Having a Ball

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Few Koreans will ever forget the excitement they felt in 2002 when Seoul co-hosted the World Cup. The unbelievable success of the local team added much to this excitement. It was the highest point in the history of Korean football. But this history has been long and interesting.

It is widely believed that the first football match on Korean soil took place in June 1882 when sailors from a British warship played some football ashore. Robert Neff, the leading authority on Korean maritime interaction with foreigners, recently expressed his doubts as to whether the match took place. He might be right, but at any rate, 1882 is widely seen as the birth date of Korean football. In 1982, there were even some centennial celebrations to commemorate this event.

Football was made popular by enthusiastic foreign teachers at the new-style missionary schools, and from 1921 Korea had its Cup, as well as famous matches between Seoul and Pyongyang teams (Pyongyang, then a Christian and pro-Western city, usually won). But today our story is about football after 1945.

The last Seoul-Pyongyang match took place in 1946, and the North Korean participants had to cross the 38th parallel illegally, reaching the South by boat. The situation was still quite mild, and it was not too difficult to cross the badly guarded demarcation line between the Soviet and American zones of occupation.

In 1948, the newly independent Republic of Korea came into being, and it immediately acquired its own football association, which joined FIFA. In the same year, South Koreans appeared on the international scene, dispatching a national team to take part in the London Olympics.

In those days, air travel was expensive and dangerous, so the team traveled to London by ship. It was a long trip; it took about a month. On their way to London, the Korean athletes stopped briefly in Hong Kong where on July 6, 1948, they played a match with a local team. This was perhaps the first international match ever played by a national Korean team. The Koreans won 5:1, and it was a good omen.

Their first match at the Olympics was successful as well. The Koreans defeated Mexico, but the next game ended in complete failure. The score of the mach between Korea and Sweden was 12:0. The Korean team returned home without much success but with some useful experience.

In 1954, the Korean team took part in the World Cup. The Korean athletes had to play preliminary matches against the Japanese. Normally, there would be two matches, one played in each country, but Korean President Syngman Rhee refused to allow the Japanese team play on the Korean soil. Hence, both matches took place in Japan.

According to a popular rumor, President Rhee told the captain of the Korean team that if they did not win it would be better for them to jump to the Korean Strait on the way home. Taking into consideration Rhee’s leadership style, one cannot help but wonder to what extent this joke was indeed a joke. But the players had no reason to contemplate such dramatic measures: They won and went to Switzerland, where they took part in the finals of the World Cup.

The Koreans came up against the Hungarians, arguably the best European team of the time, leading to a crushing defeat, with the scoreline reading 9:0. For many years after that Korean teams did not make their way to the World Cup finals. However, in Asia, where football was less popular, the Korean team fared well.

North Korea became a football power at the same time. There were rumors that the North Korean prominence influenced the South Korean decision not to take part in the 1966 World Cup in the U.K. The staunchly anti-Communist government was afraid that the country’s standing would be damaged if the South Korean team lost to the “Reds.’’ There were reasons to feel uneasy; at the 1966 World Cup, the North Korean team reached the final eight.

In those days, the South was not much different from the North in terms of economic performance, so symbolic competitions were taken very seriously. Kim Hyong-uk, then the head of the Korean CIA, took personal responsibility for football operations and did his best to create a team that would be able to compete with the “Red evil ghosts.’’ However, his efforts were unsuccessful: Despite good facilities, the achievements of the special team were doubtful (perhaps because they could not find a suitable coach).

The first actual match between North and South Korean teams took place in 1978 during the Asian Games in Bangkok, Thailand. The match took place on Dec. 20 amid great publicity. Both teams were under great pressure, but the result was a draw.

And then in May 1996, FIFA decided that the 2002 World Cup would be held in Korea and Japan. This news was met with great enthusiasm, and a football boom ensued. But that is another story…


One Response to “Having a Ball”

  1. Curtis Melvin says:

    I hate to accuse Lankov of being wrong on anything related to the DPRK, but I met Dan Gordon and Nick Bonner here in Wahsington when they were promoting their first film “The Game of their Lives”–and they had a different take on the reason the south Koreans skipped out on the 1966 Wprld Cup.

    According to Dan, the South Koreans did not participate in the 1966 World Cup in protest of FIFA’s decision to leave only one World cup slot open for all of Africa and Asia. The result was that all the countries of Africa and Asia decided to sit out the competition in protest. Only the North Koreans and the Australians bothered to send teams to the qualifying round. Once there, the North Koreans beat their Aussie competitors in Cambodia–giving them that one coveted spot. The rest is history…