The unlikely sporting link between English town Middlesbrough and North Korea will be renewed this week when a team of women soccer players head off into the unknown for a week-long visit.
Middlesbrough Ladies have been invited to play two matches in Pyongyang against local club sides with team manager Marrie Wieczorek expecting her players to make a bigger stir there than they do back home on England’s north-east coast.
“At home we get crowds of 30 or 40, and they’re all family, but from what I’ve heard we could be playing in a stadium that holds 35,000. Pride is a huge thing in North Korea and I expect that my girls will be playing in front of more fans than they would have ever experienced before,” Wieczorek said.
“I’m sure they will treat our visit as a showcase occasion to the outside world. It’s going to be a culture shock for the girls. I imagine that their pride in their country means they will be really up for our visit and trying hard to win,” she said.
North Korea and Middlesbrough have been inexorably linked since 1966 when the North Koreans famously beat Italy during the World Cup finals at the club’s former Ayresome Park stadium.
“You don’t hear much about Middlesbrough in this country. But in North Korea it’s linked with one of their greatest sporting moments,” Wieczorek said. “I think it’s the only reason we are being invited into the country because of our links with North Korea. I’ve heard from the British Embassy that the people in the North Korea Ministry of Sport speak very warmly of Middlesbrough.”
While in Pyongyang Middlesbrough’s players, aged between 17 and 25, and coaching staff will meet the surviving members of the 1966 squad, including Pak Do-ik, the scorer of the winning goal against Italy. They will also coach schoolchildren.
“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. 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,” Wieczorek said.
A few local rules will have to be obeyed, though.
“When we told the girls that their mobile phones will be confiscated their jaws dropped,” she said.