Thursday, Jun. 03, 2010

Go, North Korea!

I'm rooting for North Korea. I know, the hereditary dictatorship in Pyongyang is one of the world's most repressive regimes, cruel and heartless, whose paranoia — bolstered by nuclear weapons — could yet plunge Asia into war. There's nothing in North Korea to love. But 44 years ago, I saw a North Korean team play one of the most extraordinary games of soccer ever, a World Cup quarterfinal that was 90 minutes of speed, skill and above all — as you can tell from the faces in the crowd in YouTube clips — sheer unadulterated joy. I've never forgotten it. So as North Korea prepares for its first World Cup since 1966, I'm still a fan.

The team that arrived in England in 1966 was an enigma. African nations had boycotted the preliminary rounds because nations outside Europe and the Americas had been given just one place in the then 16-team finals. North Korea had only to beat Australia to qualify, which it did, convincingly, in two legs played on neutral ground in Cambodia. But Australia was hardly a powerhouse. North Korea was drawn in a tough group for the finals, and nobody gave it a chance.

That was a mistake. "Football," says Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours in Seoul and a producer of The Game of Their Lives, a film about the 1966 team, is "a passion in North Korea." Just 13 years after the end of the Korean War, the players epitomized chollima, the can-do spirit named for a mythical winged horse, which the dictator Kim Il Sung had adopted as a watchword to rebuild a ravaged land. The players were fast and fit, ready to run until they dropped.

Initially, those attributes weren't enough. The Koreans played their group games in Middlesbrough, a gritty town in the northeast whose generous people took the Asian visitors into their hearts. In its opening match, North Korea lost easily to a strong Russian team but managed a draw with Chile and then, in one of the great upsets of Cup history, beat Italy 1-0 with a goal by its skillful right-winger Pak Do Ik.

That set up a quarterfinal against Portugal. The game would be played in Liverpool, my hometown, which in 1966, you have to understand, was the center of the known world — best music, best sport, best pubs, best poetry. I was a soccer-mad suburban teenager, and by the time the Koreans came to town, I'd already seen a brilliant Hungary demolish Brazil 3-1. I wasn't going to miss Portugal, whose team, built around a core from Benfica, the famous Lisbon club, was looking great. So on Saturday, July 23, I made my way to Goodison Park, a short walk from my grandma's house, and stood on the terraces, just to the left of the goal North Korea would attack in the first half.

There followed 25 minutes of mayhem. Playing at a breathtaking speed, North Korea took a 3-0 lead. "Easy, easy!" we chanted, and "We want four!" And then something even more amazing happened. As the Koreans continued madly attacking — defense didn't seem to be in their plan — Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, Portugal's star forward, took charge. Born and raised in Mozambique, still a colony of what was still a fascist-ruled Portugal, the Black Pearl ran thrillingly at the Koreans, scoring four unanswered goals in a 5-3 win. Portugal went on to the semis, which it would lose to England. But we cheered the Koreans until we were hoarse.

That match in Liverpool prefigured the way soccer would develop as it became the global game. First, there was the style of play. Soccer in 1966 was often played at not much more than a stroll, but the Koreans brought relentless pace, something that today's best teams — as fit as the Koreans were then — demonstrate all the time. Then there was Eusébio. He played in Portugal's colors, but he was an African — the first of many Africans to light up soccer in the years to come. And the North Koreans' success was a sign of a huge potential market for soccer in Asia, something proved now in the way that leading clubs and leagues target Asia for both TV audiences and merchandise.

Of course, that summer long ago — between Rubber Soul and Revolver — I knew none of that. All I knew was that, in the way that the best sporting moments can, I'd been transported somewhere magical. So this year, I'll be cheering the North once again. How will this year's team do? Not too well, probably; it has another tough group, with Portugal in it. But as Nick Bonner in Seoul says, "They had that miracle once, so never say die." That's chollima at work.