By Steve Njuguna
The year was 1966 and the World Cup was being held for the first time in England. In a tournament that had huge football names such as England’s Bobby Charlton, Brazil’s Pele, and Portuguese legend Eusebio (He was born in Mozambique but that’s a story for another day), North Korea was the lowest-ranked team in the tournament and since it was just slightly over a decade since an armistice was signed in the brutal Korean War, their communist leanings meant the players were initially regarded by the British public with caution as it was the height of the Cold War.
In fact, the British government didn’t even want North Korea to play, initially refusing to issue them visas until FIFA intervened.
However, as the tournament went on, the North Koreans gained a huge following due to their great football and tenacity. They lost their first game to the Soviet Union but won over the home fans in Middlesbrough and in their next game against Chile they grabbed a last-minute equalizer against Chile that sent the town into raptures.
Their last group game against Italy was supposed to be a clear victory for their more illustrious opponents but a spanner was thrown into the works when Italian Captain Giacomo Bulgarelli collided with North Korean Captain Park Seung Zin and was carried off on a stretcher.
Substitutions hadn’t been introduced in football in 1966 so the Italians had to play with 10 men and North Korean winger Pak Doo Ik duly capitalized and slid a shot under the arms of Italian keeper Enrico “Ricky” Albertosi. The North Koreans held on for the next half to win the game 1-0 in a result that was so famous it made headlines all over the world as it meant Italy were out of the tournament and North Korea would proceed to face Portugal on the quarterfinals. The mayor of Middlesbrough ended up calling the team for an honorary dinner to celebrate their historic win.
They proceeded to Liverpool to play Portugal and started the game in blistering form, going 3-0 up in only 25 minutes. But tournament Most Valuable Player (MVP) Eusebio da Silva Ferreira had other ideas with a five-goal performance to win the game 5-3 and send Portugal to the semis.
Still, it was a monumental tournament for the North Koreans and a performance that was the stuff of legends.
In 2002, eight of the North Korean players who had participated in that memorable win against Italy were allowed to go for a reunion in Middlesbrough where they were still received as heroes by the fans who had cheered them nearly 40 years ago.
The article was first posted on his Facebook page and it has been republished with his consent.