NORTH KOREA’S WORLD CUP RETURN
A BOTCHED REVENGE AND FABRICATED HISTORIES | ISSUE 1: COMEBACKS
As the warm summer breeze rippled through the streets of England to make dancers of the red and white bunting linking the facades of every hopeful home, the many people scattered below mimicked the fluttering decorations as they skipped and swayed in celebration.
The length and breadth of the country, fans young and old gleefully gathered with their neighbours to share in the jubilation and trade tales of the emotional ebullitions that chased the moment Geoff Hurst breached the German resistance for a third time; the moment one final shrill blast of the referee’s whistle endorsed their nations greatest sporting conquest; the moment England were crowned World Cup champions.
At the same time, some 5,500 miles to the east, revelry of a not dissimilar nature coursed through the cobbled veins of North Korea. Arriving home, fresh from collaborating on a surprisingly inspired representation of their own nation at the 1966 World Cup, North Korea’s squad were also received with a hero's welcome.
The Chollima — North Korea’s national football team; named after a mythical winged horse from classical Chinese literature — had embarked upon their maiden World Cup voyage as veritable underdogs and were expected to make their return to East Asia post-haste without so much as threatening to leave a lasting imprint on the tournament.
The doubting neutrals appeared to have hit the nail on the head when North Korea’s opening bow arrived in the form of a 3-0 dismantling by the Soviet Union but, in their second outing, North Korea briskly regained their poise and teased a prowess their rivals had wrongly assumed to be as fictional as the literary Chollima; drawing 1-1 with Chile. They would follow their first point with a most unlikely flourish.
For their third and final group stage fixture, North Korea enticed the incomparable might of the Azzurri where it was expected the minnows would yield without fuss nor fight to the team many considered tournament favourites. Yet it was the unfancied East Asians who would emerge victorious in a famous upset. Decided by a solitary strike; Pak Doo-ik’s memorable goal proved the vital difference. Their remarkable triumph not only sent Italy tumbling unceremoniously out of the competition but proved sufficient to see them qualify for the quarter-finals. There they would do battle with Portugal.
With their latest endeavour just 25 minutes old, the North Koreans inexplicably found themselves ahead by three goals. Squeezing beyond a wounded Italy was one thing. But disposing of Portugal with such ease would be another entirely.
Sadly for the North Koreans, and the vast swathes of Teesside locals who had come to adopt the ambitious pretenders as their second team, the bemusing scenario that was their astounding early lead would serve to unsettle themselves as much as it would their European adversaries. North Korea knew not how to preserve such an emphatic advantage against such esteemed opponents and their bluff began to unravel.
The tie turned at the whim of the exalted Eusébio as four goals in the space of scarcely 30 minutes from Mozambique-born maestro helped Portugal flip the deficit with five unanswered goals. The Iberians survived the scare and sent the fearless underdogs scampering.
With pride aplenty, but their tickets to the semi-finals in Portuguese possession, the North Koreans journeyed home to be met by blushing compatriots with open arms. Champions they were not, but they had served their nation well.
While England would return swiftly to the World Cup stage in 1970 to, albeit unsuccessfully, defend their crown, North Korea failed to build upon their relative successes of ‘66 and were unable to attain qualification. This vexing scenario would play on repeat for decades, forming an anomaly from their qualification for the World Cup in England. The Chollima would be forced to endure a torrid 44-year wait before production could finally begin on a sequel to their stand-alone World Cup story. That opportunity arose in 2010.
On 15 June 2010, North Korea took to the pitch at the Ellis Park Stadium in Doornfontein, inner-city Johannesburg, to lock horns with Brazil. The team they faced were a withering imitation of Seleção squads from bygone eras; a shadow of their former selves in which the likes of Elano and Luis Fabiano ambled aimlessly where Garrincha and Pelé once roved so menacingly. Yet, still, the gulf in quality was enormous. At the time, Brazil sat at the very peak of FIFA’s world rankings. North Korea, meanwhile, languished in 105th; bookended by Jordan and Thailand.
Nonetheless, North Korea equipped themselves admirably against the giants of South America and lost by just two goals to one. So surprising was their faring against their opponents of comparative footballing royalty, North Korea’s leaders agreed to air the entire encounter, albeit delayed by many hours, on national television. Furthermore, perhaps intent on capitalising on a rare morsel of positive public interest, or with hopes of funnelling the growing fervour directly into yet further patriotic devotion, North Korea declared they would make their upcoming game against Portugal their first ever live sporting broadcast.
Six days after their tussle with Brazil, the North Korean squad arrived at the Cape Town Stadium, a stone’s throw from the waterfront of the city’s west coast, to rendezvous with old foes Portugal for the first time since ‘66.
Should the players have spent the previous night sharing dreams of emerging from their encounter as unlikely victors, with the half-time score just 1-0 to Portugal, their sanguine stupors were seemingly persisting. The deficit was not ideal but, objectively, a comeback was not beyond them. Then, however, a second Portugal goal came, then a third goal, a fourth, a fifth, and they continued to flash past goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk until the North Korean net had been tested on seven occasions.
Unlike those sprinkled throughout the stadium who watched on in horror, their winces and recoils growing in despair with each passing ignominy, the North Koreans watching on home soil had turned off after the fourth goal though, crucially, not by choice.
According to a great many reports shared throughout neighbouring countries in the days following the debacle, shortly after Tiago netted his team’s fourth, the live broadcast was cut across all of North Korea; transmission ceased and the game expelled from the airwaves.
To imagine vast crowds of fans staring perplexed at suddenly blank, pictureless screens raised in colourful city squares would be to grossly underestimate the extent of the nation’s repression and the near total absence of public remonstration in the so-called Democratic Republic of Korea. Those watching the game represented a privileged minority and most did so on modest television sets in the privacy of their own homes.
Nonetheless, those atop the North Korean hierarchy wished not to allow their people, however few, to witness scenes of such inadequacy that so blatantly contradicted everything they openly profess about their peerless nation. Their humbling at the hands of the Portuguese — as those raised on a strict diet of grandiose delusions would have so willingly viewed it — bordered on the blasphemous and they could not be allowed to continue.
"The Portuguese won the game and now have four points. We are ending our live broadcast," a Korean Central Broadcasting commentator abruptly proclaimed before the transmission segued to footage of factory workers praising North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. But while the game may have ended prematurely, taking with it North Korea’s viewership of the World Cup, it proved not to spell the end of their shameless distribution of disinformation.
According to a Portuguese flight attendant named Alvaro Leite, it appeared as though North Korea had been duped into believing their loss to Portugal had directly preceded their opponent’s winning of the World Cup. Learned while visiting the socialist state in 2017, news broadcasts beamed out to all of North Korea had reputedly put to their people the reason they were felled so simply by Portugal: they were a footballing nation without rival and had claimed the World Cup at a canter. Today, almost a decade later, there is no telling just how many North Koreans believe the World Cup to have been won by the Portuguese.
Even before the dust had settled on North Korea’s tournament, it had long since become clear that their fairytale return to the World Cup was intent on dragging them through far stormier seas than they’d have preferred; holed up in a vessel irredeemably unprepared for such a journey and steered remotely by a cantankerous captain in complete denial of the hail beating down on them.
In the end, North Korea’s budding generation of World Cup hopefuls were powerless to avenge their defeated elders; falling far shorter of beating Portugal than their predecessors of 1966 and surrendering their fleeting opportunity to rewrite history in the process. If reports are to be believed, however, their perverse leaders, with their propaganda machine in full flow, reminded the world that they were suitably primed to fabricate history should their hideous masquerade depend on it.
By William Sharp | Tw. @SHILLWARP