This week ESPN FC is counting down, in chronological order, 10 of the greatest World Cup matches. Third is the famous meeting between Eusebio's Portugal and the legendary underdogs of North Korea.
North Korea had travelled to the World Cup in England as 1,000-1 outsiders. Despite defiant talk from their camp in relation to their chances, they were dispatched 3-0 by the Soviet Union in their opening game, which seemed to serve as confirmation that they would be packing their bags after the group stage.
In truth, the North Koreans had themselves expected to be packing their bags after the group stage, and neglected to prebook their accommodation for the knockout stages in anticipation of an early exit. Yet, after that miserable start at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, they rallied to draw with Chile and then, remarkably, eliminated two-time world champions Italy with a 1-0 victory in their final group game.
The result caught everyone by surprise, not least those in charge of booking the team’s accommodation in Liverpool ahead of their quarterfinal meeting with Portugal at Goodison Park. Ultimately, the North Koreans ended up staying at a Jesuit retreat.
After arriving at the retreat, defender Shin Yung-Kyoo told the media they were “tired” but still “tremendously fit.” Both statements were undoubtedly true. The team, which had secretly flown into Germany before the tournament to adapt to continental conditions, had spent three years in relentless preparation, spending hour upon hour training and practising, and devoting the two hours before bedtime to the discussion of tactics.
They had arrived with an air of mystery but, following their victory over Italy, their remarkable stamina and harrying tactics could no longer be considered secret weapons, and there was little doubt that they remained rank outsiders against Portugal, whom many were tipping to win the whole tournament.
Led by the brilliance of Eusebio, Portugal had claimed three wins out of three in their group, and showed in the final match of that first stage that the artistic element to their game could be allied with a fearsome physical approach as Pele’s Brazil were kicked out of the tournament.
Still, the North Koreans approached the game with great confidence, and the players -- incentivised to win via the promise of a “certificate of merit” from their government -- made a remarkable start. Pak Seung-Zin crashed in the opener shortly after kickoff, and further goals from Li Dong-Woon and Yang Sung-Kook midway through the half had them 3-0 ahead.
As Portugal coach Otto Gloria observed afterward: “We do not like defence. Attack is our best defence. We do not like to play on defence. We do not know how to play on defence.”
Their absolute commitment to attack was permissible because of the presence of Eusebio, and he led the response. He stabbed home a response two minutes later and then expertly converted a penalty for his second just before the break. Nine minutes into the second half, he completed his hat trick with a fine effort to level the score, and with just under an hour on the clock he won and converted a penalty for his fourth goal.
With 10 minutes to play, North Korea’s resistance was brought to an end as Jose Torres headed home following a corner.
“We were not disturbed at any time,” Portugal captain Mario Coluna said. “We knew we would beat Korea.” At 3:25 p.m. that afternoon, though, few others would have shared his confidence.