The 1966 World Cup in England will never be forgotten. As much as we want to move on from ’66, any English person with a loose interest in football and an even looser grasp of language skills will laud and lament the 1966 World Cup. England’s one and only triumph. That however is not the sporting moment you’ve probably never heard of. The biggest triumph of that World Cup was not Bobby Moore lifting Jules Rimet, rather the much unreported and unrecognised achievements of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea national football team.
We can all enjoy North Koreas’ 2010 performance, where they nabbed a goal against Brazil before going down 7-0 and 3-0 to Portugal and Cote D’Ivoire respectively. There was a story going around that the North Korean State News channel spun the results to cover their team in glory, continually replaying Ji Yun-Nam’s strike and ignoring the 12 goals they conceded otherwise in the group stage. In 1966 however, the North Koreans did what no other Asian nation had ever done before, they made it to the quarter-final stage. Bearing in mind, it did take Ireland a further 24 years to go that far, a result which remains our best ever performance at a World Cup.
When you take into consideration the situation in North Korea; a country utterly devastated by one of the most casualty heavy wars in modern times just 13 years previous, along with the almost perpetual famine (that lasts to this day) the achievements of the North Korean team are even more impressive.
Drawn in a group with political playmates the U.S.S.R., and two countries that have endured numerous government changes, Chile and Italy, the odds were stacked against the North Koreans.
Despite a 3-0 defeat to the USSR, at that time a football powerhouse, a 1-1 draw against Chile (which Jack Charlton would have been proud of) as well as their biggest victory ever, a 1-0 win over Italy put them through to the quarter-finals in the second spot in Group 4. North Korea became the first Asian country to make it past the Group Stages at a World Cup.
The Quarter Final stage saw them pitted against one of the greatest footballers of all time, Eusebio, and his Portuguese side. The underdog again, North Korea shocked the 51,000 people at Goodison Park and raced into a 3-0 lead inside half an hour. Ultimately though, four goals from Eusebio helped Portugal progress 5-3 at full time.
The dream for North Korea ended in Liverpool that day and legacy never seemed to really last. In 1999, a BBC documentary “The Game of their Lives” tracked down four of the team from that 1966 World Cup.
The men described how they were welcomed home as heroes, similar to what we did for our Boys in Green in the Phoenix Park in 1990. The whereabouts of the other team members remains a mystery, however in a country with one of the highest rates of adult starvation in the world, not to mention the blatant human rights abuses, their fate might be obvious enough.
All in all, we should look back at the 1966 World Cup and remember not just Bobby Moore lifting the trophy but also the brave performance of probably the most unlikely team in the tournament, who at least brought some colour, to a land so bleak.
Daire O’Driscoll, Pundit Arena.