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The Game of Their Lives (2002)

A BBC documentary producer is given unprecedented access in North Korea to chronicle the story of the famed 1966 World Cup team from the North that advanced to the quarterfinals. The ... See full summary »

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A BBC documentary producer is given unprecedented access in North Korea to chronicle the story of the famed 1966 World Cup team from the North that advanced to the quarterfinals. The feature includes interviews with surviving members of the team, English fans and soccer pundits who saw the North Koreans upset Italy, 1-0, and go up 3-0 against Portgual before Eusebio eventually rallied the Portugeuse. Written by peter07

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21 October 2002 (UK)  »

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A superb documentary on several levels
10 June 2004 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

In 1966 England won the 8th World Cup in England but that is not the only story. As a result of only one place being allocated to Africa, Asia and the Pacific region, all but two countries boycotted and withdrew their teams, leaving North Korea and Australia. Having been on opposite side of the war, neither recognised each other so the game was played in Cambodia. Not giving them a chance in hell, Australia (and the world) are shocked to be knocked about 6-1 and North Korea book their tickets to England – a political problem since England did not recognise the state of North Korea. After much Foreign Office horse-trading, the team arrives and is drawn into the same group and Italy, the Soviet Union and Chile. With nobody giving them a chance and a 3-0 loss and 1-1 draw behind them, the North Koreans must beat Italy to deliver their Great Leader's request of 'one or two wins' and pull off a historic upset.

I decided to watch this documentary because it was mere days to go until Euro 2004 kicked off and I was in the mood for football stories, however this wonderful film gave me so much more than just that. For most of my generation 1966 only means one thing – England winning, I suspect very few not alive at the time know of the North Korean team that went along. For most of us the words 'upset' and Korea' will only bring to mind the wonderful run South Korea had in 2002's World Cup (knocking out Italy as it happens!) but this story is just as exciting. In terms of football the film is very interesting, not only in terms of the story but also in giving an insight into football of almost 40 years ago. Can you imagine a world cup being held in Middlesborough today? Not very glamorous is it! Certainly the idea of any team training on the grounds of a factory in Northern England (as Korea did) is unthinkable now – seeing the luxury England are living in in Portugal right now is further contrast. The style of football is also a lot less technical and I was surprised how many goals seemed to be scored by individual runs and then a shot.

Anyway, everyone loves the underdog and this film shows the underdog being supported by the English fans and pulling off the biggest shocks of the 1966 World Cup by sending Italy home and going 3-0 up in 20 minutes against Portugal. It is fascinating to see the players then – so full of fight and ignoring the odds, playing with the sort of spirit that we all wish our domestic sides could muster. To hear them talk as old men just makes the matches even more interesting as they recall their thoughts and feelings – I suspect few of us will not be envious of a keeper who considers his net to be the reputation of his country and would rather die than let Italy score in it. As a sports film it is really interesting and was the first time I had heard the story told, however this film is much more than that.

As we all know North Korea is a mystery – a few months ago a massive explosion may have killed 100's over a large area but I still don't know more than that and little information ever came out regarding it. We all know the stories of human rights violations and their nuclear programme and this film just makes the place an even bigger mystery by showing a side of the people and the country that is appealing and mystifying at the same time. We hear these stories but yet I watched these old men stand at the foot of the Great Leader's statute and weep as they wished he could be there with them. Likewise many talk of great affection of meeting him and it is clear that they wanted nothing more than winning at least one game for him and their beloved country. It is fascinating because the makers got quite unique access into the country and present us with people's honest opinion – they may be lying for fear of state retaliation but I could only see genuine sorrow in their tears as they talked of their Leader's death. Like I said, it is mystifying but it is a very interesting look into the country through the eyes of the football team.

Overall this is a great film if you like football stories but also if you are interested in North Korea. I came for the football but the other layers (Korea, a picture of England & football 40 years ago etc) all engaged me really easily. The story of the World Cup is great fun and the wider stuff about North Korea is fascinating and frustratingly confusing (but in a good way). The end result is a disarmingly charming documentary that surprised me by just how interesting, layered and fascinated it turned out to be – just like the team themselves, my expectations were exceeded.


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