Making history: Korea DPR shock Italy and the world

When Korea DPR turned up at the World Cup finals in England in 1966, they did so with little fanfare and few expectations; by the time they had returned to Pyongyang, Pak Doo-ik and his team-mates had written their names into the history books.

Korea DPR had reached the finals following a pair of victories over Australia in a play-off after the qualifying tournament for Africa, Asia and Oceania had been boycotted by most nations due to the awarding of just one berth in total to the three regions.

Coach Myung Rye-hyun and his team, however, seized their opportunity, thrashing the Australians in their first meeting in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh 6-1 on 21 November 1965 before a 3-1 win in the same venue three days later.

With qualification secured for the finals for the first time in the nation’s history, little was expected from a team few knew much about.

“To compete with the west we believed we had to be mentally determined, physically fit, fast and full of energy,” coach Myung told BBC Documentary The Game of Their Lives in 2002.

“Our Great Leader stressed that to be an excellent footballer you must run fast and kick accurately.”

An opening 3-0 loss against the Soviet Union at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park was followed by a 1-1 draw – thanks to a late goal from Pak Seung-zin – against Chile that kept the North Koreans alive in the competition going into their final group game.

There they would face the might of Italy – a side built on the Internazionale side that had won back-to-back European Cup titles in 1964 and 1965 – who themselves needed to win after a disappointing start to their campaign.

What was to follow remains one of the greatest upsets in the history of the FIFA World Cup as, thanks to a 40th-minute strike from the edge of the penalty area by Pak Doo-ik, Korea DPR secured a 1-0 win that guaranteed a quarter-final meeting with Portugal at Everton’s Goodison Park.

Italy, in contrast, exited the competition in shame, to be greeted at Rome airport days later by an angry, fruit-throwing crowd.

“If we analyse why Italy lost the game, firstly they lost the mental battle,” coach Myung told the BBC documentary makers.

“Secondly, after they conceded a goal to us, they tried to hurry to score. That meant they played individually, not as a team. Teamwork triumphed over technical superiority.”

[QUOTE Person="Korea DPR coach Myung Rye-hyun" Phrase="Teamwork triumphed over technical superiority."]

Korea DPR became the first Asian team to reach the knockout phase of the FIFA World Cup, and between them and a place in the semi-finals stood Portugal and Benfica legend Eusébio.

The reputation of their opponents, however, counted for little as the North Koreans raced into a 3-0 lead inside the first 20 minutes, only for Eusébio to inspire his side to an astonishing comeback.

The teams went into the half-time break with the Asian outsiders leading 3-2 after the Mozambique-born striker had scored twice, but another two goals in the second half from the Benfica ace helped Portugal advance via a remarkable 5-3 win.

The teams went into the half-time break with the Asian outsiders leading 3-2 after the Mozambique-born striker had scored twice, but another two goals in the second half from the Benfica ace helped Portugal advance via a remarkable 5-3 win.

“Leading 3-0 and to then be defeated 5-3, it was very disappointing,” said defender Lim Zoong-sun. “But we were proud of ourselves for getting to the quarter-finals and we felt like winners for such a glorious victory, rather than losers even though we lost the game.”

Coach Myung and his team returned to Pyongyang as heroes, having set a benchmark that would stand unchallenged by any other Asian nation until 2002, when neighbouring Korea Republic surpassed their achievement to qualify for the semi-finals of a tournament they co-hosted with Japan.