In 1966 the footballers representing North Korea earned the affection of Middlesbrough’s footballing public with their stirring displays during the group stages of the World Cup. 44 years later, Middlesbrough FC Ladies team has headed the other way to strengthen the relationship between the DPRK and their city which has been kept alive in the hearts of the football fans in both places during the intervening years.
Boro’s women’s squad touched down in Pyongyang early on Saturday morning. They will play two matches during their four-day stay in the North Korean capital, and will also provide training to local schoolchildren and the youth side of the Pyongyang City Sports Group. It will be the first time that a British side has played friendly matches against league sides from the DPRK, and the trip has caught the imagination of the media across the world.
Since the tour was confirmed, Middlesbrough manager, and former England captain, Marrie Wieczorek, has been inundated with requests for interviews and said that she couldn’t wait to have her mobile phone confiscated when she arrived at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. But the press interest continued upon landing, with the team posing for photos, and Marrie giving a brief interview to Associated Press Television News before they were finally able to clamber onboard the bus to their hotel. The squad had a few minutes to freshen up (they departed Middlesbrough at 4:30am on Thursday), and grab a bite to eat before making their way to the May Day Stadium (the world’s largest, with a seating capacity of 150,000) to see the spectacular Arirang performance.
The Boro kick off their tour tomorrow with a match against the April 25 ladies side, who are one of the best teams in a nation where a lot of time, effort and money has been pumped into the women’s game (the DPRK currently sit fifth in the FIFA rankings). April 25 are affiliated to the Korean People’s Army (April 25, 1932 was the day on which the anti-Japanese guerrilla army was formed), and boast 12 players with international experience. Fortunately for Middlesbrough, who play in the third tier of the women’s game in England, the majority of the April 25 first team squad are pre-disposed at another tournament, and they are likely to face a reserve team. However, the general consensus is that the Koreans will provide incredibly tough opposition.
Kalmeagi women’s team will provide the opposition in the second game on Tuesday. Little is known about this particular side, except that their name means “seagulls” in Korean. Before then, the squad will get a chance to see the city, coach some local youngsters and attend a reception hosted by the British Embassy at which they will get the chance to meet the surviving members of the DPRK 1966 World Cup squad, including Pak Do Ik, scorer of the winning goal against Italy at Ayresome Park all those years ago.
Our Man In Pyongyang writes exclusively for The Football Ramble from inside the DPRK