Football‎ > ‎

When North Korea came to Merseyside

posted 29 Aug 2019, 08:53 by Roy McDonald   [ updated 29 Aug 2019, 08:54 ]
This story has always interested me, and I finally found the time to piece together a few different snippets to bring it together. It appeared in the Prescot Cables match programme for the first home game of the new season on August 20th, 2019.

In today’s feature we take a look back to the World Cup of 1966, staged in England; how one unknown football team won the hearts of the nation, and recall a little known local element to the remarkable story.

The groupings for qualifying stages of the 1966 World Cup were heavily stacked in favour of the European and South American countries. Of the 16 places available at the finals, only one was reserved for the whole of Africa, Asia and Oceania. As a result, thirty-one African nations boycotted the tournament in protest at their being no automatic qualifying place for an African country and a hugely complex qualifying system involving Asia, Oceanic and African countries.

This left South Africa, Australia, North Korea and South Korea to battle out qualification in a round-robin tournament. However, FIFA’s subsequent decision to ban South Africa, due to the apartheid regime there meant that qualification would be a mini tournament of three nations to be held in Japan. Because Australia did not formally recognise the state of North Korea, the venue for the mini qualification tournament was switched from Japan to Cambodia. As a result, the South Koreans withdrew for political reasons, meaning that qualification would be a straight shoot out between Australia and North Korea.

Soccer in Australia was still very much a minor sport at this time but, despite this, the team, largely made up of ex-pats, was confident of qualification and even commissioned a batch of 300, “Australia World Cup 1966” ties. The unknown quantity of North Korea easily defeated them in both playoff games (6 – 1 and 3 – 1), meaning that they qualified for the 1966 World Cup finals by playing a mere two games rather than the long, convoluted route that would otherwise have been required.

Initially there were doubts as to whether the squad would even be allowed to enter England. Like Australia, Britain had never formally recognised North Korea – or as it styled itself, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  Archive records reveal that serious consideration was given by the British Government to refusing visas to the North Korean players and officials as a means of solving the problem, with civil servants concerned that allowing entry would cause diplomatic difficulties with Britain’s allies.

FIFA made it very plain to the FA that if any team who had won its way through to the finals was denied visas then the finals would take place elsewhere. FIFA’s diplomatic pressure won the day, facilitating the team's arrival in England. The only concession was that the team would be known as North Korea, rather than the DPRK. They were drawn in Group D, alongside the Soviet Union, Chile and one of the pre-tournament favourites, Italy.

All of North Korea’s games were scheduled to take place at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park stadium, and there were concerns that Teessiders would turn against them in view of their country's part in the Korean War, just 13 years earlier.

After flying into London, the Korean squad travelled north by train, bemusing fellow passengers by singing patriotic songs at full volume throughout the journey. By the time they arrived at the St. George Hotel in Middlesbrough, the tired and slightly bewildered players had fallen silent. Unable to speak a word of English, they struggled to communicate with their hosts, leading at one point to the Police being called to an apparent altercation at the Hotel, over a missed evening meal. However, any fears of animosity from the locals quickly evaporated.

After complaining that the practice ground specially laid out at their hotel was bumpy and that serious practice was "virtually impossible” they were given the use of Middlesbrough’s training ground at Hutton Road. However, they found that this, too, was not to their liking and finally found a training ground to suit them at the fifth attempt, just five days before their opening game. They completed their preparations on the I.C.I. chemical works ground at Billingham, and many locals turned out to watch them practice. Spectators were impressed by their technical ability, breathless all-out attacking style, impeccable manners and evident modesty. The locals noted that the North Koreans' average height was just 5ft 5in and that they played in red – the same colour as Middlesbrough – and immediately warmed to them.

Their opening game in Group 4 took place at Ayresome Park against the Soviet Union. The Koreans battled courageously and played some speedy football, but the European side was much stronger physically and two goals in a minute on the half-hour mark broke the resolve of the “tiny men with mighty hearts”. A third goal in the final minute sealed a 3-0 defeat. It looked like the plucky Korean adventure would be destined for an early end.

However, in their second game, their “astonishing energy, non-stop running and enough enthusiasm to move a range of mountains, brought them their success” when a late Korean goal resulted in a one-all draw against Chile, before just 13,792 rain soaked fans.

With Italy also losing out to the Soviet Union, but defeating the Chileans, the final game between North Korea and Italy would be crucial. A draw would see the double world champions through, but an unlikely victory for the North Koreans would see them qualify for the quarter finals.

Local fans headed to Ayresome Park looking forward to admiring Italy, but an early knee injury to their captain, meant that they had to play much of the game with 10 men (this was before substitutes were permitted). Five minutes before half time, Korea’s Pak Doo-Ik crashed the ball into the Italian net. The majority of the fans in the ground erupted in celebration. In the second half, the dogged North Koreans stood firm against the increasingly despondent and desperate Italians, and as the final whistle went, they had caused a sensation and qualified for the knock-out stages, with the Italians facing a return home to shame and ridicule.

In the quarter final the North Koreans would meet Portugal at Everton’s Goodison Park ground. Whilst most people were expecting, and perhaps even hoping for, a spirited show from the North Koreans, anything other than a Portuguese victory was unthinkable. If the Italians had been taken by surprise and hampered by being a man short, the Portuguese, featuring Eusébio - the Black Pearl - were unlikely to fall into the same trap.

The Italians had been confident of progress through the group stages, and knowing that the quarter- final was to be staged in Liverpool, they had made arrangements as early as February 1966 with Fr Peter Blake, the director of Loyola Hall, the Jesuit Spirituality Centre and Retreat, in Rainhill, to stay there before and after their game. They had even brought an engraved chalice to present to the residence in thanks.  

The Koreans, by contrast, had made no plans, as they hadn't expected to progress in the competition. On the Thursday before the quarter final, the North Korean party of 75 moved from Teesside to Merseyside, where they were accommodated at Loyola Hall, in the rooms which had originally been reserved for the Italian squad. The Koreans also had the use of the team bus which had been used by the Brazilian squad during the qualifying stages on Merseyside. It is said that they even held a training session at the Prescot B.I. Social ground, although I have been unable to corroborate that.

For the Koreans, the experience of living in the retreat was unnerving. They had always slept in team dormitories, now they were put in single rooms. Many eventually took to sleeping two to a room. The squad considered that the rooms had 'strange pictures' - presumably the religious iconography of the retreat - which they found unsettling. After some negotiation the pictures were removed. But, worst of all was the chapel, which was floodlit at night and was dominated by a huge crucifix. Having no particular religious connotations for the Koreans, nor previous experience of the image, the players only saw a figure of a man in pain with 'scary nails' in his hands and feet. Amongst all this, it is no wonder they all had difficulty sleeping at their new camp!

Shortly after their arrival, Mr Danny English, the manager of the Ship Hotel, which still stands opposite the main entrance to Loyola Hall in Rainhill, was startled to receive a request to provide drinks for the entire Korean party. “Certainly”, he replied, “just let me know what you require and I will supply it. I thought it was a trifle strange for I’d heard that the Korean team were teetotallers, but I figured I must be mistaken, and I waited for the big order to come across from Loyola Hall. It sounded like being a good one for business. When their man arrived at the Hotel with the order, you know what they wanted? A hundred bottles of Soda Water, nothing else! It shook me a bit, but I managed to find them 99 bottles in the cellar and sent them over. No wonder those Koreans play football with so much bubble!

With the North Korea now established as instant heroes with the Boro fans, it was reported that 3,000 people from Middlesbrough travelled to Liverpool to see them play Portugal in the quarter-final at Goodison Park. Remarkably, the game was not a sell-out, and spectators were able to paying 7 shillings and sixpence (37½ pence) at cash turnstiles on the day for admission the game!

The match was less than a minute old when Pak Seung Jin hit a shot from outside the area that flew past the Portugal goalkeeper, and into the top left-hand of the net to give the North Koreans a shock lead. Somewhat against the run of play, in the 22nd minute, a cross from the right eluded the Portuguese keeper at the far post and Dong-Woon Lee was there to put it into an empty net. The North Koreans were two up! The crowd was lapping up the excitement, and began chanting “easy, easy”, and “We want three”.

Shortly after, 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 David Coleman in the match commentary for TV, as the player dribbled the ball round a defender and paced it in the back of the net. Sensationally, just 24 minutes into the game and North Korea led by three goals!

However, the shell-shocked Portugal rallied and with the Koreans still naïvely piling forward - defence wasn’t part of their game - Eusébio showed just why he was one of the best players of his era. He single-handedly dragged his side back into the game and went on to net four goals in just over a half-hour, either side of the break, including two penalties. José Augusto added a fifth just before the end.

Portugal went on to lose to England in the semi-final and the North Koreans returned home, but not before they presented to Loyola Hall, the chalice which had been passed on to them by the Italians.  The chalice, and other material commemorating the Korean World Cup football team’s visit are kept in the Loyola Hall archives to this day.

Some reports say that when the Korean squad returned home many members of squad were sent to the gulags for their shaming of the country in the manner of their defeat. However, this has been strongly disputed by most documentarians, and the squad is still held in high regard by Pyongyang.

An excellent BBC documentary of the North Koreans exploits in the World Cup 1966, called The Game of Their Lives, can be viewed on You Tube.