Although they showed no signs of nerves in their group stage games – the highlight of which was their shock defeat of the much fancied Italians – the adulation they received from fans in the north-East of England – they played their first three games at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park – left some of the players feeling bemused.
Their sense of bafflement grew when they moved to a retreat for monks near Liverpool for their quarter-final clash with Portugal, which would take place at Goodison Park. Coming from a strictly secular nation, where the object of all citizens’ worship was expected to be the ‘dear leader’ Kim Il – Sung, the North Korean players were reported to have been spooked by the religious symbolism in their rooms.
|There were crosses, images of Jesus, assorted religious pictures with strong images. This would have been completely unknown to the North Korean players
“There were crosses, images of Jesus, assorted religious pictures with strong images. This would have been completely unknown to the North Korean players,” commented one team spokesman years later. On the night before the clash with Portugal, some players reported having nightmares about what they’d seen, and most struggled to have a good night’s rest. Others took the pictures and the crucifixes down so they didn’t have to look at them.
Famously, North Korea went 3-0 up against the Portuguese before Eusebio’s virtuoso display saw his side claw back the deficit and run out 5-3 winners. One explanation was that because the Koreans weren’t suitably refreshed from the night before, they simply ran out of steam after a stunning display in the opening stages. Rather more likely is that the Koreans were tactically naïve when they went 3-0 up, and in Eusebio, they came across a footballer who was simply at the very top of his game.
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