When Cambodia helped North Korea qualify for the World Cup

When it comes to World Cup shockers perhaps nothing will ever beat the performance of North Korea in the 1966 finals. Cambodia Spirts Review take a look at how they qualified for this historical event, with a little help from Cambodia.

Until South Korea reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup (jointly held with Japan), the most successful Asian team at the world cup had been their erstwhile enemy and neighbour North Korea. But how did this come to pass?

This is the story of how Cambodia helped North Korea qualify for the World Cup in 1966.

North Korea at the 1966 World Cup

To many football fans the exploits of the DPRK at the 1966 World Cup are part of folklore. The team lost their opening game to their allies the USSR 3-1, before drawing with Chile 1-1, but it was their last match of the group that was to prove one of the biggest shocks in footballing history. At Ayresome Park, home at the time of Middlesborough FC North Korean legend Pak Do-Ick scored a 43rd minute winner to not only knock out the previous world champions Italy, but also set up a quarter final with a Portugal side led by Eusebio, one of the best ever players to grace the planet

In the Quarter-Final North Korea famously went 3-0 up within the first 25 minutes of the match, a seemingly insurmountable lead, until Portugal helped in no small part by 4 goals from Eusebio finished the match as 5-3 winners. This is still considered one of the best matches in World Cup history, with fans of Middlesborough still having an affinity for the DPRK team, who are nicknamed The Chollima after a mythical winged horse from Korean folklore.

Check out the documentary “The Game of Their Lives”, which catches up with the team in 2005.

To date (at least at the time of writing this) the 1966 World Cup was the only major trophy won by the English team. Some have surmised that North Korea knocking out Italy may well have helped England with an “easier” Semi-Final against Portugal rather than the Italians, although this is obviously up for some debate!

What most people do not realize though is that had it not been for tiny Cambodia and a certain friendship between President Sihanouk and Kim Il-Sung then North Korea would likely have not made it the finals in England.

Cambodia and North Korea the strangest of allies

The 1960’s were a funny time in world history to say the least, America were at war with in Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis had almost plunged the world into thermonuclear disaster and the world was very much sat in two camps, at least until a 3rd one came along.

Cambodia helped North Korea qualify for the World Cup
At this point Sihanouk had stepped down as King of Cambodia and was running the country as head of state. At a meeting of what would later become the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) he met Kim Il-Sung, not yet President of North Korea, but certainly paramount leader.

To read about the President of North Korea click here

To say the two hit it off would be a great understatement, the two became such good friends that Sihanouk would later describe President Kim Il-Sung as the closest he had to family after the death of his mother. For his part the North Korean President was a steadfast supporter of Sihanouk, to an extent that they even broke with Soviet lines after the Khmer Rouge were ousted, with Kim Il-Sung stating;

“Our Communism is not honourable unless it supports the patriots like Sihanouk, who struggle for the independence of their country and his people’s freedom. Communism would lose much of its value if it did not respect the patriotism and ideals of independence and freedom of others”

Sihanouk would later be gifted a palace in Pyongyang and spent the vast majority of the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea period flittering between Beijing and Pyongyang rather than in Cambodia.

To read about the friendship between Kim Il-Sung and King Sihanouk click here.

North Korea’s qualification for the 1966 World Cup

The initial qualification for the 1966 World Cup had Africa, Asia and Oceania taking part in the same tournament, which was to consist of 15 African teams, split into various groups, with the winner facing the winners of the Oceania/Asia group for a place in the finals.

To say things did not exactly go to plan would be doing a gross injustice. The African teams boycotted the competition due to unhappiness at Africa not being granted an automatic place, leaving just the Asian and Oceana teams to compete. The Philippines were refused entry, which left North Korea, Australia, South Africa (who were competing as part of Oceania) and South Korea in a winner takes all 4 team group.

South Africa were later thrown out over apartheid, whilst South Korea, at the time much less developed than North Korea could not get themselves financially ready for the tournament. This left Australia and North Korea to fight it out for a place in the finals, but where would the matches be held?

Finding a really neutral venue

At the time North Korea did not have a stadium that would be up to FIFA standards, while in Australia the political climate meant that North Korea and their officials would unlikely be granted visas. They needed to find a neutral venue.

In football terms a neutral venue is a very simple and normal concept, a game is held at a third stadium, or country thus making it neutral, but these were not normal times and the concept also had political connotations.

The region was largely at war (Vietnam), unrecognized (China),, or well and truly in eastern and western camps, neutral therefore needed to be about so much more than football.

Cambodia to the rescue

At the time Cambodia was being run by Norodom Sihanouk, not as King, but as head of state through his one party Sangkum Movement. This had allowed him to keep a royal system, stay out of the Vietnam War, but also buddy up with communist leaders such as Chairman Mao and President Kim Il Sung.

To read about Socialist countries click here .

Cambodia had built the multi-purpose Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium to host the 1963 South-East Asian Peninsular Games, which was up to FIFA standards, and Cambodia enjoyed relations with both Australia and North Korea. A compromise was put forward by Sihanouk, hold the games in Cambodia.

The Cambodia play-offs

The matches were scheduled to be held  held on 21 November 1965 and on 24 November 1965 in Phnom Penh and drew a large amount  of excitement from the people. Cambodia were football mad, but at the time their team was largely in hiatus, a situation that ironically would not improve until the overthrow of Sihanouk by the Lon Nol regime .

Sihanouk duly ordered that half of the fans should cheer for North Korea, while the other half should root for Australia,. In the end though, be it through political overtones, or style of play it was the DPRK team that Cambodia took to their hearts.

The matches

In the first match on 21st November 1965, North Korea ran out resounding 6-1 winners in front of 60,000 fans. Pak Doo Ik, who would later score the winner against Italy and become a national hero scoring the first of the 6, before a solitary penalty from Australia.

After the excitement off the the first game 40,000 turned up on 24 November 1965 to watch North Korea again win, although this time by the slightly more slender margin of 3-1.

North Korea had run out 9-2 winners in the two games that decided the whole qualification for 3 continents, representing over 70 percent of the worlds population.

When Cambodia helped North Korea qualify for the World Cup

And the rest as they say is history. North Korea would go on their crazy World Cup run to Quarter-Finals, knocking out Italy on the way, before that famous 5-3 defeat to Eusebio’s Portugal side. It would remain the best result of any Asian team in the World Cup for 46 years and the side is remembered as one of the most famous in the history of the competition.

Few though realize that were it not for an African boycott, and a very personal friendship between King Sihanouk and President Kim Il Sung North Korea might not have even made it to England.

So if Cambodia helped North Korea qualify for the World Cup, did they also inadvertently help England win the World up of 1966? Maybe….

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