Russia 2018 is on its way, and in a misty-eyed look back at past finals, Craig Stephen recalls one of the abiding memories of the past – when the North Koreans arrived in the North-East of England and shook up the European powerhouses. Well, two of them.

With just 25 minutes gone on the afternoon of 23 July 1966, one of the biggest upsets in the history of football is looming at Goodison Park.

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The unheralded North Koreans are already three goals ahead of the mighty Portuguese, who included among their ranks one of the world’s best players of the era, Eusebio, and a litany of stars from Benfica. But there’s no respect from their opponents, one of whom, Pak Seung-Zin, has the audacity to smash the ball home from the edge of the box with just 50 seconds gone. Two more goals came before a third of the game is gone, leading to commentator David Coleman to bellow: “This is ridiculous. The Portuguese are being torn apart.” “Unbelievable” piped up his wingman Johnny Haynes.

With the supposed neutral crowd firmly behind them, and playing with verve and imagination, the Koreans seem set for an unlikely semi-final appearance.

It wasn’t to be, of course; even this fairytale was just too fanciful. Eusebio finally showed his worth in the 28th minute by latching onto a pinpoint pass for the Portuguese’s first goal of the day.

I watched the match in its entirety recently in glorious monochrome. All the trappings of the 1960s are there – rattles, besuited fans, no TV replays, a summariser who knows his place and a lack of on-screen information. Instead of ads, the letters of the alphabet stretch out across the pitchside wall,

And it appears that goalkeeper Lee Chang-Myung isn’t wearing gloves.

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Portugal snatched another goal back before half-time; in the second half the Koreans continue to press, but the Portuguese have woken from their slumber. Eusebio is sublime, being involved in everything and an incredible run results in him being mowed down and a penalty awarded, which he duly converts. Jose Torres, Mario Coluna, Jose Agusto are all inspired for the second half, and there’s little doubt who is on course to win. And they do so, 5-3, with Eusebio bagging all but one. North Korea’s lack of defensive qualities is blamed on their defeat, but in reality, the Portuguese are a class apart.

While Coleman continually peppers his commentary with references to how lowly regarded the Koreans were to take this tie (and about how much smaller the Koreans were), a portent had already been posted, with the Italians seen off 1-0 in the final group match in Middlesbrough.

The Italians’ cause wasn’t helped when their captain, Giacomo Bulgarelli, was stretchered off with an injured knee – with substitutes still not allowed – and a few minutes later Pak Doo Ik scored his famous goal.

A one-all draw with Chile in the second match was enough to see them finish ahead of both Chile and Italy,but behind the Soviet Union. The USSR had overcome North Korea 3-0 in the pool’s opening match and similar scores were expected against the other two sides.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese had it much easier, defeating Hungary – still a major force in the 1960s – 3-1, Bulgaria 3-1 and Brazil 3-0 to send the holders back home. Eusebio scored twice in that final match, adding to his strike against Bulgaria.

The road to England

North Korea – then, as now, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – didn’t have a terribly testing time in qualifying, the first occasion they had attempted to get to the finals. The composite group of four was reduced to just two after apartheid-era South Africa – who were initially banished from the African section – were then suspended by FIFA, and South Korea withdrew when the matches were moved from Japan to Cambodia – though why exactly isn’t known.

In what was now effectively a straight play-off, the Australians were seen off 6-1 – after being down only 1-0 at half-time – on 21 November 1965 in Phnom Penh and their misery was completed when the North Koreans wrapped the tie up with a 3-1 win in the same National Olympic Stadium three days later, both matches reportedly attracting crowds of about 50,000. Pak Seung-Zin scored three of his side’s goals.

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Coleman noted that this was one of 30 games North Korea played in the 12 months to the Finals, all of them in Asia, with just two defeats, both to Burma. To prepare for the best the world could offer the players were all relieved of their club duties.

They were given no chance of proceeding, of course, and The Times wrote that “the North Koreans, offering a string of names that have the sound of waterfalls, remain for the moment a mysterious, unknown quantity.”

Despite the team, and for that matter the country, being mysterious and unknowns, Teesside welcomed them as their own, though it still remains a curiousity as to why, at least to the visitors.

“It still remains a riddle to me,” Ring Jung-sun told the BBC in 2002. “The people of Middlesbrough supported us all the way through. I still don’t know the reason why.”

Ian Stubbs, curator at Middlesbrough’s Dorman Museum, has a good idea though.

“They stayed at the airport hotel and trained on the pitch at the ICI chemical works – which at the time employed 30,000 people – so people going on and off shift got to know them well and they became quite popular.”

Spectators were impressed by the technical ability, all-out attacking style, impeccable manners and modesty of their guests, who, like Middlesbrough FC, played in red strips. They gave the mayor Jack Boothby a gift of an embroidered picture of a bird, the crane.

It might also be worth remembering that the North Koreans were one of the few standouts at an overall uninspiring tournament, with the Brazilians going out early, fewer goals being scored than in previous competitions and England long-balling their way to the final.

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One local fan rubbished the view that North Koreans live in a bubble – or at least at this point in history – when the entire team came in his regular barbers for a haircut and got excited at seeing a Batman T-shirt.

When North Korea played the Portuguese, anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 Teessiders were reputed to have made the trip to Liverpool to support them. They weren’t in a minority, when their third goal went in the whole stadium erupted.

The adoption by Middlesbrough of the North Koreans has had a lasting impact; in 2002 seven of the ’66 side were invited and permitted to go back to the town.

A much-told tale is of the train journey the squad took from London to the North-East, during which they bemused fellow passengers by loudly singing patriotic songs throughout the journey.

Diplomatic stoush

There may not even have been a North Korean team in England if some killjoys in the Government had their way.

Documents released by the National Archives decades later show the Foreign Office considered refusing to grant visas to the entire squad.

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Britain did not officially recognise the DPRK and officials fretted that allowing it to attend would cause diplomatic waves, particularly with South Korea.

However, a Foreign Office memo noted that by refusing visas “the consequences could be very serious” with FIFA having threatened to move the finals elsewhere if any qualified team was denied visas.

“You can imagine what the papers would make of this,” the memo notes. “We would be accused of dragging politics into sport, sabotaging British interests and so on.”

Despite the British’s government’s fears, the North Korea of 1966 hadn’t become the oppressive beast it is today. The state had recovered remarkably well from the Korean War with support from both the Soviet Union and China and economic growth in the 1960s was greater than in South Korea.

Nevertheless, there were ways and means of ignoring the DPRK, though these actions were felt across the board – a set of stamps from the Royal Mail depicting the flags of all 16 participants was cancelled and the national anthems would only be played before the opening fixture (between England and Uruguay) and the final, guaranteeing that the North Korean anthem would not be heard.

There have been varying stories – wildly in some instances – of how the players and coaching staff were treated after their return.

Defectors to South Korea have said that some members of the team – including goalscoring hero Pak Doo-Ik – were expelled to the provinces to work in labouring jobs, and that some ended up in the gulags, for a variety of crimes that only exist in the North Korean Workers’ Party minds, such as celebrating the Italy win in a bar.

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However, if this was the case – and a BBC crew that managed to make it into the secretive state in 2002 to make a film about the heroes, found they were well regarded and looked after – it hardly explains why Pak Doo-Ik became coach of the national team in the 1970s. And why the team all appear to have been appointed to top-level positions in state-owned companies.

As for the national side, it hasn’t exactly built on the success of 1966. They withdrew on the eve of the 1970 qualifying campaign and either didn’t enter or failed to qualify until 2010. The flowing style of 1966 was replaced by a more defensive method, and, following a brave performance against Brazil, losing only 2-1, they were thumped 7-0 by old foes Portugal and 3-0 by Ivory Coast. The South Africans didn’t take to the North Koreans like the Teessiders did. North Korea isn’t appearing in Russia this summer.