Michael Batson

Travel Writer

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Travelogue

Australia versus North Korea, Phnom Penh 1965 - 1 July 2020

In 1965 Cambodians witnessed one of the more unusual footballing events; World Cup playoffs on home soil not involving their own country. The two matches between Australia and North Korea were played in Cambodia as neither country had diplomatic relations with each other and Cambodia was the only country with diplomatic relations with both willing to host the event. The games were played over “home and away” in the newly completed Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, opened just the year before. The matches were watched by an estimated 115,000 spectators half of whom, on strict instructions from Cambodia's mercurial head of state Prince Sihanouk, cheered for each of the two teams.

 

This was the first ever World Cup qualifying campaign for both countries. Since then Australia has qualified for the finals five times, and North Korea twice. The matches marked Australia’s first foray into mainstream international football forging links with Asia that culminated in Football Federation Australia’s embrace of the Asia Confederation in 2006. North Korea emerged onto the world sporting stage from shattering war and famine, and went on to make history in England in 1966 being the first Asian country competing in the World Cup finals to defeat a ranked nation, Italy, before being knocked out of the competition by a Eusebio-inspired Portugal. Their exploits on the global sporting stage were later made into a film ‘The Game of Their Lives’ in 2002 by British documentary film director and author Daniel Gordon. Curiously enough, South Korea had qualified for the 1954 finals played in Switzerland where they only played two matches in a pool of four teams, conceding 16 goals—nine against the wonderful Hungarians with Puskas, and seven against Turkey—and scoring none.

The Game of Their Lives

 

Back in the 1960s qualification for the World Cup outside the powerhouse confederations of Europe and South America was difficult not to mention dysfunctional, with no direct qualification from any other continent. For teams from Africa, Asia and Oceania some were involved in group stages to decide who would playoff for the solitary place among the final 16, while others advanced into the final place playoffs. Football may promote itself as the global game, more lately the ‘Beautiful Game’ but back then it was influenced by post-colonialism and the Cold War, plus perennial sporting thorns of apartheid-era South Africa and Middle East dynamics, some still present today.

 

For the 1966 finals to be held in England, 15 African teams were to playoff in group stages to choose who would then playoff against the Asia and Oceania contenders. But all the African teams withdrew from qualifying for various reasons: unhappiness with only one spot for the Asian and African confederations, financial exigencies, and opposition to the inclusion of South Africa (then at the height of apartheid), so the African first and second rounds were cancelled.

 

The Asia-Oceania playoffs were originally scheduled as a four-team tournament between Australia, North Korea, South Africa and South Korea, to be played in Japan. Before the games began, South Africa was disqualified after being suspended by FIFA due to apartheid and South Korea were forced to withdraw due to logistical difficulties after the tournament was moved to Cambodia. South Korea also objected to North Korea even being allowed to compete and wanted conditions imposed on flags being displayed and national anthems being played. South Korea had inherited FIFA membership in 1947 while the North was an affiliate member and Britain, the host country for the finals, didn’t recognise North  Korea and didn’t want the national anthem played least it annoy their ‘allies’ South  Korea. Consequently, at the 1966 finals national anthems were only played in the opening match between the hosts England and Uruguay. In the final, which England won, the two teams had to sing their own national anthems.

 

Further complicating matters, North Korea lacked diplomatic relations with most countries and did not have a FIFA-standard venue at the time—the country was still recovering from massive US bombing during the Korean War. Australian immigration laws meant the North Korean team would be unlikely to receive visas to enter that country. As an aside, only a year later the Holt government introduced measures towards ending the long-held White Australia policy. Up stepped Prince Norodom Sihanouk, ally of North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, who allowed the matches to be played in Phnom Penh.

 

The Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh was part of the National Sports Complex designed by the famed Khmer and French-trained Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who went on to design more than 100 buildings, including monuments, breweries, royal villas and public housing projects, and some of the most iconic and beautiful buildings in Phnom Penh including the Independence Monument and the wonderful Chatomuk Theatre. But the stadium he said, was his favourite. When I first went to Cambodia there were no tall buildings around the stadium at all, so walking up the banked seating terraces to the top afforded an unobstructed view across the cityscape of Phnom Penh to palm trees and golden pagodas, but not anymore. Rampant construction of apartment blocks, much to the chagrin of the late Vann Molyann, and derision of purist visitors and residents alike, has crowded in the complex so no view is possible ever again.

 

Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium - as it was before, but not now

The stadium was inaugurated by the then Prince Norodom Sihanouk as a symbol of self-sufficiency and neutrality in post-colonial Cambodia.  The stadium and surrounding complex, were built during a period of massive urban expansion and development in the  1950s and 1960s championed by the then larger than life, Norodom Sihanouk. The complex, which comprises the 70,000-seat stadium (seating estimates vary) also includes an Olympic-sized swimming pool and indoor venue, was only finished in 1964. As many as 100,000 people are said to have attended the stadium’s inauguration and later the Games of the New Emerging Forces in 1966, which gathered the world’s “non-aligned” nations who sought Cold War neutrality for an Olympic style sports festival.  During his state visit to Cambodia in 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle, gave a famous speech at the stadium, praising Cambodia’s neutrality and calling for peace in Indochina during what was then the height of the war in Vietnam.

 

Construction was a colossal feat for the country, and part of a major construction boom during a time when Phnom Penh’s urban area doubled in size. It took a rapid-fire two years to complete and made use of 500,000 cubic metres of earthworks being shifted by traditional oxen-cart initially, until bulldozers came along. It was built to Olympic standards at break-neck speed in anticipation of the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games (now the biennial Southeast Asia Games and held every two years) in 1963. These games though were eventually awarded to Indonesia instead‚ and so the stadium was only inaugurated in 1964, but it is still referred to locally as the Olympic Stadium. The inspiration was the larger than life Sihanouk and his Sangkum Reastr Niyum or Popular Socialist Community also dubbed “Buddhist Socialism”, a socio-economic political movement championing, among other things, building projects, many of which like the National Sports Complex, were part of what became known as New Khmer Architecture. The style had many characteristics, traditional Khmer blended with Modernism, and focussed on light, movement of air, and water features. Distinctive are the many adaptations to the climate are the use of wall panels, double walls and roofs, especially the typical VM- shaped roofs, said to be so designed after Vann Molyvann’s initials, and found on many of the buildings including parts of the National Sports Complex.

 

The Australians’ preparation for the matches consisted of four weeks training in Cairns but only one practice match against local amateur side winning by a rugby score18-0. The last international match for the Australian team had been against Chelsea in May 1965. Johnny Warren, later made team captain, described the culture shock faced by the Australians on their first visit to Asia and how much they underestimated their opponents; ‘it was like landing on another planet.’ Despite this, they were confident of winning having apparently ordered 200 neck ties with ‘World Cup 1966’ imprinted alongside the Australian crest.

The Australians in Cairns - en route to Phnom Penh

 

The Australian squad of 20 players however, were largely immigrants: 7 Scots, 5 English and 5 Australians, plus an Irishman, a German and one player from South Australia, whose birthplace was unknown. Included in the playing squad was Johnny Warren, later known as Captain Socceroo for his passionate work in promoting football in a country dominated by other sporting codes. In 1967, Warren captained Australia for the first time in a match against New Zealand a game played in, of all places, Saigon. The coach was Tiko Jelisavcic, a Yugoslavian and former player at Partizan Belgrade, then a player-coach in Sydney, later he coached Nigeria for four years one of the first foreign coaches for the African giant, and where he was known as Father Tiko.

 

Meanwhile North Korea had played 35 internationals in the last three years. The Koreans were virtually a professional side and consisted of full-time players from the army drilled at their training base in Korea at the Ryongang cigarette factory. Ryongang (or “Willows’ one of the historical names for Pyongyang) is now home to the unfinished 105-story, 330-metre-tall pyramid-shaped skyscraper, and world record holder for the world’s tallest unoccupied building that dominates the North Korean capital’s skyline.

 

None of the Australian players from overseas had established themselves at the highest level, though some had a little first team experience with good club sides. Goalkeeper John Roberts was the only one of that generation to move to England and establish himself with Blackburn Rovers, Chesterfield, Bradford City and Southend United. The Australians said knew nothing about the North Koreans in 1965 and thought its football team may as well have been aliens. When the team captain, Les Scheinflug, was asked by a reporter what he knew about the Koreans, he responded succinctly: “Zilch.” Asia was also a shock, Johnny Warren said landing in Cambodia was like being on another planet.

 

For the playoffs the Australians preparation in far north tropical Queensland was grim. Scheinflug said “All we did was train. Train in the morning. Train in the afternoon in the heat.” Confined to a barracks-like hostel, there was very little to do but play cards, read books and hang out by the pool. Jelisavcic had laid down a strict policy of no drinking, no sex and no skylarking, but conspicuously exempted himself, bringing into camp his wife, a stunning blond named Seka who spent her time parading around the pool in cut-off shorts and bikini. The players wondered what was going on barred from this and from that, on heat and then looking at her. They thought her gorgeous. “Absolutely out of this world,9 out of 10, some days she was 11 out of 10.”

 

On the way to Cambodia the team stopped for a day in Bangkok. None of them had ever been to Asia and Thailand was in the genesis of R ‘n’ R for US servicemen out of Vietnam. Tiko threatened to send any player home who got intimate with any of the locals. The players thought him a hypocrite but worse was his habit of cheating at cards, which he did by taking cards from the bottom of the pack, leaving some incensed. A team meeting was called to calm everybody down. Tensions in the squad were high. Many thought Tiko an ordinary coach and putting faith in him from that point on was difficult. Some players had lost confidence and others wondered how they’d managed to get to Asia at all.

 

Australia’s national side had met Asian teams before first back in 1923, when a Chinese universities team toured Australia playing five matches. In 1928, Australia toured the then Dutch East Indies (the first Asian side to play in the World Cup finals, in 1938) playing 23 matches and in 1938 the first Asia-Australia international took place with India, most of their players preferring not to wear footwear. The so-called “Barefoot Indians” later qualified for the 1950 finals in Brazil (after Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia withdrew before the qualifying round draw) but FIFA refused to let them play without boots, so the team pulled out, a decision that still rankles with Indian fans today.

Norodom Sihanouk

 

Australia played India again at the Melbourne Olympics losing 4-2. When the embarrassed Aussies complained the win was no reflection of their respective powers, another match was organised, this time in Sydney and promptly lost 7-1. For the 1966 finals the Asia, Africa and Oceania confederations competed together in the qualification rounds. After having no teams from Africa or Asia qualifying for the previous two World Cups, FIFA decided to allocate a single spot to the winner of a four-way playoff between the winners of three African groups and the winner of the Asian zone.

 

A week before the match the Australians went to Cambodia having no idea how to prepare. Players drank the local water and ate local food and several wound up with diarrhoea. Les Scheinflug recalled “We had no idea about food intake, how to train properly, how to get there, how long before you should go to Phnom Penh, when you should train, how long you should train.” He reckoned he lost about 10kgs in the lead-up to the first match and said there was always a fight with your roommate to commandeer the toilet. The Koreans by comparison, prepared exceptionally well and had much better squad unity, having played together for over two years as an army team. North Koreans are still present in Phnom Penh, Cambodia being their oldest ally in the region. The North Korean Embassy is next door to the Cambodians prime minister’s house on Norodom Boulevard, though his allegiance is with Beijing. There are official North Korean “hard currency” restaurants and the late Prince Sihanouk moved about with a phalanx of Korean “granite-faced” bodyguards.

 

The Australians stayed at the Hotel Le Royal in the old colonial quarter. The hotel was then Phnom Penh’s finest, home to the famous Elephant Bar. Guests had included Charlie Chaplin and later Charles de Gaulle (1966) and Jackie Kennedy (in 1967). Later, from 1970-75 it was home to the foreign press corps during Cambodia’s bloody civil war. The Cambodians put on a lavish reception bestowing upon them the freedom of the city, giving them a tour and full civic reception from the governor with all “the bells and whistles”. Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s head of state and chief orchestrator, hosted both teams at the Royal Palace for an official dinner and a performance of the Royal Corps de Ballet. The Koreans — well drilled, focused and continent — were thinking only of the upcoming qualifiers whereas the Australians were trying to figure out what was on their plates, for all 18 courses.

The Australian team bus in Cambodia 'another planet'

 

Australian training sessions were scheduled for 7am but most players were too sick to get out of bed before 10. They thought they had enough skill to have won the playoffs but said fitness let them down, along with a lack of competitive matches. The Koreans were fitter, sharper on the ball and skilful. Before the first game the Australians watched the Koreans at training playing nine-a-side. The Koreans were taking it easy whereas the Australians having only 20 in the squad roped in two Cambodians to make up the numbers for full team training. As Tiko hadn’t picked his first team, everyone played out of their skins wanting to make a good impression. In those temperatures, with players already suffering from the conditions and maladies, it was draining.

 

The matches were played on the 21 and 24 November 1965, the cool season heading into ‘winter’ in Mekong Southeast Asia. Australia lost the first match 6-1 and the second 3-1. If Australia had won the second match, there would have been a play-off, because goal difference did not count in those days. Les Scheinflug scored both the Australia's goals, one was a penalty. For the Koreans Pak Seung-zin, a midfielder, was top scorer with three goals. He went on to score against Chile and Portugal in the finals in England, becoming the first Asian player to score in the World Cup finals. Han Bong-zin scored twice in the first game, and Kin Seung-il scored a brace in the second match. Two days later on 26 November, Australia fought out a goalless draw in a match against the host country Cambodia, followed by matches against Hong Kong and then Taiwan in Hong Kong and two matches in early December against Malaysia. All up the results showed Australia won 3, draw 1 and lost 3, including the two that mattered, the World Cup qualifiers. They would have to await until 1974 for their first qualification for a World Cup finals. North Korea waited another 44 years, until they qualified for the tournament in South Africa.

 

Two years later, under a new manager, an altogether different national team with the ungainly nickname of the “Socceroos” was invited to return to Southeast Asia, this time to play in the eight-team Vietnam National Day tournament in Saigon. They found themselves playing in a war zone with army and police protection to and from a game with the sirens blaring. Before the matches, which were played against all the US allies fighting in Vietnam, soldiers swept the pitch for mines, in the background there was the sound of mortars going off, and at training balls sent over the fence had to be left as they landed in a minefield. The then team captain Johnny Warren later wrote, we realised “how the team had been blindly steered into helping the war effort" South Vietnam was, commented one player, “by far the worst place anyone could have gone to in 1967.” But the heat, the monsoon, the food, the pitch and the general conditions, the Australians thought they handled better after their time in Cambodia.

 

North Korea went on to make their World Cup debut, the only team based in the northern English city of Middlesbrough, their games played at Ayresome Park. They arrived by train from London, singing patriotic songs at full volume, which bemused their fellow passengers. As they couldn’t speak a word of English and played in red, the same colour as Middlesbrough FC at whose ground they played their three group stage matches, the locals warmed to them.  They won many plaudits for their technical ability and breathless all-out attacking style. Game plans were modelled it was said, on the spirit of Chollima, a mythical winged horse which can leap 150 miles in the air and serves as a symbol of North Korea's revolutionary spirit (North  Korea is full of statues and there’s a 46m statue of a Chollima, the symbol which rebuilt the country after the war, in Pyongyang) . When they scored against Italy the whole ground erupted prompting one local journalist to comment "they never cheer Middlesbrough like this." For their next match in the knockout stage, 3,000 fans from Middlesbrough travelled to Liverpool to cheer them on.

 

Ayresome Park is now a housing estate. The exact spot from where Pak Do-ik struck the shot which consigned Italy to a 1-0 group stage defeat marked by a bronze cast of an imprint of a football boot. North Korea’s World Cup journey eventually ended at Goodison Park, home of Everton, but it began at Olympic Stadium.

 

Highlights of the 1965 matches between Australia and North Korea can be found here:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlD2FNlcClg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5Fk9EpWnBs

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