Sunday, June 20, 2010
The ghost of 1966
The ghost of 1966 hangs over Monday's match between North Korea and Portugal. It could be by default, because there simply is no other context within which to place this game - or, indeed, any game involving North Korea at this tournament. Or it could be a certain wistfulness, given the defensive nature of teams at this World Cup, for a time when attack was the only form of offence.
• Portugal v North Korea preview
Portugal have come a long way since their brilliant, explosive debut 44 years ago - yet in a sense have never really matched the genius of that side: Jaime Graca, Mario Coluna, Antonio Simoes, their coach Otto Gloria and the greatest of them all, Eusebio. They hacked Brazil out of the tournament and then, as if by way of redemption, offered up one of the most thrilling World Cup games in the quarter-final - against North Korea, winning 5-3 after being three goals down. It's fair to say that nothing they have achieved since - not even the Golden Generation - has so dazzled as did Eusebio and his men.
It certainly puts into context their successors' dire outing against Ivory Coast last week; even a sprinkling of the flair and skill shown in 1966 would have been welcome. That side comprised a fair number of players from Mozambique (the former Portuguese colony), one of the few links to that great past is the current coach, Carlos Quieroz, but he hasn't revealed yet his genetic predisposition to the kind of play that made his countrymen famous. All he promised on the eve of the game was to "take some risks in terms of offensive strategy."
At least Portugal's potential to dazzle and destroy is well-known, even in the absence of playmaker Deco, whose hip injury dominated Quieroz's press conference. North Korea have been labelled a defensive team, and that is how they played for much of the game against Brazil, being undone only by a freak goal and a moment of brilliance. But they have in Jong Tae-Se a striker capable of his own inspired moment. He is also one of the team's more intriguing members: South Korean by parentage, Japanese by birth, upbringing and trade - he plays for Kawasaki Frontale - and a voluntary holder of a North Korean passport, passionate enough to shed tears when the national anthem was being played last week.
News about the team over the past few days has been dominated not by the football but by the story of four of their players 'disappearing' before the Brazil game. Non-story, said the coach Kim Jong-Hun. "The management of the team and the players is my responsibility. In the past few days we've done everything together, we've been together all the time."
And they've set their sights high at their first global outing since the 1976 Olympics. Asked what would be an acceptable outcome of this tournament, Kim had a confident reply: "A good result would be to pass the group phase. That's our goal. We have two games left, we are going to win points."
How they will do so is a mystery, perhaps in keeping with their overall identity. They deployed a five-man defence against Brazil and will probably stick to that tactic against the likes of Ronaldo. Jong and Hong Yong-Jo - their Russia-based captain - showed sparkle but it always seemed to be secondary to the main task of protecting their goal. They rely on the quick counter, and in the vast reserves of energy seen in the likes of Park Ji-Sung. What they need, though, is a little more self-belief and sense of adventure on Monday against a team that hasn't yet hit its stride.
What they really need is some of that spirit of '66, when they took Portugal by storm with relentless attacking and scored three goals inside 25 minutes. They lost the game but won hearts - in Liverpool, where the match was played, in Middlesbrough, where the team was based and throughout England. The North Koreans have a strong sense of their own history and coach Kim says he remembers the game well. "We were leading 3-0 but we lost. My players and I are going to do our best to make up for that."
If Portugal feel the same way, the ghost of 1966 can finally be laid to rest.