Welcome back to Bleacher Report's series of Italy World Cup Rewinds, where we take a look back at the prestigious history of the Azzurri in the tournament's history—both in good times and in bad. Today, we'll be looking at another of the lower points—the shocking 1-0 loss at the hands of North Korea that knocked the team out of the 1966 tournament and went down as one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
The World Cup finally arrived in the land of the sport's birth in 1966. England was selected as host over the likes of West Germany and Spain. The build-up to their tournament was surrounded with political intrigue.
In allocating qualification spots for the tournament, FIFA decreed that a single slot would go to the winner of a joint playoff between the winner of the Asian zone and the three group winners from the final phase of African qualification. The CAF, indignant at the thought that winning their own zone was not enough to qualify for the Cup, responded by withdrawing from the tournament en masse.
This was potentially critical for future events, because it cleared a major hurdle for the North Koreans to qualify. After South Korea withdrew from qualifying due to a change of venue, all they needed to do was get by Australia in a two-legged playoff. They dispatched the Socceroos 9-2 on aggregate to secure their first berth.
That was the final sporting obstacle, but international politics now threatened to run them out of the tournanment. The Korean War was still a fresh memory, and the North lacked diplomatic relations with many countries—including the UK, who had been a part of the UN coalition that opposed the North. The Foreign Office initially balked at issuing visas for the North Koreans to play.
After pressure was applied by FIFA, Britain relented and allowed the team to compete with the proviso that their national anthem was replaced by another song before games. A commemorative stamp ended up being nixed because it included the nation's flag.
Along with the one bid for Asia, the rest of the 16-team tournament was made up of 10 teams from Europe (including England's automatic bid as host), four from South America (including Brazil's automatic bid as champions) and one from CONCACAF.
Italy was a long way removed from the domination of the Vittorio Pozzo era. Things could have gone very differently had the team not been gutted by the Superga air disaster, but since that tragic day in 1949, the team had been in a downward spiral.
They had been eliminated in the first round in 1950 and 1954 and failed to qualify at all in 1958. The '62 tournament saw them again fall in the first round in a performance marred by the Battle of Santiago. They needed a victory to restore national pride.
The team was anchored by a contingent of five players from the team known as La Grande Inter. This included Sandro Mazzola, the 23-year-old son of the great Valentino Mazzola—the leader of the Torino team that had perished on the Superga hillside. Edmondo Fabbri's side was captained by Juventus defender Sandro Salvadore.
Drawn into Group 4 with North Korea, the Soviet Union and Chile, the Italians liked their chances to advance. Their first game was a rematch of the Battle of Santiago. Heads were cooler this time, and the Italians took an early lead through Mazzola in the eighth minute. Paolo Barison added a second two minutes from time to clinch a 2-0 victory. In the corresponding group fixture, the Soviets glided to a 3-0 victory over their fellow communists.
The second round is where things got dicey for Italy. A 57th-minute goal from Igor Chislenko sent the USSR through to the quarterfinals with two wins. On the other side of the group, Chile looked to be heading for a victory before Pak Seung-Zin equalized in the 88th minute to give North Korea an unexpected chance to advance.
With the group-leading Soviets favored over Chile, a draw was all Italy expected to need to get themselves into the knockout stage for the first time since the war.
Nothing could prepare them for what happened next.
The Italians arrived at Ayresome Park in Middlesborough in blue shirts and black shorts with blue socks. North Korea wore red shirts with white shorts and red socks. The referee was Pierre Schwinte of France.
The North Koreans carried with them the words of their country's leader, Kim Il-Sung. As related by one of the surviving players in 2002 to the excellent documentary "The Game of Their Lives" (relayed in this retrospective on the game from ESPNFC), "He embraced us lovingly and said 'European and South American nations dominate international football. As representatives of the Asian and African region, as colored people, I urge you to win one or two matches.'"
The Italians missed two early chances by inches. The first attempt from Marino Perani was clawed over the bar by North Korean keeper Lee Chang-Myung, the second sent agonizingly wide of the post by Perani.
The North Koreans weren't just there to defend. Dennis Barry, a Middlesborough fan who, along with the rest of the city, had fallen in love with the underdogs, recounted to the BBC before the 2010 World Cup that "they played attacking football. There was nothing defensive about their game." In that vein, midfielder Han Bong-Zin received an excellent chipped pass and dribbled himself into space but put the ball wide.
Perani continued to be a menace in front of goal, having another shot saved by Lee after being put clean through.
Then, half an hour into the game, the Italians were dealt a blow that may well have been fatal that day.
Midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli made a sliding tackle on Pak Seung-Jin. The collision aggravated a knee injury and forced the Bologna player from the field. In the days before substitutes were allowed, that meant that the Azzurri would be forced to play with 10 men for the remaining hour.
It was about 12 minutes later that the shock came.
A North Korean long ball from the halfway line was thumped back downfield by an Italian defender, but only as far as an onrushing North Korean defender, who delivered a thunderous headed ball that took one high bound into the path of Pak Doo-Ik.
Pak was 24 years old. He kept his cool and slotted the ball past Enrico Albertosi. The sword had been thrust into the beast.
The 10-man Azzurri desperately surged forward to get an equalizer in the second half. The chances were there, but no one converted.
Barison put an angled shot well wide of the near post from the left. Gianni Rivera had a laser shot met by a sparkling save from Lee. A corner was headed over the bar. Barison's clever bit of skill to free himself after a Rivera pass was wasted when he hit the side netting from the left-hand side.
Soon after, the North Koreans very nearly sealed the win, but Pak's through ball to a teammate only saw the ball bounce just wide of the goal.
The Italians continued to pour forward. Barison missed yet another chance when he took an off-balance shot that went wide. He then turned provider and supplied Perani in the middle of the box, but the shot was tame and Lee made an easy save.
By the dying minutes it was the North Koreans taking advantage of their extra man. Twice Albertosi had to keep his team in it with saves after Pak created chances for his teammates, but his long heave to launch a last-ditch attack was to no avail as Schwinte put the whistle to his lips and blew.
The beast was dead. North Korea had shocked the world, and for the fourth straight time, the two-time champs were going home after only one round.
North Korea wasn't done shocking the world. Within 25 minutes of kickoff in their quarterfinal date with Portugal, they had built a 3-0 lead and looked ready to continue their remarkable run. Then the legendary Eusebio intervened. The Black Panther scored his first goal two minutes after North Korea's third and ended the day with four goals in leading his country to five unanswered scores and a 5-3 win. The quarterfinal finish remains North Korea's best tournament showing.
In Italy, the Azzurri were met with bitter condemnation—and, at the airport, a hail of refuse. Fabbri was immediately sacked and replaced by Ferruccio Valcareggi, who coached jointly with Inter manager Helenio Herrera before taking over alone in 1967. Two years after the team's greatest humiliation, he led the Italians to their sole European Championship, and two years after that took them to their first World Cup final since 1938.