Page last updated at 19:30 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 20:30 UK

North Korea revive World Cup memories

Italian goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi fails to save a shot from North Korean forward Pak Doo Ik (right) during North Korea's World Cup match against Italy at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, the UK, on 19 July 1966
North Korea stunned its opponents with its shock success in 1966

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul, South Korea

For only the second time in footballing history one of the world's most isolated countries has won itself an invite to the sport's biggest party.

News that North Korea has qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010 was broadcast to an expectant nation at lightning speed.

Well, that is, within a few hours of the final whistle.

North Korea is a country that often takes days to digest and interpret international events before letting its citizens in on the story.

So, on the evening after the night before, North Korean television viewers were able to see a recording of the victorious, if perhaps dull, 0-0 away draw to Saudi Arabia.

The result was enough to snatch one of the automatic qualifying places.

Isolated it may be, but on the first and only other occasion that it made the World Cup finals, North Korea showed itself to be no shrinking violet.

Former glory

In fact, that team was one of stars of the 1966 tournament, which was hosted by England.

The Red Mosquitoes, as they were dubbed, romped into the quarter-finals, beating footballing giants Italy 1-0 along the way.

There was a feeling that North Korean football was world class and already the pride of the people
Shim Joo-il, North Korean defector now living in South Korea

Apparently, in Italian footballing circles the North Korean goal scorer that day, Pak Do-ik, is still known as "the dentist" for the pain he inflicted on the national psyche.

The shamefaced Italian team were pelted with tomatoes upon their arrival back home.

Shim Joo-il is a former North Korean military officer who defected to the South in 1999.

Mr Shim now works as a Christian pastor. But back in 1966 he was just your average 16-year-old North Korean schoolboy.

"Most North Koreans who were interested had to listen to the matches on the radio," he said.

"But we weren't surprised by the performance. There was a feeling that North Korean football was world class and already the pride of the people."

After going three goals ahead in the quarter-final, North Korea were somehow outsmarted by their opponents, Portugal, who knocked them out of the competition, winning 5-3.

To have got that far was widely viewed as a spectacular success, although it was one that Mr Shim never got the chance to see his team repeat.

It was suggested that the North Korean authorities were not as delighted as the fans, and there was dark gossip about what might have happened to the players after they came home.

North Korea players celebrate qualifying for the 2010 World Cup
North Korea is likely to use the World Cup for propaganda

"People said that during their time in England they were drinking and womanising," Mr Shim recalled.

"It was rumoured that some of them were sent to the coal mines as a punishment, and that was why our team never again achieved such greatness."

In fact, the surviving members of the 1966 squad were tracked down a few years ago by a British documentary team given rare access to North Korea.

They found seven of the men alive and well, including "the dentist" himself, Pak Do-ik. All of them insisted that the team had received nothing but praise for their exploits, on and off the pitch.

Underdogs again

So what of today's North Korean side; is it likely to repeat past glories?

Bookmakers don't think so, having set the team's odds of winning at 750/1.

The North Korean team just before their World Cup match against Italy at Middlesbrough, the UK, on 19 July 1966
Football has long been a popular game in North Korea

One of the problems may be the lack of exposure North Korean players have to the international game.

Japanese-born Jong Tae-se, dubbed "Asia's Wayne Rooney" because of his style of play, is one of the few players from the team who plays for a club side outside of the country, turning out for Japan's Kawasaki Frontale.

And there will be the added disadvantage of a distinct lack of travelling support.

The average North Korean of course, even if he or she had the money, would find it impossible to leave the country.

Any win, though, is likely to be exploited by Pyongyang for maximum propaganda value, and people at home will be willing their team to do well from afar.

Football is genuinely very popular in North Korea. People of all levels play and practise in parks and gardens, and the capital city, Pyongyang, boasts five major stadiums.

And fans don't have to look back as far as 1966 for a glimpse of success.

The North Korean women's football team has a strong track record and happen to be the current holders of the Asian Cup.

Even if the men don't do as well in South Africa in 2010, is there not at least the hope that with South Korea also qualifying, this World Cup might just offer a way to break down barriers and introduce to the world a friendlier, more human side of North Korea?

Maybe not.

The South and North have already met in the qualifying stages, and earlier this year the North declared that one of the games had turned into "a theatre of plot-breeding and swindling".

The match was held in the South Korean capital, Seoul, and the North accused their hosts of deliberately giving its players food poisoning, a claim denied as groundless by the South.

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