We are the Champions: North Korea’s Winning Ways

Football: the one constant in every corner of the world

Football is the number one global sport — perhaps the only game that every country plays. Everybody dreams of representing their country, and every player wants to play in the World Cup. As a long-term traveller, I have noticed that this is one constant in every corner of the world.

People might not know a lot about Korean football, at least not until 12 years ago, when the competition was finally held in Asia. South Korea and Japan played host to the tournament in 2002 and it put Asian football firmly on the map.

However, a recent trip to North Korea cast my mind back to childhood and the days when I used to research all the old World Cup stories. I love the underdog when it comes to football, and North Korea are certainly that.

North Korea was written off before a ball was kicked

In 1966, North Korea qualified for the World Cup for the first time. It was to be held in England. This was only 10 years after North Korea’s first ever match (a 1-0 win over China).

The North Koreans were drawn in a really tough group with Italy, Chile and the Soviet Union. They were given no chance. Chile had been semi finalists in the previous World Cup, finishing third. The Soviet Union had been beaten finalists before and were runners up in the European Championships. And as for Italy — well, they had already won the World Cup twice. North Korea were written off before a ball was even kicked.

It was no surprise then, when North Korea lost their first World Cup finals match 3-0 to the Soviet Union in Middlesbrough. Then, in their second game, they were on the verge of elimination — 1-0 down to Chile with just two minutes left.

Then, they got a lifeline. A penalty, converted by Pak Yeung Zin, earned a draw against the mighty Chile and something to take into their final group match.

When this match against Italy came, they were again written off. However a 42nd minute goal from Pak Doo Ik turned out to be the winner. North Korea held on to beat Italy 1-0.

Then, the news filtered through that the Soviet Union had beaten Chile — North Korea had a quarter final place to play Portugal. In doing so, North Korea became the first ever Asian team to progress to the second round of a World Cup.

After 30 minutes, they found themselves in dreamland

Again, what chance could North Korea possibly have against Portugal? But after 30 minutes, they found themselves in dreamland. They were 3-0 up and cruising! All they needed to do was hold on to a 3-0 lead and they would secure a semi final match against England.

But it wasn’t to be. Four goals from superstar Eusebio saw Portugal come back and win 5-3. The North Koreans were knocked out.

It would be 44 years until they qualified again — for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. At this tournament, Portugal were again the bogey team for the North Koreans, as they lost 7-0 and went out at the group stage, losing all three matches and registering just one goal.

There’s more than one way to be world champions

However, North Korea have been unofficial World Champions before and I had the honour of watching them retain this ‘phantom trophy’ in 2012 when I watched their 4-0 win in Hong Kong. It’s a competition that goes back to the very first football match (England v. Scotland in 1872) on a ‘winner becomes the champion logic’, the same way that Boxing works. North Korea won it on November 15, 2011, when they defeated Japan 1-0. They held it until January 23, 2013, when they lost to Sweden on penalties. Sweden then became the unofficial World Champions.

While North Korea failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, the South Koreans managed to qualify for their eighth consecutive World Cup showing that Korean football in general continues to advance at a rapid rate. When I travelled in North Korea and South Korea recently, I made it my duty to watch some football and check out the two main national stadiums, in Pyongyang and in Seoul.

This year I will be at the World Cup for the first time, when it is held in Brazil. While my own country, Northern Ireland, haven’t qualified, I look forward to watching the matches. As a long-term traveller, it is clear that football is the greatest game in the world.


3 thoughts on “We are the Champions: North Korea’s Winning Ways

  1. Hi Johnny,
    I would like to participate in these years “Sporting Interest Tour” of YPT but I’m a bit concerned about the Point: “Watch a live football game in Pyongyang, whilst we are not sure who we will be watching, we will be watching a game in the DPRK’s own Premier League.”

    As it’s during the World Cup I would like to ask for your opinion about the chance that the season is held during the WC.

    Many thanks in advance,

  2. Hi Julian, I was in North Korea last year and won’t have time to go back this year. In terms of the football season, I’m not sure of the exact dates, BUT all you need to do is contact YPT (they’re awesome) – Young Pioneer Tours and they will tell you all about it. We also watched the Mass Games, which was amazing. If you click on my personal travel site I have a link that gets you 5% off YPT tours to North Korea. Safe travels. Jonny

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