Daejeon, WC 2002, Round of 16: South Korea-Italy. Local supporters remember Italy’s defeat against North Korea (and what about political rivalry between Koreas?!).
Daejeon, WC 2002, Round of 16: South Korea-Italy. Local supporters remember Italy’s defeat against North Korea (and what about political rivalry between Koreas?!).

Spies against communism

The role of football in Korean conflicts

At minute 42 Pak Doo-ik changed football history in 1966. The Korean player’s goal chilled Italy and gave North Korea the first victory ever of an Asian team in the World Cup, and also the first qualification to the knockout phase. It’s a well-known story, especially in Italy, as it is known that, in the following match, Koreans touched the historical feat of reaching the semifinal, going 3-0 against Portugal in the first half, just to be overturned by the hurricane Eusebio in the second part of the match. The great undertaking wasn’t a shock only for Italy, but also on the other side of the world, south of the 38th parallel, where Pyongyang was the enemy, and that exploit was a blow to its own honour that Seoul could not tolerate.

Two authoritarian countries

It couldn’t be otherwise, in a country ruled by the nationalist authoritarianism of Gral Park Chung-hee. He had led the military coup that ended the Second Republic, born by the protests of students and workers, after just one year. His junta had promised free elections for 1963, ensuring that no General would try to run, but Park himself shoved up to be voted, managing to be elected President, not without controversy. Under a democratic semblance, the General had imposed an authoritarian and repressive government, but he had been also able to get Western world favor thanks to some industrial and economic reforms. Nonetheless, relations with the communist North had never been restored, and almost 10 years after the end of the Korean War no peace treaty had been signed. On the contrary, the two countries looked very close to a new open conflict.

Football starts its paper

After a brief rapprochement, in October 1964 the relations between the two Koreas had got worse again, due to the massive infiltration of communist spies in the South for propaganda operations. This had raised up the tension, and clashes occurred frequently in the roads of Seoul, between North agents and South safety squads. The big success of the North Korean team at the English World Cup in 1966 was another bad blow for Seoul and its regime’s reputation, in a country where football had a great social value for decades. However, nobody was surprised by the fact that the North had a stronger and more competitive team than their Southern opponents: already under Japanese dominance (1910-1945) Pyongyang players had shown to be the best in the peninsula, for the talent of Kim Yong-sik, that starred the Japanese selection at 1936 Olympics. But also the backbone of the team that took part in the 1954 World Cup and afterwards won the Asian Cup in 1956 and 1960 was composed of Northern players who had escaped communism during the war, like the striker Choi Chung-min. 

Even if it had been the imperial power site under the Joseon dynasty, and even with all its pride and growing economy, South Korea remained subordinate to the North in the most popular sport of the country. After the 1966 World Cup, communist leader Kim Il-sung made a warlike speech on October 5th, questioning the 1953 armistice, and after some days the clashes started again in the demilitarized zone between the two countries: what many international journalists called “The Second Korean War” was breaking out. In such a scenario, it’s startling that Park had decided to designate a special section of the KCIA, the government’s spy agency, for the express purpose of combating North Korea’s success in football. This project had even started before the war when an agent had been sent to England to follow the World Cup posing as a journalist. This agent contacted members of the press and sports officials to get information about the reasons for the strength of their enemies from the North, and when he went back to Seoul he explained to his superiors that, for the pundits, South Korea lacked a serious development program of youth football.

This information was brought directly to Kim Hyong-uk’s table, the KCIA 41-year-old director. Born in the North, Kim had studied in the South and fought against communists in the 1950-1953 war. After that he was sent to the USA for special training, and subsequently, he was among the officers of the 1961 coup d’etat. He had been Interior Minister and then head of the secret service. 

A Secret Service football team is created

He had the idea to counteract the excessive power of North Korean football by creating a “state team”, on the model of the communist ones, in which the secret service would decide the training methods and the play system. So, in 1967 the Yangzee FC was created, a team directly controlled by KCIA, with a strict training regime that no other South Korean team could have. Being the Interior Ministry team, the players weren’t bought by the rivals, but they were enlisted directly from the military service, compulsory for all the men of the country. The direct consequence was that Yangzee could include in its ranks the best of South Korean football, and pay high wages because its players were formally amateurs enlisted as secret service agents.

The management of the team was entrusted to a loyal man, Choi Chung-min who had been a star of the national selection in the 50s and then worked for the KCIA. He had been trained in the North before the 1950-53 war, and he knew very well the high technical and offensive approach, which had been developed by the English WM tactical scheme, that characterized all Pyongyang football and had shocked Italy at the World Cup. So, Yangzee could afford to enlist the best young players of the country, selected by an expert coach and inserted into a strictly organized sports system, being sort of a mix between a state football team and a national football academy. Players had to live inside KCIA accommodations and train inside the agency’s sports centre: the alarm clock was at 6 AM and the workout went on until sunset, with just a break for lunch. The government had invested a large sum of money to provide the training centre with state-of-the-art structures, and the team could play in the Imun-dong facility, the only grass football pitch in South Korea.

The spy team quickly imposes itself

Positive results were immediate. Led by players like goalie Lee Se-yon, sweeper Kim Jung-nam and strikers Huh Yoon-jung and Lee Hoe-taik, Yangzee won its first international title in 1967, winning the Merdeka Cup, a prestigious tournament played in Malaysia since 1957, which had previously hosted only national selections. The following year the intelligence team confirmed its success in the homeland, where it won the national championship and the President’s Cup. However, the high standard to which they were getting used, and the privileged role that they played under the regime, fueled the players’ egos too, and frequent fights started to happen in the locker room. To bring order to the team, a team that should be a model for the country, Choi Chung-min was substituted as a coach by another legend like Kim Yong-sik, who had an iron sergeant reputation and had led the national selection at the 1954 World Cup.

Changing the coach didn’t stop Yangzee’s technical growth. In January 1969 the team shocked the continent in the Asian Champion Club Tournament, the forerunner of the Asian Champions’ League. South Koreans won a round robin against Indian Mysore State (today Karnataka State FA), Thailand Bangkok Bank, Vietnam Police (today Hồ Chí Minh City Police FC) and Philippine Manila Lions: 4 victories in 4 matches, 17 goals scored and just 1 conceded. In the semi, Yangzee eliminated Japanese Toyo Kogyo (today Sanfrecce Hiroshima), and surrendered to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final match, but just after extra time. For the first time ever a Korean team had reached the final act of a continental competition. This excellent result lit the fire for the ambitious European tournée of the team, 26 games played with the remarkable record of 18 wins, 2 draws and just 6 defeats. The opponents were basically secondary teams in the European scenario, often not professional, but travelling through France, thanks to the Paris embassy, Yangzee was able to organize a match against FC Metz, a Division 1 (currently Ligue 1) team.

In a few years, the South Korean regime had been able to build from scratch a team which could face and beat the national and continental football big shots, and finally feed the hope to shatter the technical supremacy of the North. But incidentally, the international successes of the team had resulted in a showcase for Park Chung-hee regime, that could use football to show the world the quick improvements of South Korea.

End of the game, but the path is open

While all this was happening, the war had gone further, and in January 1968 a North-infiltrated communist hitmen commando had been caught just before trying to take the President’s life. This accident made Park much more paranoid but also put into discussion the intelligence’s work. In 1970, when Kim Hyong-uk decided not to endorse his third term candidacy, the President removed him from the directorate of KCIA. This move deprived Yangzee of its biggest stakeholder, and favoured the sudden dissolution of the team, made official on March 17th of the same year.

But the short experience of the Secret Service team had put the basement for something bound to last. Yangzee had revolutionized the South Korean approach to football, not only training a generation of technically and tactically improved players, but also raising up trainings’ and sector investment’ standards. From that moment on, the South Korean Federation started to invest big money to keep local football on a high level, also inviting big international clubs to play in Seoul, starting from SL Benfica, which drew 1-1 against South Korean selection in September 1970. Bringing Eusebio and his teammates to Asia cost 45,000 dollars, but it was worth it. South propaganda could stress how the national selection had blocked a draw in the team that was the backbone of Portugal which had beaten North Korea four years before. In 1972, the South selection played an Asian Cup final match for the first time since 1960, losing 2-1 against Iran, but the road to becoming an Asian football big shot was now open.

Thinking points

The Korean Wars were one of the hardest conflicts of the Cold War, but nonetheless, the government of South Korea invested money and some of their most loyal men to build a football team. What does this fact tell us about the capacity of football in the propaganda context for authoritarian regimes? Is this importance different in democracies? And what about now, in a post-Cold War world? Is football, or sport in general, still so important for national or political identities? Could you bring some examples?

Find out more

The original article was written by Valerio Moggia on the Italian site Pallonate in faccia and was translated and adopted by Enrico Cavalieri. One of the sources is an article on the FIFA site, while the other one is the book by Lee Jong-sung, A history of football in North and South Korea. You can see images of the 1972 Asian Cup final between Iran and South Korea here.

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Daejeon, WC 2002, Round of 16: South Korea-Italy. Local supporters remember Italy’s defeat against North Korea (and what about political rivalry between Koreas?!).
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