During June-July, South Africa will host the World Cup, the greatest event in international football, for the first time on the African continent. This is a reflection of how far the country has come, as a non-racial democracy, respected by the world, since the dark days of apartheid.
But in this World Cup, there will be just one team representing a nation where sport does not serve the interests of big business, but rather those of the working class; one country where football, and all sports, are at the service of people’s enjoyment, education and health; where there is opportunity and access for all; and where sport is used to promote international friendship and peace, rather than jingoism and chauvinism. That country is the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
This is the second time that the DPRK has qualified for the World Cup. In the 1966 World Cup, hosted and won by England, the DPRK shook some of the giants of world football, knocking out Italy and taking on Portugal in the quarterfinals. No other Asian team had ever advanced so far in a World Cup. And, although eventually succumbing 5-3 to Portugal, at one point the DPRK was 3-0 up.
Prior to the 1966 World Cup, Korean leader Comrade Kim Il Sung had told his country’s players: “European and South American nations dominate international football. As representatives of the Asia/Africa region, as coloured people, I urge you to win one or two games.”
Cabinet papers released 30 years later show how, in 1966, the British Labour government tried to prevent the DPRK team from playing in the World Cup, only relenting when it was pointed out that FIFA might take the competition away from them. But they did insist on some petty and vindictive restrictions, such as not allowing the DPRK national anthem to be played before games.
However, the attitude of the British working class towards their brothers from Korea was very different from that of the imperialist Labour Party. The people of Middlesborough, where most of their games were played, took them to their hearts and remember them to this day. As Pak Do Ik, who scored the winning goal against Italy, put it many years later:
“The English people took us to their hearts and vice versa. I learned that football is not about winning. Wherever we go … playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.”
When the DPRK players travelled to Everton’s Goodison Park ground in Liverpool for their final game, more than 2,000 local people travelled with them from Middlesborough to cheer them on.
This year, the DPRK is drawn in the ‘Group of Death’, against Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast, meaning that the largely unknown DPRK players will find themselves pitted against such contemporary legends as Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Didier Drogba. But, as ever, the DPRK has some powerful defensive deterrents, as well as means of attack, like Jong Tae-Se. Known as ‘Asia’s Wayne Rooney’, this third generation Japanese Korean plays for J-League side Kawasaki Frontale.
To celebrate the DPRK’s success in again making it to the World Cup, the CPGB-ML is hosting a showing of The Game of Their Lives.
This inspiring and award-winning 2002 documentary tells the full, extraordinary story of the last time this small but fearless nation took on the giants of world football. There will also be speakers from the CPGB-ML and other friends of Korea, as well as refreshments.
All friends of Korea and anti-imperialist football fans are welcome!
Public meeting on Saturday 12 June, 6.00pm in west London. Full details here.