The Middlesbrough women’s football team arrived in North Korea on Saturday, state media said, reviving a 44-year-old sporting link between the English town and the isolated country.
An unlikely bond was formed when North Korea beat two-time world champions Italy 1-0 in Middlesbrough at the 1966 football World Cup, creating one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the Middlesbrough team arrived in the capital Pyongyang “to have friendly matches on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the opening of diplomatic ties between the DPRK (North Korea) and UK”.
The team had been scheduled to travel to North Korea via Moscow and Beijing. The “friendship football tour” of the communist state was to end on Wednesday.
Middlesbrough’s visit was also to include dinner at the British embassy with surviving members of North Korea’s 1966 World Cup squad, who are still feted in the reclusive nation, where football is hugely popular.
Members of the 1966 North Korean squad visited Middlesbrough, in England’s northeast, in 2002.
Middlesbrough Ladies coach Marrie Wieczorek earlier said North Korean officials had invited the team to Pyongyang on a sporting and cultural exchange, during which they will play two local teams.
“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,” Wieczorek said.
The Middlesbrough players will also give training classes to schoolchildren in the impoverished North.
Wieczorek said some of the 14 players on the trip were initially concerned about heading into the unknown, but were reassured once the British embassy in Pyongyang cleared the trip.
“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.”
Nick Bonner, the director of specialist operator Koryo Tours which has backed the Middlesbrough Ladies trip, has said it was the first time a football team had visited North Korea “purely on the basis of friendship”.
North Korea took part in this year’s World Cup in South Africa for the first time since 1966, fighting hard during a 2-1 defeat to Brazil in South Africa before being routed 7-0 by Portugal and 3-0 by Ivory Coast.
FIFA said last month that it had dropped an investigation into reports that members of North Korea’s World Cup squad had been punished for their poor performance once they returned home.
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