The Game of Their Lives (2002)

North Korean pride and ‘The Game of Their Lives’ (2002)

Only one week ago, the world watched the Argentina vs France final of WC 2022. For me, the tremendous corruption and the controversies of the World Cup in Qatar overshadowed the football that was meant to be the showcase. But if I could put aside the politics, there were cracking upsets, come from behind wins, and underdog heroics. 

It’s a remarkable coincidence that similar stories transpired 56 years ago at WC 1966 in England, and all by one team. What, you say? There were controversies? There were political issues? There was a triumphant underdog? Writer-Director-Narrator Daniel Gordon found those seldom-mentioned stories for his first feature length documentary about the North Korean team at WC 1966. And that’s what makes this film so special. It’s a part of World Cup and FIFA history that we rarely hear about.

The football history

In his youth, Daniel Gordon had seen the 1966 FIFA film Goal! The World Cup, and was driven to investigate the story of North Korea, a team that competed before he was born but had captured the locals’ imagination in Middlesborough. He spent 4 years setting up the arrangements and around 2002 was finally allowed to enter North Korea and interview 7 surviving members and the coach of the 1966 team.

I have watched several films that covered aspects of WC 1966 (Bobby , Sixty Six , Pelé , I Scored a Goal in the FIFA World Cup Final, History of Soccer). But none had emphasized that a team from hermetically sealed North Korea had not only participated, but also had beaten Italy and advanced out of the group stage.

Back in 1966, Korea had sent its own film crew to record the team, and I presume they are the source of the extensive game and event footage. That, combined with the players’ stories, help explain the team’s success. I was reminded of the parallels with the underdogs of WC 2022, such as Morocco.

The first unknown fact was: how had North Korea qualified to go to England in the first place, 56 years ago? It turns out that for the field of 16 teams, only one spot was allocated for all countries in Asia, Oceania, and Africa. According to the film, as a protest, all nations in those federations boycotted the WC, except for Australia and North Korea. The 2 countries had a 2-game playoff in Cambodia. Australia’s team was mostly non-Australians who did not take North Korea seriously and did not really even train.

On the other hand, North Korea had toured Eastern Europe for almost a year, plus they were driven by patriotism and the desire to glorify their country and their Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. The Koreans adhered to the principles of Chollima (천리마), an expression to urge on  rapid development, and Juche (주체사상), that one is responsible for one’s own destiny.

The soccer manifestation of Chollima was to run fast and kick accurately with speed and energy. It helped that the team may have been quite young, in their early 20s. The goalkeeper purportedly was only 19 years old.

Parallels with Teams of WC 2022

As at WC 2022 in Qatar, politics were an issue at WC 1966 because the UK did not have official relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or the FIFA code of PRK). The film explains the machinations that the UK and FIFA pursued to prevent the DPRK flag from being shown or the anthem played.

Like Japan and South Korea in WC 2022, the 1966 North Koreans were fit and played with discipline and teamwork. This enabled them to easily defeat Australia in the qualifying playoff, as AUS had extremely underestimated their opponents. Once North Korea got to England, they played their 3 group games in Middlesborough.

Being of very small stature, in their first game, the Koreans were manhandled by the Soviet Union, which actually helped win the Koreans the support of local fans. But as they found their game, they were buoyed by the enthusiastic fans, just as Morocco was cheered on by all the Arab fans at WC 2022.

North Korea tied Chile 1-1. Like the WC 2022 Argentine and Moroccan goalkeepers, the Korean GK  had phenomenal performances (despite being only 5’6″) that then led DPRK to a huge 1-0 win over Italy. Korea was also helped by the fact that Italy suffered an early injury, and since substitutions were not allowed at that time, Italy played a man down.

WC 2022 Argentina had a theme song, Muchachos, that fortified their unity. Likewise, the North Korean players sang a song to remind them why they were there and what they hoped to accomplish.

Another interesting parallel was that the North Korean players were all survivors of the civil war that had devastated their country from 1950-1953, ending just 13 years before WC 1966. Similarly at WC 2022, the great Luka Modric and many of his teammates had lived through the Croatian War of Independence versus Serbia/Yugoslavia from 1991-1995, ending 17 years earlier. Croatia was the oldest team at WC 2022 and came in third.

Once DPRK advanced out of the group, they were in the Quarter-finals against Portugal. They went up 3-0 in the 25th minute, but then Portugal’s star player Eusébio scored 4 consecutive goals. Like Messi and Mbappe in the WC 2022 Final, stars shine at the most critical moments. The game ended 5-3, but the North Koreans returned home as heroes.

North Korean Culture

The Game of Their Lives was the first of 3 films that Daniel Gordon created about North Korea, in conjunction with Nicholas Bonner of Koryo Tours. Bonner is also responsible for the distribution of the 1978 DPRK film Centre Forward. It’s probably useful to note that North Korea granted Gordon his access around the same time that South Korea was co-hosting WC 2002.

Gordon has made a large number of sport and football films, and his goal is to show both sides of any story and let the viewer come to their own conclusions. In keeping, we see many video snippets of DPRK life as well as the Arirang Mass Games, which were huge spectacles of coordinated dancing, gymnastics, and billboard card stunts to instill national pride. We also see the cult of personality inculcated by the Great Leader, which brings players to tears in their fond remembrances.

No matter what we think of North Korea, 20 years ago with this film, Gordon showed how football could bring people together who normally would not speak to each other. But after watching WC 2022 and seeing how sportswashing and corruption are instead polarizing football fans even further, I am not so sure that sport is as uniting as it may have been over 50 years ago. We can always hope.

BTW, thank you to my friend Ameen Khan for loaning me this DVD. The DVD has some extras, such as a young Daniel Gordon explaining why he made this film.

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8