North Korea in the 1966 World Cup

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I’ve grown up in a soccer environment as my dad is a soccer coach and my brother has played soccer since he was in elementary school. This documentary therefore affected me in both the soccer way and culturally. For some reason I never realized that North Korea also played soccer. It was a huge (yet also pleasant) surprise that North Korea made that big of a mark in the World Cup. My first response to learning about this was shock but then as I learned about the circumstances of the times, my shock became pride. Granted, I’m not North Korean, but I am Korean and we’re all the same regardless.

I did some more research about Asian teams in the World Cup. North Korea was the third Asian team to make a mark in World Cup history and in fact is still today the team that went the farthest in the world renowned competition. No other Asian team has made it to the quarter finals (sadly…). Kim Il Sung wasn’t exaggerating when he said that the North Korean team was representing the ‘coloured’ people in the World Cup. More than just bringing pride to North Korea, the team was the face for Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

It was inspiring to see the players sing victory songs and play against internationally renowned teams like Italy and the Soviet Union. It was also very relatable. Nowadays, North Korea is not seen as people who also play soccer and laugh among friends. Granted, things have changed in the country from 1966 but the North Korean people are still people like us who would love to play a game of soccer or cheer for their national team.

However, overshadowing the underdog story of the North Korean soccer team was Kim Il Sung and his carefully constructed state. Along with the passion the players had for the game, the love they had for Kim was as strong, if not stronger. When the players spoke about Kim Il Sung, they started to cry simply by thinking about the man. It was a very raw, honest crying, and seemed very natural. It was a bit unnerving to see grown men cry about their leader, especially because they didn’t even know everything the man had done. The Kim Il Sung everyone praised was only the fabricated and good sides of him. They were ignorant of the truths of their beloved leader, as was clearly shown by their honest tears. That it itself is an amazing testimony to the power of the North Korean propaganda.

Stepping back from the euphoria of the soccer story and the undertones of Kim Il Sung, it’s hard to believe that North Korea has progressed to where it is now. Why is North Korea so much more hidden now? During the 1966 World Cup, the North Korean players were freely mingling with the native British players and forming friendships. Didn’t the British ever wonder about what happened to their friends? I’d love to meet a British native who attended the 1966 World Cup. What are their thoughts about North Korea now?

And also, what is happening with the soccer in North Korea? The national team made only two appearances nationally, in the famous 1966 World Cup and in the 2010 World Cup. How different was it between the two appearances? Were the players still allowed to mingle as freely with other players? How is the training done in North Korea: is it strict, military-style or is it done freely, to encourage a love of the game?

If anything, this document showed me once again the power of ordinary acts in the face of strict opposition. I never realized that everyday activities like dancing in the case of the Choi Seung-Hee or soccer like the 1966 World Cup could shine so much light about places like North Korea. It’s inspiring to see that even in places of harsh conditions, people can still find joy in sports or the arts. We’re all, after all, the same human beings with needs to have fun and express ourselves.

//This was originally a post for my Asian Civilization class. It was supposed to be 200 words but I wrote 3x more words AHAHAHAHA. #nerdy

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