BEIJING, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- 'The Fall of the Roman Empire had nothing on this' shouted the British newspaper The Northern Echo, and it was hard to disagree. Italy, the world's richest, most illustrious team, faced the no-hopers of North Korea, "so little-known they might be flying in from outer space," intoned a BBC announcer. But on July 19, 1966, the team from the wrong side of the 38th Parallel dumped Italy out of the World Cup, and into a hail of rotten tomatoes at Genoa airport.
Meanwhile, the 1-0 victors at England's Ayresome Park, home ground of the Middlesborough soccer club, basked in the warm and genuine welcome the city accorded its unusual East Asian guests. Temporarily free of restrictions and privations, the North Koreans reputedly celebrated with wine, women and song. Some 3,000 Middlesborough fans then followed them across England to Goodison Park for the quarterfinal with Portugal.
It was a classic game of two halves. In the first, Korea raced ahead 3-0, before man of the tournament Eusebio grabbed two back. In the second, he netted two more as Portugal romped home 5-3. Yet the Koreans returned to their country of two halves with heads held high. They enjoyed a hero's welcome, then disappeared, seemingly forever.
Dark rumors later escaped their Stalinist state suggesting the players had been banished to labor in the gulag. Exiles claimed dictator for life Kim Il Sung was outraged that all-night benders had corrupted his side before its Portuguese test, and, more importantly, exposed moral weakness unacceptable from ambassadors for Kim's bizarre hybrid of socialism.
For years Italian journalists tried in vain to find Pak Do Ik, the only scorer of the game, and the man they call 'the dentist' for the pain his goal still inflicts on Italy's soccer psyche. But all efforts to contact any of Korea's 1966 heroes were rebuffed. Until two enterprising Englishmen finally broke through the political barriers sealing the capital Pyongyang.
"Before we left for England, the Great Leader [aka Kim Il Sung] had asked us to win one or two games," 59-year old Pak Do Ik proudly recalled last month, breaking his 35-year silence. "After we beat Italy we were all crying. I ran up the steps to the top of the stand and made a speech to the Great Leader. And then I cried some more."
Daniel Gordon, Director for VeryMuchSo Productions, and Nick Bonner, a Beijing-based Korea expert, were sitting in Pak's Pyongyang home at the end of a four-year search. The two-story apartment, gifted by a grateful government, was strewn with pots of kimchi (italics), Korea's beloved pickled cabbage, and assorted soccer memorabilia. Pak's son, now a soccer coach, also played for his country, managed for a period by his dad, while Pak's grandson shows promise on his school team.
Filming the documentary 'The Game of their Lives,' Gordon and Bonner were heartened to find seven surviving members of the 11-man team behind the greatest shock in World Cup history. To win the quarterfinal, the Portuguese were promised 500 pounds a man. The Koreans were promised another sports medal, of the type weighing down the magnificent seven as they recently clanked around for the cameras, in full military uniform, on the pitch of Pyongyang's vast Kim Il Sung stadium.
But their most profound memories concern their reception in northeast England. "Before we arrived in Britain, we were not sure how the people of England would treat us," center-half Rim Jung Son told Gordon. "We thought we would be shunned," Rim admitted, for the Korean War was only 13 years cold. "But the Mayor of Middlesborough and all the people went out of their way to make us feel at home. And I still cannot understand why they did it, but I am glad they did."
All seven enquired after the health of the good Mayor, only to learn they had outlived their host. His working-man's town had responded with fervor to the plucky outsiders, whose red strips matched those of Middlesborough. Moreover, they played with a speed that resembles today's game. "The Great Leader had told them to play Chollima football," inspired by Korea's legendary Chollima horse, says Gordon. "So they played to their strengths, they were small and quick, and there was no point booting the ball as England did."
Pak Sung Jin, also 59, still cuts a tidy figure on the pitches of Pyongyang, where he coaches one of the city's first division sides. In 1966, his spectacular volley earned Korea a last-gasp equalizer against Chile, and the crucial point that set them up for Italy. South Korean newspapers claim Pak spent years incarcerated at Yodok internment camp, living off the insects he could catch, but he denies suffering any direct fall-out from his English sojourn.
The names of Pak Sung Jin, Pak Do Ik and their teammates, all of whom are still involved with soccer, are revered nationwide as the Peles of the Pensinsula, although their faces, from Korea's pre-television age, are less well known. They showed their undimmed passion, and gratitude to their masters, with a rendition of their World Cup song, bursting with Chollima spirit, before they saw off the English filmmakers at Pyongyang railway station.
When the World Cup visits South Korea and Japan next year, the benchmark still remains that set by this class of '66, the first Asian team to qualify. For no subsequent Asian finalist has ever advanced from the group stage. "We have some great players in the north and south," a North Korean border guard ruefully remarked to Gordon beside the 38th Parallel. "If we could play together, what a strong team we would have!"