The Last Soccer Players

Just kickin' it: a North Korean player remembers striking gold
Very Much So Productions

In 1966, a decade past the close of the Korean civil war, North Korea's national football (i.e., soccer) team beat a cocky Italian squad to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals. As a World Cup jilly-come-lately, I had no idea that footballers could hold 37-year grudges (Italian fans supposedly continue to label any humiliating Italian loss "another Korea"), or that anyone would still care enough about a team making it to the 1966 quarterfinals to spend four years negotiating a film crew's entry into North Korea to interview former players.

Maybe I'm amazed. In any case, the appeal of Daniel Gordon's documentary film The Game of Their Lives arises more from the still-fervent player and fan testimonies than from its way of generalizing some "North Korean national spirit" or blathering about how "sports makes world citizens of us all." With a plethora of footage from '66, Gordon recreates the drama of underdogs earning the respect and support of two nations--their own and World Cup hosts England--not long after a war that pitted West against East.

The fun is in the faces. There are the young North Korean players, disarmed by the cheering crowds and cheerful autograph seekers; and there are the players' lined and sunken older selves, eagerly reanalyzing strategy and chuckling at the "riddle" of attracting fans from a steel town in northeast England, site of the North Koreans' first round. There are the gray-haired Italian players still smarting at the "disaster" of defeat, still making claims for their team's intrinsic superiority. And there are the fans of Middlesbrough reaching out then and now to the short and speedy team from a country that no one had heard anything good about--impressed, they say, with their skill and will. Then there are the games themselves: the North Koreans squaring off against the towering Russians, the moody Italians, the talented Portuguese (with Eusebio, the one-man power station). There's excitement enough here not to need the cluttered collage of contemporary Korean images. (They got film rights in the land of saber-shaker Kim Jong II! I guess they had to show dance classes and subways.)

Occasionally a deeper note is struck. North Korean goalkeeper Ri Chan Myong remembers the difficulty of training in a hometown flattened by bombs. The filmmakers report the diplomatic nightmare of welcoming a team from a country not officially recognized as a nation. And the enthusiasm of everyone here, the enthusiasm behind even the making of The Game of Their Lives, comments ironically on a world where "you're either with us, or against us." Sometimes--the best times--people kick that chalk line to a blur.

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