Underdogs who Deserve our Respect
Carrying the nation's honour on our shoulders;
We are the glorious Chollima football team;
We can beat even the strongest team;
We will show others who we are.
- North Korean team song, 1966
North Korea's players jump during a free kick by Brazil.
Forty-four years after 1966, the weakest team at this World Cup (world No. 105) could not beat the strongest one (No.1). Even fairytales have quotas. Beating Italy 1-0 in 1966 was unbelievable. Beating Brazil in any year in the early rounds is virtually unthinkable.
Then in 1966, a headline read of the heroic North Korean custodian: "Goalkeeper plays like a spiritual God." Now in 2010, an atheist Korean goalkeeper, leaving his near post uncovered, had an errant human day. As goals go, it was anti-climactic. North Korean resilience required denting by a moment of Brazilian ingenuity, not by a mistake.
The goalkeeper should blame it on the Jabulani, altitude, cold or vuvuzelas. After all, this is the World Whining Cup, where excuses arrive faster than mentions of the Dear Leader at a DPR presser.
But the North Koreans will probably not carp. Their performance was grand, particularly because it was uncomplaining. They tackled with the precision of spear fishermen. They did not earn a yellow card. They rose from Brazilian shoves with a wry smile. They lost, but as in 1966 they might win a following.
Pak Doo Ik, the goalscorer against Italy back then, would approve. As he noted in a film: "I learned that football is not only about the winning. Wherever we go, playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote
The 1966 team, based in Middlesbrough, were embraced by locals. The 2010 team were high-fived as they left the stadium. No surprise need register. The first team were 1000-1 outsiders to win the Cup, these chaps are 300-1. Fans, who have rarely met victory themselves, own a natural affinity for the underdog. And on Wednesday it was fitting to cheer diminutive Davids against stylish Goliaths.
New Zealand's striker Shane Smeltz celebrates after scoring the opening goal against Italy.
In 1966, The Times of London described the North Koreans as a "mysterious, unknown quantity". Incredibly, 44 years later our vocabulary for them has not altered. Not since China returned to the Olympic Summer Games in 1984 after a 32-year gap and South Africa was readmitted to sport after the apartheid boycott, has a team's reappearance caused such fascination.
It is as much their semi-exile that intrigues as the wall of silence they exist behind. In a connected universe, the North Korean is a rarity, an invisible breed, residents we presume of some separate, sad planet. Their mass games held at home are such mechanical, synchronised events that we almost expected wind-up men with poker faces to turn up against Brazil.
Instead, they started with a player's tears at the anthem. Even if it was a scripted moment, it had an effect. It suggested that being at a World Cup goes beyond politics and regimes, it touches something deep in every sporting heart.
The 2010 team are part of an unfinished script. The 1966 team have been canonised on celluloid. British documentarian Daniel Gordon received rare permission to travel to Pyongyang to interview the remaining members of the ancient team. A fine film was made in 2002, The Game Of Their Lives, a sublime moment followed.
As Gordon recounted in a BBC interview, he returned to Korea to show the film to the team. And over too many glasses of soju, the local rice wine, a sentimental idea emerged: wouldn't it be great to take the team back to Middlesbrough?
And so they did, leading Gordon to say: "They absolutely loved their time. We were swamped - the media, fans. There was a six-year-old saying, 'Where's Pak Sung Jin (who scored against Chile in 1966). My granddad's told me to get his autograph. It was an absolutely classic moment."
This 2010 team, pursuing their own romantic story, have commenced the Cup precisely as their heroes did in 1966. With defeat. Then, North Korea lost 0-3 to the Russians, but rebounded with a 1-1 draw against Chile and the 1-0 defeat of Italy.
A similar comeback must be authored, but the Chollima do not appear easily daunted. Their name, Wikipedia tells us, roughly means a "thousand-mile (mythical) horse" and it is an appropriate sobriquet for a side that must run rivals off their more gifted feet.
Portugal, next up, must especially be careful. In 1966, they knocked the North Koreans out of the Cup. Forty-four years is a long time for revenge to take root.
This article was first published in The Straits Times
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