As North Korea Returns to World Cup, Filmmaker Recounts ‘Underdog’ 1966 Team

BY Tom LeGro  June 14, 2010 at 11:39 AM EDT

World CupAnother in a series of stories about the World Cup in South Africa. Previously, Art Beat looked at the official World Cup song; the official art posters of the World Cup; a project called 2010 Fine Art; the Diski, a dance created just for the World Cup; and Soccer Cinema, a traveling theater that has been screening films all over South Africa.

Very few Westerners have spent the amount of time Daniel Gordon has inside North Korea. Since 2002, the British filmmaker has made more than 20 trips to produce and direct three feature length documentaries in the nation known for both its secrecy and shunning of the outside world.

But on Tuesday in South Africa, when North Korea takes on World Cup-favorite Brazil — arguably the most popular team on the planet — much of the outside world will have a rare look at one aspect of the nation: The match will be North Korea’s first at the World Cup in 44 years.

North Korea’s national soccer team is something Gordon knows a lot about — it took him four years to be granted access to make his first film, ‘The Game of Their Lives,’ a profile of North Korea’s 1966 World Cup team.

That 1966 team (which was the year England hosted the World Cup) became underdog heroes to many English fans — it was the first Asian team to progress beyond the first round of the World Cup after upsetting soccer giants Italy and reaching the quarterfinals.

The warm English response to the North Koreans was proof, Gordon believes, of the sport’s ability to unify political differences, if only briefly. In 1966, the height of the Cold War, England did not recognize North Korea as a country; England had fought as a U.S. ally in the Korean War only 13 years earlier.

“The people at first were very curious,” says Gordon. “And then they just got behind them because the British love an underdog.”

Gordon says the political tensions and controversies swirling around the current crop of North Koreans are similar to those faced by the 1966 team.

“At the moment the big issue is the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel,” Gordon says, “but I’d be surprised if any of the North Korea players knows anything about it, or if they do they’ll only know…what the official media has fed them.”

Despite the heightened tensions along Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, Gordon believes the divided nations will cheer for each other to do well in the tournament.

“I’m still quite bewildered by that,” Gordon says, “But the Koreans I’ve talked to tend to cheer for either North or South Korea’s success when it comes to football.”

As in 1966, North Korea is not expected to make it out of the first round. Many odds-makers have them at 2000/1 to win the World Cup.

However, Gordon believes North Korea could end up surprising people again, becoming many fans’ adopted team this year in South Africa. Just as in 1966, this North Korean team will not have the support of traveling fans — North Korea’s government does not permit travel.

“The odds are essentially the same this time as last time,” Gordon says, “and football is one of those great sports where you just never know.”