The World Cup was back in Europe for ’66, and England beat off stiff competition from West Germany and Spain for the right to host the tournament. African nations boycotted the qualification campaign after FIFA implemented a rule stating that a playoff with the winners of the Asian section would have to be undertaken in order to secure a place at the finals. This followed on from the controversy surrounding South Africa’s readmission following their expulsion from the Confederation of African Football due to the ongoing apartheid regime, and South Africa were subsequently scheduled to take part in the AFC qualification campaign. Eventually, following pressure from African nations, South Africa were suspended again, but the African boycott continued until FIFA changed the qualification rules for the 1970 tournament, guaranteeing one spot for a CAF nation. All of this meant that North Korea made their World Cup debut in England after seeing off Australia in qualifying, though few expected them to be more than the whipping boys of the competition. Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay joined holders Brazil from the Americas, and the usual suspects from Europe completed the line-up, though 1962 finalists Czechoslovakia and semi-finalists Yugoslavia failed to qualify.
Hosts England opened the tournament with an uninspiring goalless draw with Uruguay, but would eventually top their group ahead of the South Americans following a pair of comfortable wins against Mexico and France, while West Germany and Argentina followed suit in Group 2, proving far too strong for Spain and Switzerland. Brazil picked up where they left off in Group 3, as goals from Pele and Garrincha sealed a win over Bulgaria in their opening game, but a nasty surprise was round the corner in the shape of tournament dark horses Portugal. Having been kicked off the pitch by Hungary during their 3-1 defeat in the second game, Brazil were well and truly undone by a majestic striker from Mozambique in their final game, as Eusebio scored twice to secure top spot and send the World Cup holders home early. After enduring rough treatment throughout Brazil’s three games, Pele vowed never to play at the World Cup again.
The biggest shock of the tournament, however, was reserved for Group 4, though there was no inkling that either Italy or the Soviet Union would have too much trouble progressing from their group as Chile and North Korea were swept aside convincingly in the opening fixtures. A late goal from Pak Seung-Zin against Chile secured a creditable draw for the unfancied Koreans in their second game, but supporters gathering at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park on 19th July would have been expecting Italy to comfortably claim the win necessary to see them advance to the quarter-finals against a plucky but ultimately inferior North Korea side.
The North Korea team had almost not made it to England. Before the tournament, Britain had never officially recognised North Korea as an independent nation, and the country’s part in the Korean war the previous decade was still fresh in the memory of the British government. There were long conversations in parliament discussing the possibilities of denying the North Korea team entrance to the country as a means to solving the diplomatic issue, but eventually the powers that be caved and settled on camping them up in the North East, away from the limelight. Having landed in London, the North Korea team boarded a train up to their base in Middlesbrough and spent the whole journey signing patriotic songs, much to the bemusement of their fellow passengers.
Slowly but surely, mistrust gave way to intrigue from the locals, and crowds would gather at North Korea’s training base, the ICI chemical works, to watch the diminutive players clad in Boro red preparing for the biggest games in their lives. The spirit of the Koreans, inspired by the national symbol of the Chollima, a mythical winged horse famed for its speed and courage, soon rubbed off on their hosts, and Ayresome Park was transformed into Pyongyang-on-Tees during the group stages. Even so, surely Italy would have too much for their obscure opponents. This wasn’t, however, the same Italy side that won back-to-back World Cups under Vittorio Pozzo. In the post-war era, Italy had failed to progress past the first round in three World Cups – they hadn’t even qualified for the fourth. Though the team was packed with future stars – Sandro Mazzola, Giacinto Facchetti and Gianni Rivera chief among them – the Azzuri were in the middle of a lean spell, and it would be a further four years before their latest crop of talent would truly come of age. The chances were that, should they achieve the expected result against North Korea, they still wouldn’t be hanging around in the tournament for much longer.
The opening to the game was frantic, with the Italians looking to put the result to bed as early as possible, and the Koreans not content to play for a draw. Twice in the opening stages Marino Perani came close to opening the scoring for Edmondo Fabbri’s side, first thwarted by Lee Chang-Myung, then by his own wayward aim. With North Korea slowly coming into the game as the first half wore on, it was up to their acrobatic ‘keeper once again to keep the scores level when Perani was played in one-on-one. Momentum swung the way of North Korea when Bologna’s Giacomo Bulgarelli was injured in a tackle on Pak Seung-Jin after half and hour, and Italy were forced to play the remainder of the match with ten men. Then, a few minutes before half time, and with their first meaningful attack of the game, the underdogs broke the deadlock. A clearance from the Italian defence was headed back into the Italy half by Lim Zoong-Sun, and Pak Doo-Ik darted onto the bouncing ball before slotting it past the onrushing Italian ‘keeper.
Unsurprisingly, Italy threw everything at the Korean goal in the second half. Paolo Barison embarked on a one-man mission to salvage the point that Italy needed to progress, but found himself thwarted time and time again by a mixture of inspired goalkeeping and poor shot accuracy. Rivera saw his effort turned away by Lee and Perani, the villain of the piece, wasted another opportunity with the goal gaping by hitting a tame effort straight at the Korean goalkeeper. As the final whistle blew, elation enveloped those clad in red shirts, and the congregated English spectators hailed their new heroes. North Korea had pulled off the biggest shock the World Cup had ever seen, and they were in illustrious company with the United States, Uruguay and West Germany.
In the quarter-finals it looked as though they might even topple that victory over Italy as they (and 8,000 travelling fans from Middlesbrough) arrived at Goodison Park to take on a sparkling Portugal side. Unbelievably, North Korea raced into three goal lead in the opening 25 minutes, but Eusebio was able to pull two back by half-time, going on to bag four in a 5-3 win, ending the brave Chollima’s tournament. They may have fallen at only the second hurdle, but that they’d made the tournament at all was testament to the spirit of the North Korea side. Portugal were joined in the semi-finals by England, Soviet Union and West Germany, who made light work of Uruguay in an ill-tempered encounter at Hillsbrough. A brace from Bobby Charlton was enough to secure the hosts passage to the final, despite Eusebio scoring his eighth of nine goals in the tournament, and West Germany squeezed past the Soviet Union to earn themselves the chance of securing a second Jules Rimet trophy.
The final itself was a topsy turvy affair, with Helmut Haller giving West Germany the lead before Geoff Hurst’s equaliser six minutes later. Martin Peters had looked to have won the trophy for England with a goal twelve minutes before full-time, before Wolfgang Weber’s last minute goal sent the game into extra-time. By now the Germans looked tired, and when Kazakhstani linesman Tofiq Bahramov ruled that Hurst’s shot had crossed the line after cannoning off the underside of the crossbar, England looked to have it in the bag. West Germany pushed forward in search of an equaliser with time running out, and a delightful long ball from Bobby Moore found Hurst streaking away in space in the last minute of extra time. Ignoring the calls from teammate Alan Ball to pass it, Hurst rocketed a shot in the top corner and England were crowned World champions. Not that anyone ever mentions it, of course.