n July 19, 1966, Italy faced lowly North Korea for a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals. At the time, Italy was enjoying the fruits of an economic boom that had reversed the country’s 1950s misfortunes. A nation of postwar bicycles had become a nation of cars. A middle class was entrenched and growing. Patriotism was in vogue for the first time since the collapse of Fascism, long a stain on the Italian national conscience.
The team took to England for the eighth World Cup, like Brazil’s in the 2014 Cup, was far from superb. Yet its group, including Soviet Union, Chile and North Korea, seemed manageable, with the latter an isolated state that had done recent Cold War battle with the United States and whose sporting innards were virtually unknown to the West.
The Italian team included Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola, and Giacomo Bulgarelli, all supremely talented. The Italians defeated Chile, lost to the Soviets, and needed only a draw with the Koreans to face Portugal, a team well within Italy’s tactical grasp, or West Germany, a far tougher nut. Yet advancement was a given. Italy would be up against look-alike Asians called Pak and Kim, mocked as Lilliputians in the naïvely racist Italian press.
Though Italy was new to the mass use of television, which still broadcast only in black and white, a few urban households acquired sets specifically to follow the Cup, transmitted for the first time throughout Europe. Those without them simply listened on the radio. The game was played on a Tuesday evening at tiny Ayresome Park in Middelsbrough and began at 7:30 p.m. in Italy.
Italy attacked from the start but misfired repeatedly. Thirty minutes into the game it lost Bulgarelli to injury. The 1966 version of the game was harsher than today’s and permitted no substitutions. Italy was down to 10 men.
Before leaving North Korea, team players had met reclusive leader Kim il-Sung, a rare honor. “European and South American nations dominate international football,” he told one of them. “As representatives of the Asian and African region, as colored people, I urge you to win one or two matches.”
In the 42nd minute, stunningly, 24-year-old Pak Doo-Ik was gifted the ball and lashed it past goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi. North Korea nearly added a second goal and held off intense Italian second-half pressure to preserve a 1-0 victory. Italy was out of the World Cup.
No, the final score was not 7-1, the tally a powerful German team recently inflicted on a modest Brazilian one; and no, it was not the semifinal and it was not played at home (though Italy would suffer its own home indignity in the 1990 World Cup, eliminated by Argentina in the semifinals played in Naples, a city divided between affection for Italy and loyalty to Argentine Diego Maradona, who starred for home club Napoli).
Still, the implications of the defeat went beyond simple mortification. It jolted the Italian mood so deeply that the phrase una corea — “a Korea” — entered Italian jargon as a synonym for humiliation. Returning to Italy, players were pelted with garbage. The coaching staff was fired. Italy had not only lost, but also lost to an inferior team if not an inferior race, unsettling the national sense of self. Not even the play of the Koreans against Portugal — they went ahead 3-0 before losing 5-3 — erased Italian revulsion. In fact, it would take half-a-century before Italian media stopped constantly referring back to the game as a way of further insulting poor performances. The collective disgrace — partly the result of the unexpected, which no one likes, least of all soccer fans — shook the already cynical ego of too many Italian men.
There will be no consoling Brazil or Brazilians after their own July humiliation, destined to become its own lodestone. These days, European nations, spoiled by affluence, are now quicker to put sporting setbacks behind them, with some fans more likely to say, “Anything can happen,” a view that fatalists still replace with, “We must win or we all lose.”
Not so Brazil, where fatalism remains a way of life. Like Italy of the mid-1960s, Brazil is coming into its own as an economic power. Yet the country remains strikingly poor. Passion is funneled jointly into social protest and national team support, as it was during much of the postwar in southern Europe. The Brazilian team is the nation in spirit, or intended to be, just as the Italian team was in its day.
Going into the North Korea game, Italy boasted assumptions of superiority that gave fans and citizens a sense of reassurance (among Western countries only the United States requires no such reassurance, which it generates instead from within). Italy’s loss decimated such reassurance, yielding a self-loathing that would be ripened further by Italy’s heavy defeat, 4-1, in the 1970 final against Brazil.
The United States is a vast territory whose allegiances to local teams outstrip its national pledge, which gains steam only during international competitions and the Olympics. It knows losing — in 2014, the U.S. team was eliminated in the round of 16 — but not losing as a humiliation. Its confident patriotism outstrips even sports.
Brazil, in contrast, had one indisputable national treasure: its decorated and revered soccer team. The myth of that team’s holiness has now been dismantled, and it happened with billions looking on. The damage can’t be fixed. Instead, like una corea, the loss to Germany will enter the dark side of national legend, for the future to parse.