IT was one of the biggest upsets in the history of football – isolated and war-damaged North Korea knocked European powerhouse Italy out of the 1966 World Cup.
It was one of the most incredible stories on the pitch, but it is claimed to have been followed by one of the most horrifying twists off the field in the history of the World Cup.
North Korea became the first Asian team in history to progress beyond the first round just 13 years after the end of the bloody and devastating Korean War.
And while their glorious victory should have been as celebrated as England winning the 1966 title in the final tie against Germany – it is claimed they did not return as heroes.
Instead the brutal regime are claimed to have savagely punished their players for bringing shame on the country after being knocked out in their next game 5-3 against Portugal.
Members of the team are claimed to have returned to Pyongyang facing damnation – being sent to the gulags of Kim’s grandfather, then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.
It is a claim which has been disputed over the years – dismissed by some as “Cold War propaganda”.
Surviving members of the team in North Korea have publicly denied they were banged up in the camps and claim they were still celebrated.
But respected North Korea defector and journalist Kang Chol-hwan claims first-hand in his book The Aquariums of Pyongyang that he met one of the players in the infamous gulag Yodok.
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Kang claims all thoughts of their 1966 football glory had faded – and the entire team aside from Pak Doo-ik, who scored the winner against Italy, had been sent to concentration camps.
He says they were subject to decades of torture and starvation.
North Korea’s upset victory over La Nazionale came as they were part of Group 4 along with the Soviet Union and Chile.
The campaign started badly when on July 12, 1966, they were thumped 3-0 by the Soviet Union at Ayresome Park.
And then they limped to a 1-1 draw with Chile with a penalty in the 88th minute scored by Pak.
It was expected the North Koreans would be on the next flight home when 18,000 people packed out the stadium in Middlesbrough to see the mighty Italy, who were one of the tournaments favourites.
But then – sporting magic.
Pak banged home a penalty box goal in the 42nd minute to beat goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi and stun the Italians.
[The team’s] antics were judged bourgeois, reactionary, and corrupted by imperialism and bad ideas
North Korea managed to hold on during the second half to win the game 1-0.
Italy were knocked out of the Group along with Chile, and incredibly the Soviets and North Koreans progressed to the quarter-finals.
Middlesbrough had really got behind the North Koreas, taking the little known team to their hearts with a connection that persists to this day – and even saw surviving members of theam visit in 2002.
Four days later, the next stop was clash against Portugal in front of 52,000 fans at Goodison Park.
Pak scored again the first minute, Li Dong-woon bagged a second, and then Yang Seung-kook even claimed a third after just 25 minutes.
And the fairytale then came crashing down.
Portugal went on to score five goals – including two penalties – to break the hearts of North Korea and their newfound fans in England.
Returning home, Kang claims they were considered disgraced and sent to the prison camps.
It is claimed the the team had gone out drinking two nights before their match against Portugal – and were still feeling the effects when they arrived at Goodison Park.
Kang also says the team had been seen out in public “carrying on” with local girls – something which reached the ears of the strict regime back home.
And these actions were deemed as “decadence” and not becoming of one representing the Dear Leader.
“In Pyongyang, the national team’s barroom antics were judged bourgeois, reactionary, and corrupted by imperialism and bad ideas,” wrote kang.
“Upon arriving back in Korea, the whole team save for [Pak] – who was suffering from stomach pains on the night of the party, was sent to the camps.”
Kang claims he met with Pak Seung-zin, who scored against Chile, inside Yodok – a prison camp which is reserved for political prisoners and is officially known as Labour Penal Colony Number 15.
He claims the footballer was famous amongst prisoners for his ability to endure torture.
And he was nicknamed “The Cockroach” – as he used to gobble up bugs.
Pak later denied he was ever sent to the prison camp.
“His celebrity won him few favours in Yodok, as he discovered when he was caught stealing nails and cement from the camp’s construction materials shop where he worked,” claims Kang.
“He died all wrongdoing and lashed out at the accusing guard. His punishment was a three-month stint in The Sweatbox”.
Kang says The Sweatbox was a special torture – being a dark shack were prisoners were locked up and left to starve.
He claimed Pak was in the camp when he arrived in 1977 – and was still there when he was released in 1987.
North Korea’s footballers fate however has been disputed in recent years, in particular by BBC documentary The Game of Their Lives.
The film – released around the same time as Kang’s famous book – features interviews with the former players.
It claimed the footballers were actually showered with gifts and were quietly living out their days in North Korea.
“The whole story that they were purged was Cold War propaganda,” filmmaker Daniel Gordon told the LA Times.
But while they interviewed the players – the sportsmen also sung the praises of the regime, and the documentary was sanctioned by Pyongyang.
Around the time of the documentary and book, seven players were part of a North Korea delegation that visited Middlesbrough.
Pyongyang is known to control information with an iron fist – so the exact truth of what happened may never be known.
North Korea’s neighbour and long-term rival South Korea has since become a footballing powerhouse.
The country has produced incredible players such as Tottenham forward & last year’s Golden Boot winner Son Heung-min and now-retired midfielder Park Ji-sung, who won four Premier Leagues and one Champions League with Manchester United.
Seoul’s side even scored a fourth place finish when they co-hosted the tournament with Japan in 2002.
And they could have a good run this year, kicking off their campaign today against Uruguay ahead of ties with Ghana and Portugal.
It was even suggested that North and South Korea could file a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup.
But that seems to have soured as relations between Pyongyang and Seoul have frosted over once again as Kim Jong-un ramps up his quest for nukes.
North Korea remains an international pariah – and since 1966 has only appeared at a World Cup once, with a group stage knockout in 2010.