The notion of “total football” is well-known to sport aficionados today. Pioneered and largely employed by Dutch teams such as Ajax and even by the national Dutch team since the early 1970s, total football was popularized by Johan Cruijff. Fewer people, however, know where Cruijff and other Dutch players got the idea for a soccer strategy that literally revolutionized the game.
Cruijff had been experimenting with a high-intensity form of training and playing since the summer of 1966, when he watched some of the games in the UK World Cup, and was struck by the dark horse of that competition: the DPRK team.
During the 1966 World Cup, in fact, the North Korean team managed to impress many on and off the field with its excellent preparation, its tenacity and its will to prevail despite inferior technical skills.
At that time, the UK did not recognize the DPRK as a sovereign state and offered to grant access to the North Korean team on the condition that they would not play under their official country name.
The North Koreans, who were quickly re-named “the jockeys” by most of the international press due to their lower-than-average height (170 cm, or 5.5 feet), proved a very cohesive and motivated group from the start. Their coach, Myung Rae Hyun, had led the team since 1963, importing tactics and conditioning methods from Hungary, East Germany and the Soviet Union.
The tradition of sending a few selected specialists to friendly countries to collect technical knowledge and bring it back to Pyongyang has long been a characteristic of the DPRK in nearly every field of education and training: Such practices continue today, and this has been extended to Western countries since the DPRK normalized relations with the EU in the early 2000s.
The North Koreans knew that, in order to compensate for their lack of high-level players, they had to invest in a superior athletic performance
In terms of tactics, the 1966 DPRK team opted for a 4-2-4 scheme, with short, fast exchanges between players, keeping the ball rolling and using plenty of running. The North Koreans knew that, in order to compensate for their lack of high-level players, they had to invest in a superior athletic performance. This can be seen as a reflection of the “mind over matter” mentality that pervaded North Korean work forces, and is exemplified in mass mobilization campaigns like the Chollima movement of the late 1950s.
The training system pushed the players’ resistance to the limit: They had to start the day with a 10km run, followed by technical training throughout the morning and afternoon. After dinner they would have a full 90-minute match (one of the rules to keep players in check was that the ball could not remain with one player for more than 10 seconds), and finally a series of six 100-meter sprints, where the time limit for the last could not exceed 13 seconds.
In spite of their dedication, the North Koreans lost their first game (3-0 to the Soviet Union), but managed to pass the quarterfinals due to a draw with Chile and an astonishing victory over the Italian team. The event made headlines in the following days and guaranteed a status of national heroes to all the team members upon their return to Pyongyang. The story of their participation in the 1966 World Cup has been documented in a movie (The Game of Their Lives) co-produced by Koryo Tours.
Winning over Italy meant that North Korea as a country (not simply as a political entity) was under the spotlight for the first time: Never before that date, in fact, had an Asian team managed to get so far in a world competition. Middlesbrough, the city that hosted the North Korean team, elected the “Chollima boys” as its new working class idols, with more than 3,000 British supporters following the DPRK team in Liverpool for their match with Portugal, one of the strongest teams in the tournament.
After just 25 minutes North Korea had scored an impressive 3-0 and the world was in shock again. A country whose diplomatic relations were limited to the Eastern bloc, unknown to many in the West, was defeating a major team in the World Cup. Rinus Michels, another famous Dutch player and trainer was also watching the match, taking notes for what was to become the most important revolution in the history of modern football.
In the end, Portugal managed to contain and finally overcome the DPRK team thanks to the superior skills of its players, yet the world had witnessed a change in the mentality and the tactics behind the game of soccer.
The 1966 DPRK team was the living embodiment of a country in full revolutionary spirit
Football aficionados know that every national team expresses traits of its own culture in their way of playing. The 1966 DPRK team was the living embodiment of a country in full revolutionary spirit, resurrecting itself from a devastating conflict and, surprising as it may sound now, faring much better than its rival, South Korea, under most socioeconomic indicators throughout the 1960s.
At that time, North Korea was in full revolutionary swing, the Juche principles were boasted of as one of the greatest philosophical inventions ever, and the spirit of mass mobilization of the Chollima campaign motivated workers to continuous over-achievement. The DPRK wanted to innovate and prove it could compete with any other country regardless of size and economic power. Books and magazines at the time also reflected the input (coming from political and literary works attributed to Kim Il Sung) to create “a new man” in a “new society.”
After 1966, it took the North Korean team 54 years before it could qualify again for the World Cup, this time in South Africa. Not much is left today of the “Chollima spirit” that held the 1966 group together. The Cold War world in which North Korea had found its own strategic niche has all but disappeared, and the novelty factor of a team coming from an unknown country with never-before-seen tactics is certainly not a possibility today.
Yet the DPRK team managed to score some impressive numbers for its qualification in 2010: An impregnable fortress is the image most associated with North Korea on the world stage of politics, but the same could be said of its defensive line: Its goalkeeper only failed seven times in 16 matches, and the team still showed itself to be compact, extremely disciplined and motivated.
Technically and professionally, North Korean football is at a lower level compared to most other countries, but the country still has quality niches: Its female team and its military team (divided, as in most other aspects of life in North Korea, from the regular civilian team) are extremely well-prepared.
Under Kim Jong Un, the DPRK has seen a revival of sports as a means to international presence; victorious athletes coming back from the Olympic games have been cheered with national fanfare, and the country has resumed the practice of sending teams of young talents to other countries, as in the case of two football teams sent to an international football school in Perugia, Italy.
The problem with North Korean soccer as for other aspects of life in the DPRK, is that it receives still very limited input from the outside, and is therefore not capable of evolving as it should. The clocks seem to have frozen since 50 years ago, when the DPRK team managed to conquer the world’s attention with its revolutionary football.
Additional reporting by Enrico De Massis
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Featured Image: Korea DPR Supporters by LaertesCTB on 2010-06-22 14:11:04