FROM SHEFFIELD TO NORTH KOREA, AND BEYOND...
The fax machine’s piercing tone jolted me from my slumber. My weary eyes tried to focus on the my wristwatch. It was one in the morning. Two shrill, intense rings, brought me round. And then a click. I knew what that meant and ran upstairs. Steep stairs they were, too. This was a Victorian terrace in Sheffield. I took the steps two at a time. No time to lose. As I reached my home office - recently painted in blue and white, a tribute to my football team Sheffield Wednesday - the fax began to whirr into life.
It was August 2001, and the incoming message was arriving from a place so far removed from my hometown it might as well have come from the moon.
This was no ordinary fax. It was from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Often shortened to DPRK. And more commonly known in the west as North Korea.
This was pre-9.11, pre-Axis-of-Evil, pre Team America.
But a fax from North Korea - in itself surreal yet in this context game changing - was delivering the news I had worked towards for four years.
Four years. That’s how long the negotiations with the North Koreans had been going (my conduit to the North Koreans was a man called Nick Bonner, Beijing based, a fellow Englishman, co-founder of Koryo Tours, maverick, madman, future godfather to my first born...more of him later...)
Why did I devote four years to these endless, seemingly forlorn negotiations with faceless North Koreans who I’d never met and didn’t know? Simple. Because I wanted to fulfill a lifetime ambition to interview their legendary World Cup team from 1966.
These North Korean footballers were my childhood heroes. I wasn’t even born when they played but if you’re a fanatical football fan or from the north of England - and I was both - then you knew the legend of the little men who arrived in Middlesbrough in July 1966 as enemies and departed three weeks later as never to be forgotten heroes.
This fax, this soft, glossy paper, fading away almost as it printed, would tell me whether those years had finally borne fruit or whether I would once again be thrown despairingly back to the drawing board.
It was coming through. And as I already knew from experience, faxes come through from North Korea slowly. Very slowly. I began to read. It was from the Korean Film Export Import Company (I never figured out what they imported or exported but as I would discover they were absolutely true film people).
“Dear Mr Gordon,
"We are pleased to confirm that the players you will be interviewing for the documentary ‘The Game of Their Lives’ about the players of the 8th World Cup will be as follows:”
Deep breath. The fax kept chugging out. Very. Very. Slowly. Who would make this list? It had to be Pak Do Ik. He scored the winner in the famous 1-0 victory over Italy. I didn’t even know if he was still alive, though I had heard rumours he was and at one time was the national team manager.
“Pak Do Ik (number 7)”.
Get in! The main man. The big cheese. The player whose goal was heard around the world. But who else? Maybe one or two more maximum? But even if that was it, I had Pak Do Ik, that was all I needed.
“Ri Chan Myong (number 1)” it continued. The Korean Cat! An amazing goalkeeper, especially for one so small. Fantastic!
“Rim Jung Son (number 5)” Defender and mainstay of the side.
“Im Seung Hwi” (number 6)” What we would describe as a cultured midfielder.
“Pak Sung Jin (number 8)” Scored two absolute crackers, one against Chile, one against Portugal.
“Han Bong Jin (number 11)” Nippy winger. What a character he turned out to be.
“Yang Song Guk (number 15)” Another winger. Drafted in for the Italy match and scored against Portugal.
“Myong Rye Hyon (coach)” Wow, what would he be like? How had he learnt about football when his country lay flattened 13 years before the World Cup, following three years of bombing in the Korean War?
“There are more people we wish for you to meet during your stay but these are the surviving players from the game against Italy in 1966. We look forward to receiving you in October.”
"Blimey,” I shouted. Actually it wasn’t blimey. It rhymed with cluck and began with ‘F’. And it was screamed out loud.
“We’ve got them all!” I carried on to myself, quieter this time, taking in the enormity of the news. “Every man alive.”
My heart began to pound. Faster and faster.
I was going in. I was being allowed into a closed world. A place known for so long as ‘The Hermit Kingdom’. North Korea - a country where no one in their right mind would go.
No one but a mad football fan with an obsession about a team whose greatest moment came six years before he was born.
I had no idea what lay ahead, but I also had no idea that what I experienced next would change my life forever...