The 1966 World Cup heroes
and the origins of an unlikely
international friendship

A look back at North Korea's famous football victory over Italy in 1966

In this guest blog, Manchester Metropolitan University historian Dr Tosh Warwick looks back at North Korea’s famous victory over Italy at the 1966 FIFA World Cup matches at Ayresome Park, and the origins of a most unlikely international friendship between the north east town and North Korea that has endured into the twenty-first century.

In July 1966, North Korea stunned the football world as they defeated much fancied Italy 1-0 at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park to send the Azzurri tumbling out of the FIFA World Cup. Celebrated in the ground-breaking 2002 The Game of Their Lives documentary by Dan Gordon and Nick Bonner, and hailed by Boro Chairman Steve Gibson as the stuff of legends in the town, a delve into the archives and interviews with key individuals reveal the dynamics of the football-inspired Middlesbrough-Pyongyang connection. The coming together of Middlesbrough and the Chollima at the 1966 World Cup is all the more remarkable considering neither the town nor North Korea was expected to play a role in the tournament. Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park was not initially selected to host tournament matches, with Newcastle United’s St James’ Park and Sunderland’s Roker Park instead chosen to host the north east section group matches. It was only a dispute between the Magpies and Newcastle City Council over issues of access and improvements to St James’ that would see ties switched from Tyneside to Teesside.

North Korea’s participation was equally unexpected and arose due to boycotts by most African, Asian and Oceania football associations in protest at only one qualification spot been awarded to teams from the continents. This left only the Australians and North Koreans to compete for the one spot, with the North Koreans triumphing 9-2 on aggregate in a two-legged tie played in neutral Cambodia. The Koreans’ victory, just over a decade after the Korean War, posed a diplomatic headache for the UK government that did not recognise the DPRK and even explored ways to exclude the Asians, whose qualification Tennent and Gillett have described as making ‘interaction between football and international diplomacy unavoidable’.

Not anticipating the famous events that would ensue in the coming months, the announcement that Chile, Italy, North Korea and the USSR would play their group matches at Ayresome Park – with the Asians drawn to play all matches on Teesside – brought apathy amongst a number of locals quizzed by the Evening Gazette. The apathy was reflected in the lowest attendances of the tournament on Teesside as the public failed to see the appeal of more football having witnessed the Boro relegated to the third tier that season.

Despite arriving as curiosities and unknowns on Teesside, the signs of early bonds between the locals and the new ‘home team’ were evident as young supporters headed to watch training sessions and the local press chronicled the Koreans’ tournament preparations. At a pre-tournament civic reception Mayor Alderman Jack Boothby promised the Koreans support declaring ‘You wear the same colours as Middlesbrough, we will shout for you’.

Echoes of the Boro’s failings were evident as North Korea were defeated 3-0 by the USSR in their opening fixture at Ayresome Park, with the Asian’s prospects looking all the more ominous as they fell behind to an early Chile penalty in their next match – a goal greeted with silence from the Boro faithful. Minutes from elimination, the Koreans sent the crowd into raptures with a late equaliser. The Evening Gazette’s Cliff Mitchell captured the emotions of the moment:

"I think it is correct to say that the crowd of 13,792 was as much responsible for the goal as the jubilant little Korean forward. When the equaliser came, some electric strip lighting in the Press refreshment room up in the stand at Ayresome Park was brought down by the stamping of a crowd that has well and truly ‘adopted’ the Asians’…‘Why don’t they cheer the Borough like that?..The Koreans, obviously heartened by the fact that they were cheered every time they were on the ball, attacked with tremendous enthusiasm…I imagine that there will be quite a good crowd of Borough (or should it be Korea?) supporters at Ayresome Park for the final match against strong favourites Italy next Tuesday."

Clearly the bond had been strengthened and in an interview for The Game of Their Lives documentary, North Korea’s goalscoring hero Pak Sung Jin reflected on the ‘riddle’ of the locals’ support for the team.

Despite gloomy predictions at the Koreans’ prospects in their final group match against Italy, the Middlesbrough crowd rallied behind the Asian underdogs, drowning out the noise of some 3,000 Italian supporters at Ayresome Park. Italy were reduced to ten men due to an injury to Bulgarelli and the North Koreans took full advantage with a Pak Doo Ik strike that proved to be the winner. At the final whistle Ayresome Park was in ‘uproar’ with BBC commentator Frank Bough exclaiming ‘this stadium has never had support like this for years and years’.

The Teesside Star’s match report led with ‘The Mouse That Roared’ and hailed the day ‘the little Korean lion roared, and for 90 breathtaking minutes out-tackled and out-ran the mighty Italians’. The role of the Middlesbrough support was also reiterated:

They had an ally in the Boro’ crowd, who went wild when the Koreans scored and followed this up with chants of ‘Easy’ and ‘We want two’ to the chargin of a large, colourful and childish Italian contingent in the crowd…As the game went on the Italian supporters got more and more quiet, and the home crowd – football foster parents to the Korean team – shouted for more and more…When the final whistle went the Italians slunk dejectedly from the field while the Korean team and their handful of officials danced and shouted with delight to a standing ovation from the 17,000 crowd.

The North Koreans declared ‘our success is due to the support given by the citizens of Middlesbrough and because our players fought for the fatherland’. The Soviet’s defeat of Chile the following night confirmed the Koreans progress and 3,000 Boro fans headed to Goodison Park to witness North Korea’s 5-3 defeat to Portugal and the end to the fairy tale – at least temporarily.

Middlesbrough would remain at Ayresome Park until 1995 when they moved to the state-of-the-art Riverside Stadium with a housing estate complete street names referencing the site’s sporting past built on the site. The installation of Neville Gabie’s ‘The Trophy Room’, a series of bronze cast artworks installed between 2000 and 2001, included a bronze pitch puddle covered in stud marks commemorating the spot from where Pak Doo Ik struck the winner against Italy as a reminder of that famous night. It would become the only public art outside of North Korea recognised by the DPRK government and is thought to be considered a National Historic Monument, whilst on Teesside it would provide a tangible connection between Middlesbrough and Pyongyang that would form a focal point for future international interactions.

Originally published on Playing Pasts.

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