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N. Korean 1966 World Cup team revisit the past

© Reuters 2002

BEIJING, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Call it football diplomacy - 36 years after North Korea's 1966 World Cup side overcame massive odds to beat Italy 1-0, the team's surviving members have set off on a journey back to Middlesbrough, England, the city that hosted the Cup's biggest ever upset.

Their long-awaited reunion tour stopped in Beijing en route from Pyongyang on Sunday.

It came amid an unprecedented flurry of signals - from jump-started normalisation talks with rival Japan to plans for a Hong Kong-style trade zone - that the reclusive Stalinist state may be coming out of its shell.

The squad's coach and seven players met reporters wearing bright-eyed grins, dark suits and glossy pins depicting either deceased Great Leader Kim Il-sung or his son, current Dear Leader Kim Jong-il - dress code for all North Koreans.

They autographed balls, posed for photographs and recalled the three goals they netted in a 5-3 quarter-final loss to Portugal after slaying giants Italy.

The group, now in their 50s and 60s, also showed they still had the spirit that won over soccer fans in Middlesbrough. They juggled a ball together with the Italian chef of a five-star Beijing hotel, joking that they feared revenge from the nation they embarrassed.

Not surprisingly, they glossed over sensitive questions, like why it had taken until now for them to return to England, during months of diplomatic, economic and cultural overtures from Pyongyang.

"I have had much work, many things to do at home," said Pak Do-ik, the midfielder who scored the winning goal over Italy and went on to coach the team for two decades.

But he said "friendly feelings" brought them back.

"All the time I have had Middlesbrough in my mind. So this is a golden opportunity to return."

FIVE YEARS "It is football diplomacy in a way," said Nick Bonner, the British tour operator who collaborated on a new documentary film about the team's first trip and arranged for them to retrace their historic steps.

"In Britain (football) is the only link," he said. "We could take traditional dance over and the North Koreans could bring over revolutionary opera but it doesn't quite have the same feeling."

It took Bonner and Dan Gordon, a film director from Middlesbrough, some five years to track down the team members and obtain permission to interview them.

In the end, said Bonner, the North Koreans themselves proposed visiting England again after seeing the documentary about the team - called "The Game of their Lives".

The North Korean government approved the trip with surprisingly few conditions, he said.

The team delegation includes officials and translators from the state travel and film companies which helped to make the film. "But there are no minders," said Bonner.

Last time the squad toured England, by contrast, they came as the enemy. The 1966 Cup was at the height of the Cold War and only 13 years after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, in which British troops fought against the North.

The British government, which did not recognise North Korea at the time, made unsuccessful attempts to deny the team visas and to stop them flying their national flag at Cup matches.

This time, the players are scheduled to have tea on the terrace of Britain's House of Commons and attend a dinner co-hosted by the Foreign Office and the Minister for Sport.

In Middlesbrough, they are due to go out on to the pitch before the home side's match against Leeds United on October 26.

Bonner expected the team's adopted home to go mad all over again. "If you talk about North Korea in the rest of England, nobody's got a clue," he said. "But if you mention North Korea in Middlesbrough, they go 'Oh - Pak Do-ik'."

After the 1966 World Cup, the North Koreans went back to Pyongyang and were not heard of outside their secretive homeland for the next 35 years. Rumours in South Korea said they had been sent to labour camps for attending a party with "foreign ladies" the night before their loss against Portugal.

The filmmakers said they too remained unclear about what had happened. "But I'm 100 percent sure they are now revered," said Bonner.

He said a Middlesbrough bartender from the time did recall the North Koreans drinking heavily. "But it was all soda water."

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