When Middlesbrough Ladies were recently invited by Korea DPR to become the first British team to visit the secretive Asian state, it was to the amazement and bafflement of many. Yet while outsiders struggled to make sense of this offer of a “friendship football tour”, those involved understood that its aim was to continue one of the sport's unlikeliest alliances.
The unique bond between a town in north-east England and one of the world’s most isolated nations can be traced back over 44 years and, just like the Boro ladies' current visit, it was forged in the most improbable of contexts. The 1966 FIFA World Cup™ took place, after all, at the height of the Cold War and just 13 years after British soldiers – including many from the Middlesbrough area - had fought and died against the communist North in the Korean War.
So frosty were relations between the UK and Korea DPR, in fact, that the British government even discussed the possibility of refusing their players visas for the global showpiece. Even when this threat was eventually averted, there were real fears that the people of Middlesbrough - where the Chollima were to be the only team based - would afford a hostile reception to these unwelcome visitors.
As it was, the Teesiders ended up taking the North Koreans to their hearts, defying all expectations in a heart-warming tale that reinforces football’s capacity for turning enemies into friends. The fact the Asian team played in red – Middlesbrough’s colours – made for a good start, but it was the spirit, courage and attacking verve displayed by this tiny team, with an average height of 5ft 5ins, that did most to win over the locals.
It was the day I learnt football is not all about winning. I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.
Despite taking just a point from their opening two matches at Boro’s Ayresome Park, these adventurous underdogs had captured the town’s imagination, and took to the field against Italy in their final group fixture to a rapturous reception. The Italians, with two world titles already to their name, arrived expecting the crowd’s favour, but instead found Ayresome Park reverberating to a near-incessant chant of 'Ko-re-a!'.
Korea DPR responded, and when Pak Doo-Ik scored his legendary winning goal three minutes before half-time, the stadium erupted. As the BBC’s Frank Bough told television viewers at the time: "They never cheer Middlesbrough like this."
The goalscorer later reflected: "It was the day I learnt football is not all about winning. I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace."
Pak and Co were nothing if not appreciative and not only saluted all four sides of the ground afterwards, but also serenaded the crowd with a patriotic anthem. More songs followed the next day too, when Middlesbrough held a civic reception in their visitors’ honour, even raising the North Korean flag above the town hall in a famous tribute.
Korea DPR’s campaign ended in the next round when Portugal inflicted a memorable 5-3 defeat at Goodison, but the comradeship with Middlesbrough was strengthened further as a 3,000-strong band of Teessiders travelled to Liverpool to support their new heroes. Nor was it a passing fad. Indeed, so enduring did this mutual affection prove that, despite the passing of the decades and the still-fraught relations between their respective nations, the bond between Middlesbrough and that North Korean team remains as strong as ever.
In 2002, after the story of this unlikely alliance had inspired a documentary film entitled ‘Game of Their Lives’, the surviving members of the 1966 squad made an emotional return to the town and were once again embraced by its locals. Four years later, they were back once again, marking the 40th anniversary of that famous win over Italy, signing autographs, posing for pictures and accepting the warm acclaim of some old friends. And while the crumbling Ayresome Park has been demolished to make way for a housing estate, the new development includes a bronze sculpture marking the exact spot from which Pak wrote himself into FIFA World Cup folklore.
Now, having benefited from Teeside hospitality on so many occasions, Korea DPR have this week been repaying the favour. With this unprecedented invitation, the secluded Asian nation threw open its doors to a Middlesbrough Ladies team who contested two friendlies against local sides Kalmaegi and April 25. The English visitors were beaten convincingly in both, losing 5-0 and 6-2 respectively, but this was a tour in which results were never likely to take precedence.
Instead, a visit which concluded, fittingly, with a dinner that included as its guests the stars of that 1966 team, provided – in the words of Korea DPR’s official news agency – “invigorating exchange and cooperation between the two peoples”. It also fortified a friendship that, despite many significant barriers, seems certain to endure for a very long time to come.