances: ‘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.’
Indeed, that’s how it looked in the group’s first game, as the Soviets strolled past North Korea 3-0 at Ayresome Park in front of a sparse crowd. The North East’s reputation as a hotbed of footballing enthusiasm did not, it appeared, extend behind the Iron Curtain.
But about that time, something started to change. The North Korean team had been training outside the ICI chemical plant in Billingham, where 30,000 Teessiders worked. On their breaks, they watched the team practise and were impressed by their technical skill, modesty and politeness. By the time the team had presented Middlesbrough’s mayor, Jack Boothby, with an embroidered picture of a crane bird, the fondness was set.
The North Korean team’s nickname, the Chollima, refers to a mythical flying horse which can’t be ridden by mere mortals and can leap 150 miles into the air. Quite why it can both fly and leap 150 miles into the air is a moot point. It’s a metaphor, and a rather opaque metaphor for the socialist revolution at that. The Chollima informed the North Korean team’s ethos: industry and aggressive attacking intent was at their core. Perhaps the football fans of Middlesbrough felt a kinship in the underdogs from halfway across the world, having seen their emphasis on teamwork, hard graft and self-sacrifice. It didn’t hurt that they happened to wear the same colours as Boro.
A battling 1-1 draw with Chile set up a final showdown with Italy, who only needed a draw to progress with the Soviet Union. ‘Rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts as the football followers of Middlesbrough have taken these whimsical orientals,’ said The Times, who apparently never knowingly passed up an opportunity to use the word ‘orientals’ at the time. The North Koreans themselves were a little non-plussed but pleased. ‘It still remains a riddle to me. The people of Middlesborough supported us all the way through. I still don’t know the reason why,’ said defender Lim Zoong-Sun later.
A fiercely partisan crowd of 19,000 headed to Ayresome Park to see North Korea face Italy. An edgy first half gave up chances: Han Bong-Zin fired wide after controlling a floated pass, while Bologna’s Marino Perani probed menacingly. Then, after half an hour, the Italian central defender and captain Giacomo Bulgarelli injured his knee in a challenge; the FA had decided not to allow substitutes at the World Cup, so Italy were left to play for an hour with 10 men.
Minutes later, North Korea took advantage. A chip toward the penalty spot was headed violently away, then thumped straight back toward the Italian box from the halfway line. Striker Pak Doo-ik feinted as if to chest the ball down, then span past his marker, swivelled and shot across goalkeeper Ricky Albertosi into the far corner. Ayresome Park was beside itself. The Holgate Stand rocked so much the lights in the press box shorted out. ‘They never cheer Middlesbrough like this,’ noted commentator Frank Bough on the BBC.
Italy tore into the second half: Rivera forced a sharp save from North Korea’s 19-year-old goalkeeper Lee Chang-Myung; Paulo Barison fired wide twice when well-placed; Perani, fed by Barison, fluffed his lines from 10 yards. It was all to no avail. North Korea – semi-professional, internationally derided curios North Korea – had beaten Italy.
That game cemented the North Korean team’s place in the region’s affections. A crowd of 3,000 travelled from Middlesbrough to Liverpool to watch North Korea’s quarter-final against the Eusebio-powered Portugal at Goodison Park. A giddy first half saw the North Koreans score inside a minute and race into a 3-0 lead after 25 minutes. Eusebio, however, had other ideas. Suddenly he roared into life, scoring four before José Augusto added a fifth to dump the North Koreans out. They headed straight for the airport, and nobody heard anything of them for nearly 40 years.
Even now that Ayresome Park has been nothing but dust and memories for two decades, the echoes linger: in the middle of the housing estate which now occupies the site, there’s a bronze cast of a football boot’s imprint on the exact spot Pak Doo-ik struck the winner. The embroidered crane still sits in Middlesbrough’s Dorman Museum. When the team returned to Middlesbrough in 2002, they were waylaid by grandsons getting autographs for their grandfathers. As Pak Doo-ik observed: ‘I learned that football is not only about the winning.’