The nightmare of Korea: Italy’s biggest World Cup humiliation, half-a-century later

They have won! Good heavens, they have won. What is going on here? This is fantastic,” bellowed Frank Bough, with the tone of a man struggling to come to terms with what his eyes had just witnessed.

So renowned was the former BBC commentator’s relaxed and professional approach to live broadcast that he was once billed as “the most unassailable performer on British television”.

However, 51-years ago today, on 19 July 1966, even Bough’s notoriously phlegmatic approach wavered as North Korea knocked Italy out of the World Cup in what remains the greatest shock in the tournament’s history.

If Korea’s performances at the World Cup left an indelible mark in the annals, their route to England was extraordinary in itself. Twenty out of 22 nations from Africa, Asia and Oceania pulled out of the qualifying process, in response to FIFA’s decision to allow just one team from the three regions combined to into the final stage.

As a result, North Korea and Australia, the only two teams that had opted against withdrawing, faced each other in two-legged playoff. Even more bizarrely, to guarantee neutrality, both legs were played in Cambodia within a few days of each other.

Korea, of which very little was known on and off the pitch, trounced Australia 9-2 on aggregate, earning themselves a ticket to England and involuntarily triggering a major diplomatic incident.

Only 13 years had passed since the Korean war, during which Britain had supported the South and refused to recognise the North as a sovereign country, just as the rest of the Western world did. While the atrocities were ended by an armistice in 1953, the two factions had not agreed to a peace treaty and have not done so in the 64 ensuing years meaning that, technically, North and South Korea are still at war.

The Foreign Office allegedly panicked when it became apparent that Korea were on their way to England, before FIFA exerted enough diplomatic pressure to ensure the team would be allowed in the country. While the authorities allowed North Korean flags to be flown throughout the tournament, they circumnavigated the issue of the national anthem by stipulating anthems would be played only before the opening game and before the final.

Pitted in Group 4 alongside Italy, the Soviet Union and Chile, nobody gave the Koreans a prayer, though that did not prevent the crowds in Middlesbrough and Liverpool from taking to them. Italy, meanwhile, arrived in England looking to putting a dreadful two decades to bed.

Having not got past the first round in 1950 and 1954, Italy had even failed to qualify in 1958. In 1962, the Azzurri had again fallen at the first hurdle, in a tournament marred by the infamous Battle of Santiago, which saw two Italian players sent off as the game against Chile descended into a riot.

battle of santiago chile italy

Read – ‘The Battle of Santiago’: Chile vs. Italy 1962

Italy, however, beat the South Americans 2-0 in their first game and lost 1-0 to the Soviet Union, meaning they arrived at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park needing just a draw to progress to the quarterfinals.

The Azzurri squandered two good chances early doors, before losing captain Giacomo Bulgarelli to injury with only half an hour gone. Lunging into a needless tackle on Pak Seung-Jin, the Bologna legend aggravated a knee problem and was stretchered off.

Despite their numerical inferiority – substitutions would not be allowed in the final stage of the World Cup until 1970 – few would have bet against the Italians getting the job done. Four minutes before halftime, however, Italy failed clear to their lines and as the ball was headed back into their box, Pak Do-Ik wrote his name into football folklore.

The North Korean – who was a corporal in the North Korean army, not a dentist as the majority of Italians claimed for years – received the ball just off the penalty spot, before striking a right-footed effort that rolled past Enrico Albertosi’s despairing dive and into the net at the Holgate End.

Albertosi’s outstretched right arm as the ball beat him would become one of the most iconic images in football history. In the second half, Italy poured forward with Paolo Barison and Gianni Rivera testing North Korea’s keeper Ri Chan Myong, while Marino Perani, who had missed two chances in the first half, went close again.

Despite being only 5ft 7in, Ri Chan Myong stood tall and repelled wave after wave of Italian attacks. “Behind me, the goal was small,” he told the BBC, when interviewed during the making of The Game of Their Lives, a 2003 documentary film which told the story of North Korea’s journey to 1966 World Cup.

But behind the goal was our nation. I knew if I conceded a goal, the reputation of North Korea would fall [and] we would have failed in the task set us by the Great Leader [Kim Il Sung].”

The late Kim Il Sung, who ruled over the country’s establishment between 1948 and 1994, certainly did not have a role in the game, but the Koreans managed to keep their opponents at bay, condemning the Italians a premature return home.

For the Azzurri, however, the nightmare was just beginning. Upon their arrival in Genoa, the baying crowd pelted players and staff with rotten tomatoes, while journalists dissected the unprecedented debacle in detail.

So deep were the wounds inflicted on Italian football and Italy’s collective identity in Middlesbrough that, ever since then, fiascos of epic proportions have become known as “another Korea” in Italian.

Italy’s coach Edmondo Fabbri, meanwhile, was thereafter known as “a man called Korea”. Fabbri, who had initially taken the responsibility for the defeat, then launched a bizarre one-man crusade in an attempt to distance himself from the disastrous campaign. In the months following the tournament, Fabbri visited a number of his players, individually, and secured statements from eleven of them. The statements detonated like a fuse within Italian’s football landscape, as a number of players claimed they had been doped with substances aimed at disrupting their performances.

Bulgarelli, Giacinto Facchetti, Francesco Janich and Giovanni Lodetti stated they had received injections and taken pills and all claimed to have experienced a “sense of insecurity and fear”. Sandro Mazzola also mentioned taking pills and spoke of intensive saunas, while Rivera, Roberto Rosato, Romano Fogli and Enzo Pascutti claimed Artemio Franchi, who would become president of the Italian FA a year later, had ordered the players “not to overrate” the North Koreans.

However, the similarity of the statements and the fact some of them were retracted – Bulgarelli, Pascutti and Fogli confirmed their version – when the press got hold of them only served to make the waters even murkier.

Franchi launched an offensive of his own, publishing a report in which he blamed Mister Fabbri, who was sacked and banned from football for 11 months. North Korea, meanwhile, went on to lose to a Eusebio-inspired Portugal 5-3 in the quarter finals, but only after having taken a shock 3-0 lead.

Ayresome Park has since been turned into a council estate – another casualty of the gentrification that swept English football grounds in the wake of the Taylor Report.

However, the urban development, aptly named The Turnstile, features a bronze cast of an imprint of a football boot, located on the very spot from where Pak Do-Ik struck the winner five decades ago. An everlasting reminder of one of football’s greatest shocks.

Words by Dan Cancian: @mufc_dan87

A journalist by trade and a glory hunter since birth, Dan is a regular contributor to Red News, Manchester United’s oldest fanzine and to other United websites. He fell in love with Italian football when it was cool.