x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

North Korea and Middlesbrough to commemorate footballing link

The isolated communist state and the British town are to stage a ladies match that marks a link to the 1966 World Cup.

North Korea and Middlesbrough will revive a 44-year-old sporting link when the women's football team from the English town leaves tomorrow for a trip to the isolated communist state, their coach said. The unlikely bond was formed when North Korea beat two-time world champions Italy 1-0 in Middlesbrough at the 1966 football World Cup, creating one of the biggest shocks in the tournament's history. Middlesbrough Ladies coach Marrie Wieczorek said North Korean officials had now invited them to Pyongyang on a sporting and cultural exchange during which they will play two local teams.

"Everyone is so excited about the trip. It's such a fantastic opportunity for all of us to visit a country that we could never have imagined getting to see," Ms Wieczorek said. She said some of the 14 players on the trip were initially concerned about heading off into the unknown but were reassured once the British embassy in Pyongyang cleared the trip. "I know North Korea is shrouded in mystery for many people in the UK but I get the impression that the Koreans will be wonderful hosts."

The visit will also include dinner at the British embassy with surviving members of North Korea's 1966 World Cup squad, who are still feted in their reclusive nation. The team leaves Britain tomorrow and will travel via Moscow and Beijing. Members of the 1966 North Korean squad visited Middlesbrough, in England's northeast, in 2002. Nick Bonner, the director of specialist operator Koryo Tours which has backed the Middlesbrough Ladies trip, said it was the first time a football team had visited North Korea "purely on the basis of friendship".

"The people there love their football and have a special bond with Middlesbrough," Mr Bonner said. North Korea took part in this year's World Cup in South Africa for the first time since 1966, fighting hard during a 2-1 defeat to Brazil in South Africa before being routed 7-0 by Portugal and 3-0 by Ivory Coast. Fifa said last month that it had dropped an investigation into reports that members of North Korea's World Cup squad had been punished for their performance.

*AFP