Marxism and football at the 1966 World Cup: How North Korea captured a socialist imagination

Ever since the English football team was denounced for taking the knee by some right-wing pundits, who claimed that this was a symbolic action of the ‘Marxist’ Black Lives Matter movement, the meme of the English players as revolutionary Marxists has become widespread. Since English football has embraced Marxism, it has been memed, football is coming home.

A Middlesbrough resident waving a North Korean flag (from ‘Korea Today’)

When football last came home in the 1966 World Cup, another team that had reportedly embraced Marxism captured the attention of the British public – that of North Korea. While teams from the Eastern Bloc had qualified for major tournaments before (the Soviet Union won the inaugural European Cup in 1960), the team from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was one of the few teams to ever qualify for the World Cup from Africa or Asia (Egypt and South Korea had participated in 1934 and 1954 respectively). Coming during the periods of the Cold War and decolonisation, North Korea’s presence at the 1966 World Cup was seen as a testament to Asian socialism. Under the rule of Kim Il Sung, North Korea had survived the Korean War of the early 1950s and attempted to steer an independent path between Moscow and Peking during the 1960s. From the mid-1960s onwards, the DPRK had promoted solidarity with anti-imperial movements across the globe.  

North Korea’s road to the World Cup was not straight-forward. Many African teams had boycotted the World Cup after FIFA’s decision that the winner of the African qualifiers would have to play the winners from the Asia/Oceania zone to qualify. There was further protest at South Africa’s presence in the qualifiers. South Africa was disqualified from the Confederation of African Football and was lined up to play in a qualifying group alongside South Korea, North Korea and Australia. Eventually South Africa was disqualified from this group as well. This qualifying group was meant to be a round robin tournament to be held in Japan, but was moved to Cambodia (amidst the Vietnam War happening across the border). South Korea withdrew from playing in the tournament in Cambodia, then under Prince Sihanouk, leaving North Korea to play Australia. Over two legs, North Korea comprehensively beat the Socceroos, much to Australia’s surprise.

The North Korean team was based in Middlesbrough for the duration of the tournament and was the first Asian team to reach the knock out stages, but going out in the quarter finals after being beaten 5-3 by Portugal. Much has been written about the embrace of the North Korean team by people in the North East of England, with the region’s heavy industry creating a solidarity between English workers and the representatives of the DPRK. The historian Tosh Warwick has charted the friendship between the people of Middlesbrough and the North Korean football team in 1966.

The North Korean team was also celebrated by another group of Marxists, the Communist Party of Great Britain, who gave the team much coverage in their daily newspaper Morning Star. In the lead up to the tournament, the North Koreans were described in the pages of the communist daily paper as ‘the dark horses of the battles’ for the Jules Rimet trophy and the ‘the “mystery team” of the tournament’, who had ‘sensationally defeated Australia’, but still regarded as ‘100-1 outsiders for the World Cup’. A column before North Korea’s first game of the tournament added:

All we know of North Korea is that the team has trained together for the last two years – plus their devastating performances against Australia…

But even this is not as informative as it might seem. Australia are no great shakes in the world of soccer, ranking, possibly, as Third Division level.

The paper also highlighted the dedication of the North Korean players, quoting North Korean FA president Kim Ky Soo, ‘Our 22 players do not smoke and drink and fill their spare time by playing chess and cards. We can but hope.’

The group stage game between North Korea and the Soviet Union was billed as an important game by the Morning Star. The paper noted the USSR’s ‘solid defence and occasional free-scoring feats’, but also reminded the readers that ‘there lies an intriguing question mark’ over North Korea, with both teams waiting until match day to release their team sheets. The newspaper stated:

The Russians are not assuming an easy game. They know very well that the Koreans have trained for two years, hammered nine goals past Australian and, in terms of sheer speed, are second to none.

Previewing the game, the paper commented, ‘If North Korea draw against the Soviet Union, or go one further, they will have shaken a team which fared well in both the 1958 and 1962 series.’

Although the North Koreans lost the tie 3-0, the match report was extremely enthusiastic about them, with the opening paragraph exclaiming, ‘The North Koreans will not win the World Cup but they won 20,000 new friends at Ayresome Park last night with a courageous display of fighting soccer.’ Talking up the enigmatic quality of the North Koreans again, it continued, ‘No side can have played its first match in Britain surrounded by such an air of mystery…, but they did not waste any time in showing Tees-siders that what they lack in skill they make up in speed and alacrity.’

North Korea’s next game was a 1-1 draw with Chile and a daunting game against Italy was next. In the lead up to this game, the Morning Star claimed that the North Koreans, who had been ‘wholeheartedly adopted by the Middlesbrough fans’, was not to under-estimated by the Italians. When the North Koreans won 1-0 over the Italians, the communist newspaper was effusive:

North Korea sprang one of the biggest surprises in football history at Ayresome Park last night, when they beat Italy, one of the most powerful sides in Europe…

Not since 1950, when the United States knocked England out of the World Cup has there been a shock result of this magnitude.

At the end of the game, the match report described, ‘The Italians trooped dejectedly off the field, their heads hanging in shame, while the Koreans, tears of joy and emotion in their eyes, danced and embraced each other to a tumultuous reception from the crowd.’

In the quarter finals, North Korea were travelling to Liverpool to face Portugal at Goodison Park. The ‘little lions’, as the Morning Star described them, had a ‘secret weapon’ in the crowd at Everton’s ground, writing ‘Their support for the underdog… will be doubled and trebled in support of the resilient North Koreans.’ Predicting a Portugal win, the journalist at the paper quipped, ‘If I’m proved wrong I shall be prepared to eat humble pie  – or perhaps more appropriately, whatever is the national dish of North Korea.’

As the Portugal game approached, the Communist Party press lauded the reportedly socialist outlook of the North Korean team, writing, ‘No big bonuses for North Korea. If they beat Portugal at Goodison Park today, the sole acknowledgement will be a certificate of merit from the Government.’ In a sentence that could have written in the present day, the paper mused, ‘There’s something refreshing about this in these days of all-out commercialism.’ However this was achieved and North Korea eventually went out to Portugal in a game that ended 5-3.

With the North Korean team going home, the Morning Star gave space to Koo Il Sun, Vice-Director of the Korean Central News Agency, to give an official DPRK view of the tournament. Koo thanked the people of Middlesbrough and Liverpool for their warm welcome and cordial hospitality’ and took their support for the team as ‘an indication of the friendly feelings cherished by the British people to our country and its people.’ For the North Koreans, playing in the World Cup was part of a greater plan, with Koo writing, ‘The time has come when Europe should clearly realise the existence of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and of its people.’ Their footballing success, he asserted, was rooted in the determination of the North Koreans to overthrow their past as a colonised peoples, exclaiming, ‘The rapid development of our sports prowess is based on the tremendous success won in all fields of politics, economics and culture since the liberation of our country on August 15, 1945, from Japanese imperialist, colonial rule.’

The propaganda piece from the KCNA representative painted a rosy picture of the DPRK emerging from the twin ravages of the Second World War and the Korean War, with little mention of football beyond the few opening and concluding paragraphs. For the North Koreans, their presence at the World Cup humanised them and allowed them to foster solidarity with people in the West, while still persecuting the case against the United States’ ‘occupation’ of South Korea, who were portrayed as the ‘main reason for Koreans to remain divided for 20 years after liberation’.

The North Korean football team at the 1966 World Cup captured the socialist imagination around the world and as representatives of a socialist country, the communists in the host nation of England followed their journey at the tournament closely. Unlike the Eastern bloc countries who were regular competitors at the World and European Cups, the North Koreans were viewed as underdogs on the world stage and worth rallying behind, not just by socialists and anti-imperialists during the Cold War, but by large sections of the British public, remembered fondly for decades afterwards.

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