Tuesday, 11 November 2014


When the Soviet Union met Italy it was plain that a draw would suit both nations. Despite the handicap of a strangely lopsided line-up and the absence of Barison and Rivera, Italy looked a team capable of getting a 0-0 whenever they liked, which seemed to be most of the time. The ensuing game lived down to expectation, fuelling the prevailing view in County Durham that World Cup football was rubbish. As Michael Williams of the Sunday Telegraph summarised, 'you can see better games at Hartlepool in January'.

Uninspiring and joyless, the only genuine colour in the match was supplied by Yashin's red gloves. Mazzola missed an early chance when through on-on-one with the Black Octopus and then, after 57 tedious minutes, Chislenko swept past an oddly unfocused Faccheti and hammered a left-foot shot beyond Enrico Albertosi and into the Italian net. It was the last meaningful action of a game that matched the weather - dull. The Soviet Union were now through to the quarter-finals, but Italy coach Edmondo Fabbri was under pressure. Then again when was an Italy manager not under pressure, and besides the must win game was against North Korea, the 500-1 outsiders. What was there to worry about?

17,829 fans filed into Ayresome to watch what would tunr out to be one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. 'We did not think of winning, only of doing our best,' Pak Do-ik would recall. The Italians meanwhile didn't seem to think of much of anything. Assistant coach Ferrucio Valcareggi - who would succeed the ineffectual Fabbri and do rather better - had watched North Korea's previous two matches and reported that they were 'una squadra di Ridolini'  the Italian equivalent of Fred Karno's Army, or the Keystone Cops.

Faced with a team whose speed and stamina had impressed most observers (though plainly not Valcareggi), Fabbri bizarrely opted to pick several of his slowest defensive players, and the Bologna midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli, who was struggling to shake off the effects of a knee injury suffered against Chile. In the early exchanges Marino Perani missed chances for Italy, but after 30 minutes Bulgarelli made the game's first truly telling action, launching himself into the back of Pak Seung-jin. The North Korean bounced straight back to his feet after the foul, but Bulgarelli lay on the ground writhing in agony, his knee ligaments torn.

Down to ten men (substitutions were still not allowed) against opponents who harried and chased remorselessly, Italy wilted. The Koreans were so ferociously committed that when Hang Bong-jin collided with a corner flag, it snapped in half.

Sensing an upset, the crowd in the Holgate End began to chant 'Korea. Korea'. On the 42nd minute the Italians failed to clear a cross. It was headed back into their penalty area. Pak Do-ik gathered the ball and drilled a low shot past Albertosi. In the second period Italy rallied, but Perani was wasteful again and no equaliser could be found.

Pak Do-ik became a hero on Teesside, his name passed down the generations alongside those of Wilf Mannion, George Hardwick and Brian Clough. The North Korean midfielder was a printer, but the Italian newspapers took to calling him 'the dentist' because of the pain he had inflicted.

Eliminated, humiliated, the Italy squad flew back to Genoa where they were greeted by an angry mob who pelted them with rotten fruit. Fabbri was fired, Francesco Janich, Perani and Barison never played for their country again. Shamed by the display, the Italian FA took drastic steps to address the problem and immediately banned the import of foreign players, scuppering a  £300,000 deal that was to have taken Eusebio to Roma. The ban would remain in place for almost a decade.

While the Italians ducked and recriminated, the North Koreans celebrated. Ubiquitous Middlesbrough director, Charles Amer invited the squad to his opulent home at Normanby Hall and after tea and scones presented each of the visitors with a Winston Churchill crown. That's 25p in the new money.

The barman at the St George Hotel confirmed that the North Korean players had let their hair down post-match. 'Oh aye,' he told the local press, 'They drank the place dry. There wasn't a bottle of ginger ale or soda water left.'

The North Korean sports minister was altogether less abstemious. At a dinner hosted by Middlesbrough FC to celebrate the victory, he waved aside all offers of wine and demanded Drambuie instead. According to Mr Amer, the politician polished off a bottle and a half during the meal 'And that's what I call drinking in any language'.

In the final game of the group, the Soviet Union, guaranteed top spot thanks to Italy's implosion, sent out virtually a second string against Chile. The South Americans would have gone through if they'd won, but their finishing was hopeless. Valery Porkujan of Dynamo Kiev got the winner and the USSR finished with a 100% record. Wearside was underwhelmed and only 16.027 turned up to watch.

In Sunderland there had been some trepidation that the quarter-final at Roker Park might have seen Brazil play Italy. Football wise this would have been a delicious prospect. Logistically it would have been a nightmare. Like Italy, Brazil had a huge band of travelling fans - there simply wouldn't have been enough spare bedrooms on Wearside to take them all. The Brazilians, however, had gone out unexpectedly. Nerves frayed from staying in a hotel they believed was haunted, morale dented by feeding on what they mistakenly thought was horsemeat, the Selecao were then kicked to pieces by Bulgaria and Portugal.

So instead of the Azzuri and Pele, Wearside had the Soviet Union versus the runners-up in Group 3, Hungary. A crowd of just over 22,000 paid to watch, less than half the number who had come to see Sunderland play West Ham earlier in the year. The Magyars were an attractive side built around the brilliance of Ferenc Bene and the elegant centre-forward-play of Florian Albert. To nullify the threat of these two skilful individuals the Soviets deployed a simple strategy - violence.

Despite the kicking meted out to them Hungary might still have won had they only had a better goalkeeper. While the USSR had the imperious Yashin, the Magyars had Jozsef Gelei, a keeper who more or less defined the word hapless. After just five minutes he dropped a Porkujan cross at the feet of Chislenko who toe-poked home. Gelei fell to his knees and appeared to offer a prayer to the Almighty. God, however, was clearly on the side of the big battalions. Two minutes into the second period the Hungary keeper fumbled a free kick, allowing Porkujan to double the Soviet's lead. Bene pulled one back late on, and, as the Hungarians pushed for an equaliser, Yashin saved thrillingly from Ferenc Sipos to rub salt into the losers' self-inflicted wounds.

For the North East that marked the end of the party - except in Ashington, obviously. There was talk that the World Cup had been a failure in the region, something both local organisers and the FA vehemently denied. Certainly the crowds had been poor at Roker Park compared to those for league matches (at Ayresome they were higher than the previous season's average) though that had been a feature of most World Cup group stages up to that point - in Chile four years earlier attendances at many games had been under 10,000.

The liason committee in Sunderland were undeterred by the criticism and pronounced the whole venture a huge success: 'The town has been put on the world map in an attractive manner and its reputation greatly enhanced' they concluded, which was as near to whooping and fist-pumping as people got in those days.

On Teesside the tournament genuinely had an impact, thanks to the North Koreans. A powerful bond was formed between the locals and the 'little men from north of the 38th Parallel' (as David Lacey called them in the Guardian)  and to this day the name of Middlesbrough is probably better known in Pyongyang than that of London, and certainly more respected.

1 comment:

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