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Jul 19, 2012

Chollima upset Italy

Italy have been one of football's most successful teams since winning back to back World Cups in 1934 and 1938. However, they fell to one of the most shocking defeats in history on July 19, 1966, when they lost 1-0 to World Cup debutants North Korea.

Middlesbrough seems an odd place for one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history to take place but, with England on their way to their only win in the competition in 1966, Teessiders' attentions were momentarily diverted by a true underdog story.

North Korea had shocked the world by qualifying for the World Cup, though the qualifying campaign from the Eastern regions had been unusual to say the least. FIFA had made the decision to allow only one qualifier from Africa, Asia and Oceania, and 20 of the 22 nations took this badly, with all but North Korea and Australia pulling out. A play-off was set up between the two remaining nations in Cambodia, and a 9-2 aggregate win in Phnom Penh sealed the Koreans' progress to England.

Leaving Korea with the words of the "eternal" president Kim Il-Sung ringing in their ears, Rim Jung-Son, who appeared in a 2002 documentary The Game of Their Lives, revealed: "He embraced us lovingly and said 'European and South American nations dominate international football. As representatives of the Asian and African region, as coloured people, I urge you to win one or two matches'."

However, in the aftermath of the Korea War (1950-53), a conflict in which Britain had taken the side of the South, North Korea were viewed warily by the World Cup hosts. "Initially there were doubts as to whether they would be allowed even to enter the country," Louise Taylor wrote in the Guardian. "Britain refused to recognise North Korea and the Foreign Office reportedly panicked about what to do, but FIFA exerted diplomatic pressure, thereby facilitating the team's arrival." Despite FIFA's intervention, a design for a Post Office stamp to commemorate the tournament was banned by the Foreign Office because it featured the flag of North Korea and tensions were running high.

Against this backdrop of political uncertainty, on the pitch little was expected in a group that featured Soviet Union, Italy and Chile. "Unless the Koreans turn out to be jugglers, with some unexpected ploy like running with the ball cushioned in the crook of their necks, it looks as though Italy and the Soviets should have the run of the place," a Times correspondent wrote. While the team's nickname was Chollima - a mythical winged horse that cannot be mounted by a mortal man and serves as a symbol of North Korea's revolutionary spirit - few gave them any chance of upsetting the odds.

Their first match suggested as much as they fell to a 3-0 defeat to the Soviets. A reporter for the Times newspaper was unimpressed with the "little orientals" (the team's average height for the tournament was a mere 5' 5") who were out of the game by half-time. Yet as North Korea drew 1-1 with Chile in their second match, thanks to an 88th-minute goal from Pak Seung-Zin, the report noted that they were beginning to win the battle for hearts and minds: "Rarely have supporters taken a team to their hearts as the football followers of Middlesbrough have taken these whimsical orientals."

Boro natives were indeed won over. The Chollima played in red, much like their own team, and when Jack Boothby, the town's mayor, accepted the squad's gift of an embroidered picture of a crane (the bird), which is now on display in the town's Dorman Museum, their place was set. Their final group game against Italy, though, would define their place in history.

For the Italians, it had been a terrible decade following the tragedy of the 1949 Superga air disaster, which killed 31 of their players. In 1954, they had been knocked out by Switzerland in the first round and failed to qualify at all in 1958 after losing to Portugal and Northern Ireland. They did make the 1962 event in Chile but disgraced themselves in the 'Battle of Santiago' against the hosts and, by the time they made it past Scotland, Poland and Finland in qualifying for 1966, Edmondo Fabbri's side were badly in need of a good run in the competition to reaffirm national pride.

Beating Chile and losing to Soviet Union had meant that it was 'winner takes all' against the Koreans, although Italy only needed a draw to progress as Korea had managed just a single goal in their two matches.

Historian Cris Freddi wrote of the game: "It was the Italy captain who shot the team in the leg. Giacomo Bulgarelli aggravated a knee injury in a sliding tackle on Pak Seung-Jin, who backed into him. With no substitutes allowed, Italy were a man down for the last hour (people forget that). Three minutes from half-time, North Korea scored their famous goal. An Italian clearance was headed back towards their area and Pak Doo-Ik let it run into his stride before hitting a low shot across Ricky Albertosi, who might have done slightly better... North Korea outlasted the ten men in the second half, making a mess of at least two good chances - while Marino Perani missed two of his own - to seal one of the shock scorelines in any World Cup."

The Daily Express' Arnold Howe wrote: "Pak Doo-Ik last night detonated one of the great explosions in soccer. He scored the goal that hurled the Italians out of the World Cup. That sent the non-entities of North Korea into the quarter-finals. That sent the Land of the Morning Calm into a Middlesbrough night of frenzy." Continuing his distinctly battle-themed piece, Howe wrote of the "little warriors" and referred to them as a ''country known only for war". Meanwhile, colleague Derek Hodgson wrote in his comment piece that "Korean historians may write that this was the birth of them as a footballing nation".

Unfortunately for North Korea, their success was drowned out somewhat by the fact that Eusebio's Portugal ''kicked Pele out of the game'' to send world champions Brazil out with a 3-1 defeat on the same night. Second-billing for the Koreans was unfair given the nature of their achievement but, by the time they faced Eusebio in the quarter-final, they were guaranteed a place in the media's hearts.

Bernard Gent, a former Teesside journalist, was seconded to be North Korea's press officer. "They were a very quiet bunch when they first arrived, but that changed after they beat Italy," he told the Guardian in 2002. "The whole town took them to its heart, North Korea became instant heroes with Boro fans and 3,000 people from Middlesbrough travelled to Liverpool to see them lose 5-3 to Portugal in the quarter-finals."

In front of 51,780 at Goodison Park, the Koreans had taken a shock 3-0 lead before Eusebio's four goals and Jose Augusto's late finish won it for the Portuguese. There was no disgrace in that defeat. Indeed, North Korea were hailed as heroes upon their return; Italy's players, meanwhile, were greeted at Genoa airport by a horde of angry fans who threw rotten tomatoes at them.

On his 2002 return to England, Pak Doo-Ik, a then army corporal and later a gymnastics instructor, said of the great success: "It was the day I learnt football is not all about winning. When I scored that goal, the people of Middlesbrough took us to their hearts. I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace."

What happened next? Italy coach Edmondo Fabbri was sacked, while the Chollima returned almost immediately after their quarter-final to a rapturous reception in Pyongyang. They did not make another World Cup until 2010, but in the late 1990s, film-maker Daniel Gordon directed a BBC documentary about the Korean team to critical acclaim. Part of Ayresome Park is now someone's front garden, in which there's the bronze cast of the imprint of a football boot on the spot where Pak Doo-Ik hit his shot. Italy would fall to another Korean side, South Korea, in 2002 and the Guardian's Lawrence Booth wrote after the game: "Poor old Italy. It has taken them 36 years to do it, but today they finally completed a full hand of humiliating World Cup defeats by Korean teams."

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