The longshot heard round the world

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The longshot heard round the world

North Korea competing in a World Cup seems about as likely as Rwanda competing in polo.

Now, hold your horses: Until this year, North Korea had more World Cup victories than South Korea.

That lone North win, which came June 19, 1966, against Italy, has been called the greatest upset in World Cup annals.

Thirty-six years ago, when the North Koreans showed up in England for the World Cup finals, nobody knew much about them, much like today. Tiny and quick as a nun's kiss, the players had had experience against Soviet-bloc countries but they still remained a mystery. There were only 16 teams in the '66 World Cup, and one bookmaker put the North's chances to win it all at 1,000-to-1.

In its first group match North Korea lost to Russia, 3-0, but came back to draw with Chile, 1-1. Then came the mighty Italians, a squad some experts believed would claim the big trophy. Playing calm, disciplined yet inspired soccer, the North Koreans eked out an astonishing 1-0 triumph, and a legend was born. Advancing to the quarterfinals, the North faced another power, Portugal. In the time it takes to walk the dog, North Korea banged in three goals. Who the heck are these guys, anyway? The dream ended when Portugal roared back with five goals.

North Korea went home and the team was never heard from again. Rumors circulated that the players had been imprisoned for the loss to Portugal or for boozy merrymaking the night of the Italy match.

Two British filmmakers, Dan Gordon and Nicholas Bonner, decided to discover the real story. The pair spent five years knocking on North Korea's door. Finally, last fall, they entered for 10 days. They combined interviews with former players with footage of the North's matches. The result is "The Game of Their Lives," a lively, informative, 80-minute paean.

'Atter all there years, they're still heroes'

(A conversation with Nick Bonner, associate producer of "The Game of Their Lives")

Did North Korea censor you or tell you what you could and could not show?

No. We thought at first we would get only a tenth of what we asked for but in fact we ended up with everything we needed to create the background for the story. We filmed a ride aboard a tram, which is normally out of bounds. We simply flagged down a tram and got on. We didn't film on the streets because that's rather unwieldy. We therefore went around without a camera and asked the public if they knew anything of the 1996 players. Some knew the players' names and some knew nothing and some would not stop talking about the match. Most of the young people there know the players by name only. We asked one teenager if he thought North Korea would have a chance in this World Cup. He said, "Our facilities are not as good as those in Western countries." And then he added, "But they were not good in 1966 and look where our players took us."

Why didn't North Korea play any more soccer matches? Why don't they enter World Cup competition today?

The seven surviving players on that team are still involved as soccer managers and coaches in the North or they are fans of club teams on which their sons or grandsons play. After all these years, they're still heroes and are treated well. There was no jail time, no raucous celebrating. [There reportedly were some political problems with the team, and the squad was almost entirely rebuilt.] Today, the North Korean women's team is No. 1 in Asia and may be better than the men's. North Korean men continue to play some "international" matches, with Russia, China and other "friendly" countries.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Easy. Gaining permission to visit North Korea. Not until a week before we went in did we know how many players were alive and how many we could interview in the time allotted. But we wound up interviewing all of them, and their coach.

There's a scene when the surviving players stand in front of a statue of Kim Il Sung and break down in tears remembering how in 1966 the Great Leader had urged them to "win one or two matches" at the World Cup. Were those real tears?

The film is a record of the players, their comments and their impressions. We did not influence their reactions or pass judgment. It was their decision to be filmed in front of the Grand Monument at Mansudae.

Much of the documentary takes place in England in 1966, yet there is very little mention of the Beatles, who were then at the height of their fame. Why?

Dan and I spent five years working on this project. Supported by family and friends, we were not paid at all during that time, and we went well over budget to interview the Italian players. Dan, who directed, wanted a fresh sound track, not popular tunes that might detract from the images. Apart from the sheer cost of buying Beatles music, we feel the selections made were more in keeping with the film.

Portugal's illustrious striker Eusebio scored four goals against North Korea in that '66 match. After each score he would take the ball from the net and carefully and deliberately return it to the halfway line, an imperious act not unlike a slow trot around the bases that some baseball players do after hitting home runs. Did you interview Eusebio?

Eusebio's manager said an interview would be possible if there was a fee, but we felt it was not in the spirit of the making of the film, so we left him out. None of the Italian players we interviewed asked for payment. A pity, for the North Korean players would have loved to have heard from Eusebio. Incidentally, they had no hard feelings about him afterward.

Have the North Koreans seen the documentary, and if so, what are their reactions?

The players loved it and thought it was well balanced and captured the spirit of the time. When we showed it to them last month, they giggled. After all, this was their great day in the sun. They still find the Portugal game a bit of a painful memory, but they put on a smile. When we went back, we were greeted as long lost friends.

What's the message of the documentary?

It's a history lesson, of course, but it's much more. As Park Do-ik, North Korea's most famous player, and the man who scored the goal to beat Italy, says in the film, "I learned that soccer is not only about winning. Wherever we go, playing soccer can improve diplomatic relations and promote peace."

There's some great footage in the film of young North Korean musicians who seem mesmerized by their instruments, almost in trances as they play. The term "brainwashed" comes to mind. Where was that taken?

At the Mangyongdae School Children's Palace, a performing arts academy for the gifted. Smiles are shown at all times there, skilled kids are being taught in a rather thorough way. It didn't make me uncomfortable, though, for my niece does ballet and that requires the same intensity if you want to be at the top.

Did you see anything in North Korea to indicate the great famine and medical struggles going on in the country?

I am well aware of the economic crisis there, but this is a film about the 1966 matches and the incredible fairy tale of being such outsiders in the World Cup. It is not a documentary on North Korean society. All the footage we used, including shots of the Korean War, was to show the roots of the team, their background.

What's been the reaction to the film in South Korea?

When the documentary was shown on a Seoul television station in May, it gained 18 percent of the ratings for its time slot, when the normal audience would be 8 to 11 percent. It will probably be aired again sometime soon.

What's your next project?

We thought this documentary would be the end, but now we know it can't be. We want to take the players back to Middlesbrough, England, which served as the host city for the North Koreans in 1966, and where they played three of their four matches. We want to bring a contemporary North Korean amateur soccer team with them. The surviving North Korean players love that idea, and so do the citizens of Middlesbrough, who adopted the team. We'll need some financial support, though. Lots of it, as a matter of fact.

by Toby Smith

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