To this day it is considered the greatest upset in World Cup history. In 1966, a single goal defeated the Italians, the world’s most highly regarded and paid soccer players. The team returned to their home country only to be pelted by eggs and tomatoes from the rabid fans. And the winning goal came from a team considered to be 1,000-to-1 out- siders when they arrived in England: North Korea. Galvanised with pro-Korea fervour, 3,000 fans from the working- class host city of Middlesborough followed the North Korean players to Liverpool to lend them support in their match against Portugal. But the dream ended when the team was outclassed by Portugal’s all-time great player, Eusebio, who scored four consecutive goals, after the North Koreans had scored three.
More than 35 years after the fact, a British film crew entered North Korea to track down this world-class team, unheard from in the Western world for decades. The Game of Their Lives is a rousing snapshot of cultural history past and present with broad appeal. British director and soccer fan Dan Gordon spent more than four years in negotiation with the North Korean government for permission to enter the country and film the present-day conditions that the former champions live in. Together with footage of the original matches, shot by North Korean camera crews, and interviews with the surviving players, Gordon recreates the national feeling of triumph that the players experienced, but also their surreal journey, staying in a country ideologically opposed to their own nation but being wildly and inexplicably embraced by their hosts. It was considered a controversial decision to let the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) enter the World Cup, as allies of South Korea feared offending it by recognizing its enemy as a nation.
More than just a sports film about the rise of an underdog team, The Game of Their Lives offers a rare human view of life in North Korea, against the backdrop of sentimental memories. Plus, the documentary puts to rest the rumour, possibly created by Cold War propagandists, that the players where sent to labour camps on their return, accused of “throwing” the game against Portugal.