Sixteen teams took part in the eighth World Cup soccer tournament, in 1966. The soccer associations of Africa, Asia and Oceania were allotted just one slot between them. At the demand of the African confederation, apartheid-era South Africa was banned from the tournament. But 31 African nations, most of which had only recently become independent, had another demand as well: that a slot be reserved for one of the member states of the Confederation of African Football. When FIFA, the governing body of association soccer, refused, all the African teams left.
In Asia there was hardly any demand to participate in the event. Israel and Syria were assigned to Europe; most of the other national teams were apprehensive that they would embarrass themselves. Only two teams from Asia had managed to get into the seven previous World Cup tournaments, and they hadn’t left much of an impression. In 1938, Dutch East India (Indonesia) was thrashed 6-0 by Hungary, and in 1954 South Korea was trounced 9-0 by Hungary and 7-0 by Turkey. Not exactly performances that stirred a lot of motivation.
Still, in 1966 both Koreas wanted to take part in the Cup. But when the decision was made to move the qualifying games from Japan to Cambodia, South Korea dropped out for political reason. North Korea was left alone to take on Australia.
The amateur Australian team, consisting mainly of British expats, hadn’t played an international game for the seven preceding years. The Koreans, in contrast, had been preparing for a long time in order to make good on the dream of the “Great Leader,” Kim Il-sung, who wanted to display his ideology of “Juche” (“self-reliance”) to the world by fielding a winning soccer team.
The modus operandi, as in other areas of life, was to embody the spirit of “Chollima” (named for the swift, mythical winged horse commonly depicted in East Asian cultures), which also became the nickname of the national team. In practical terms, this meant absolute effort and sacrifice, physical and mental, for the sake of the homeland, which had been devastated during the civil war in the early 1950s. Some 2.5 million Korean civilians, on both sides, were killed during three years of war, along with a million or so soldiers, in which the United States and China played leading roles. The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, was largely razed to the ground by the U.S. Air Force. Much work still lay ahead for the Koreans, and it was best not to be slipshod.
The country’s best soccer players spent months at a closed training camp, to improve their fitness and the quality of their game, to generate blind understanding between them, and to imbue them with readiness to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the “eternal leader” and the homeland. The players trained with elastic bands on their legs in order to strengthen their muscles, and the goalkeeper Lee Chang-Myung, who was just 1.70 meters (about 5 feet, 7 inches) tall, leaped hundreds of times a day toward the crossbar of the net, until he was able to touch it from slightly above his elbow.
The Australians were far more relaxed than their rivals when they arrived for the two games in Cambodia. They’d learned the basics of the game in the “homeland of football,” their physical condition was far better, and lording it over Asians wasn’t foreign to them. The Cambodian ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, ordered the Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh to be filled with 55,000 viewers. One side of the arena was given the task of rooting for the Australians, the other for the North Koreans.
The Chollima burst onto the field at the opening whistle – and vanquished the Australians 6-1 in the first game and 3-1 in the second.
FULL STORY (how the North Koreans got to England, and how they won over the industrial town of Middlesbrough)