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Greatest Underdog Stories – when North Korea defeated Italy in World Cup


In 1966, North Korea made their first appearance at a FIFA World Cup. A relatively new team against the giants of world football was, quite naturally, not given many chances of causing any trouble to their more established rivals.

But there was a surprise in the offing.

The Asian nation was placed in Group 4 in the tournament hosted by England. The North Koreans had the Soviet Union, Chile and then two-time World Cup winners Italy in their group.

The tournament for the North Koreans started as many had expected: with a defeat. The Soviet Union, a major footballing force at the time, won 3-0 courtesy of a brace from Eduard Malofeyev and a 33rd minute strike from Anatoliy Banishevskiy.

Next up for the North Koreans were the South American rivals Chile. Ruben Marcos gave Chile the lead in the 26th minute, but Pak Seung-zin struck two minutes from time to help his team gain an admirable point with a 1-1 draw.

North Korea were to face Italy in their last group stage game and, if anything, the result was believed to be a foregone conclusion. But in the game played at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough, the Asian side took a surprise lead through Pak Doo-ik three minutes before the half time whistle. They managed to hold on for the remaining minutes in the first half as well as the subsequent 45 minutes of the second to cause a major upset.

The win meant that the Italians were sent home, while North Korea made it to the quarter-final of the World Cup!

“It was the day I learnt football is not all about winning”, Pak recalled of his historic strike in his 2002 visit to England.

“When I scored that goal the people of Middlesbrough took us to their hearts. I learnt that playing football can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace.”

Neville Nichols, a local Middlesbrough fan who went to the Italian side in flesh and blood came home admiring the qualities of their conquerors.

“Everyone had gone along to see a class Italy side.

“But the game turned on its head when Pak Do-ik scored a great goal. The whole place erupted, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. From then on we adopted them and we still talk about them now.”

The win saw North Korea move to the quarter-final with four points and they were up against Eusebio’s Portugal in their last eight encounter. The game started in a whirlwind fashion for the unfancied Asian outfit as they took the lead through a Pak Seung-zin in the first minute of the game.

Another upset appeared on the cards as Li Dong-woon and Yang Seung-Kook struck in the 22nd and 25th minutes respectively. But then Eusebio came into his own and struck four times to help Portugal to a 5-3 win and seal their passage to the semi-finals at the expense of their Asian rivals.

North Korea, have since failed to make many inroads in international football, but their 1966 World Cup heroics will never be forgotten.

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