The story of the enduring friendship between Middlesborough and North Korea
In 2002, North Korea’s heroes of 1966 made an emotional return to Middlesbrough and the site of their famous victory against Italy. The famous Ayresome Park ground had been demolished several years previously, with the new home for admiring Teesside football enthusiasts to be found a couple of miles away at the Riverside Stadium. Amidst a new housing estate a gathering of global camera crews, journalists and photographers formed the new crowd seeking to get a glimpse of the heroes of July 19th 1966. The return of the North Koreans to the UK was instigated by filmmaker Dan Gordon and Koryo Tours’ Nick Bonner following the success of their The Game of Their Lives documentary telling the story of the Chollima’s 1966 exploits. Filmed in late 2001 after the North Korean government granted unprecedented interview access to the former players and permissions to film in North Korea, Gordon and Bonner’s project captured the imagine of numerous key figures. Amongst them was Middlesbrough Chairman Steve Gibson, who in correspondence with Gordon declared:
The story of the North Korean’s heroics in the 1966 World Cup is the stuff of legends up here in Middlesbrough. They are still warmly remembered and I am thrilled that, through your programme, their remarkable tale will now reach a wider audience. Please pass on our best wishes to the players and the people that you will meet on your trip.
Support was also forthcoming from Frank Cook, MP for Stockton South, whilst the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) Ra Jong-Yil felt the ‘idea of inviting North Korean footballer players to Middlesbrough will be very useful in promoting cultural exchanges between the United Kingdom and North Korea’. As plans for a return to Teesside progressed, the local press recognised the opportunity for the Koreans to ‘renew their friendship links with the Teesside public’ and ‘revisit the scenes of their memories’. Enduring attachment was also evident amongst the North Koreans, with the first question asked of the filmmakers by Han Bong Jin (Han Pong-jin) querying the well-being of Middlesbrough’s former Mayor Alderman Boothby, with Bonner noting visible signs of sadness by the 1966 team’s number 11 upon informing him of Boothby’s recent death.
The North Koreans’ return attracted financial and in-kind support from a number of quarters, including Middlesbrough Council, Middlesbrough FC and Virgin Atlantic who assisted with flights. In October, Pak Do Ik and his teammates arrived back in Middlesbrough for the first time since 1966 and Speaker of Middlesbrough Ken Hall hosted a civic reception for the returning Koreans just as Mayor Boothby had done some 36 years before. As well as a return visit to Ayresome Park guided by artist Neville Gabie who had created the installations referencing Pak Do Ik’s goal, a celebration dinner was held at the Riverside Stadium and the players paraded before supporters old and new at the Boro’s home game against Leeds United. The Middlesbrough fanzine Fly Me To the Moon produced a ‘DPRK Special’ to mark the occasion, with editor Rob Nichols calling for supporters to provide a ‘rousing reception’ and pointing to anti-racism initiatives and football’s enriching ability to bring exposure to other cultures and communities. The fanzine’s centrefold featured a letter from the footballers of 1966 to the citizens of Middlesbrough in which the Koreans declared the ‘cheering voices of the citizens of Middlesbrough [from 1966] remain fresh still in our memory…we can clearly remember the people of Middlesbrough who had warmly welcomed us, enthusiastically supported us during our game against Italy and even followed us up to Liverpool…we are looking forward to seeing you in the stadium with warm and friendly feelings of 36 years ago’
After the North Koreans returned home for a second time, further efforts to mark the international connection were promoted in Middlesbrough including with calls for further screenings of The Game of Their Lives and future interactions with the Asians. In 2003, Middlesbrough Town Hall’s flagpole was once again adorned with the North Korean flag to mark the July 19th anniversary in an effort to celebrate ‘a date which is remembered fondly both locally and nationally’ according to Peter Hodgson who had been involved in organising the Koreans’ visit the previous year. The raising of the flag brought controversy, with letters published in the local newspaper referencing the Korean War and accusing the Council of honouring ‘our enemies’ and lambasting the ‘pathetic’ gesture. The civic connection went beyond the town hall in the same year, with Speaker Ken Hall invited to the opening of the North Korean Embassy in Ealing in an eagerness to extend the connection with Middlesbrough. In a recent interview, Hall revealed his significant role in proceedings, been unexpectedly handed a pair of scissors to cut a red ribbon and officially open the venue alongside a North Korean official. A month later in a letter to Hall, Kim Jong Sik, Director of Foreign Affairs of The People’s Committee of Pyongyang City, expressed hope that the ‘friendly emotion…from the football will surely continue as the cultural and economic exchange between two cities’.
The perceived benefits of the Teesside-North Korea connection were also highlighted in the House of Commons that year during a debate on the UK’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Alan Keen MP (Feltham and Heston), brought up on Teesside, pointed to the recent Middlesbrough-North Korea interactions as an example of how ‘sport can cement friendships’ despite ongoing international debates on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
Several years later, a new chapter in this story of an unlikely sporting connection and international friendship began when the British Embassy in the DPRK approached Bonner’s Koryo Tours in 2009 to explore ways of marking a decade of diplomatic relations with North Korea. It was ‘decided the best way to celebrate this was with football, a passion for which has long been shared by both sides’ and ‘one which transcended political and social barriers’. It was decided that ten years of diplomatic relations would be celebrated through Middlesbrough Ladies FC playing two matches against opponents in Pyongyang in 2010, a trip that gained media attention from afar afield as Australia. Ultimately, Boro were defeated 6-2 by April 25th (the military team) and 5-0 by Galmaegi Women’s team in matches broadcast to millions in North Korea, yet the more significant results were evident off the pitch. Middlesbrough forward Nicky Duckling described how the ‘unbelievable, smiling and waving’ crowd made the Middlesbrough team feel famous, Middlesbrough manager Marrie Wieczorek noted mutual appreciation and hailed the trip as ‘evidence of football’s power to break down cultural barriers’, whilst April 25th’s Kwon Bom Hyang hoped the connection would help ‘promote the development of football in the future. Since the trip, Koryo Tours have published a short book celebrating the visit, whilst there has also been interest in the connection in Middlesbrough following recent revisiting of the story, including the town’s main library hosting a temporary exhibition of ephemera relating to the North Korean’s exploits of 1966.
Sport’s diplomatic impact in the international, political arena is generally limited and the unlikely friendship between Middlesbrough and North Korea is unlikely to bring about change on a global scale. Yet, the interactions (despite minor criticism in some quarters) have facilitated many positive developments, including the affection from Middlesbrough supporters helping change the Asian’s self-perceptions as the ‘enemy’ and illustrating how sport can bring the unlikeliest people together. In terms of explaining the love affair with the North Korean footballers, there is no single explanation. Jong Song Lee has suggested English football’s ‘cult of the underdog’ might explain the Boro faithful’s backing for the unfancied Asians, whilst recollections amongst fans have suggested North Korea’s red kit coupled with been resident at Ayresome Park and friendly interactions with local people, including young autograph hunters, helped their popularity. Civic figures such as Mayor Boothby in 1966 and Ken Hall in 2002 in welcoming the Koreans helped with their adoption as the ‘home’ team and shaped subsequent attachments and future interactions. Gordon and Bonner’s work in reigniting the connection, firstly through The Game of Their Lives and later through the 2010 Pyongyang visit, has been pivotal, whilst financial and in-kind support of Middlesbrough Football Club, Middlesbrough Council and commercial partners reflects the value attached to the sporting connection.
In The Game of Their Lives Gordon declared ‘at the eighth World Cup a friendship had been allowed to blossom between two peoples whose worlds would otherwise never have collided’. Amidst recent concerns of racism on the terraces and with twenty years of diplomatic relations on the horizon, hopefully the Middlesbrough-North Korea connection can once again be reignited to bring further positive cultural exchanges that build new bonds and inspire future generations to realise the benefits football can bring.
Originally published on Playing Pasts.