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Middlesbrough ladies head for North Korea

By Ayesha Durgahee, Tom McGowan CNN
  • The Middlesbrough ladies football team are to embark on a tour of North Korea
  • North Korea famously beat Italy in Middlesbrough at the 1966 World Cup
  • Women's football is very popular in North Korea, and their team is ranked fifth in the world

(CNN) -- Middlesbrough might not be a name that resonates around the footballing world, but there is one corner of Asia which will always have a special place for the club in its heart.

Under the regime of Kim Jong Il, the nation of North Korea has become almost impenetrable to visitors from the rest of the world, however, the Middlesbrough Ladies football team have been presented with a unique opportunity.

By invitation of the North Korean government, the team have been invited to take part in "a football and cultural exchange," which will make them the first British team to ever play in the republic.

The squad of 14, who arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday, will play two friendly matches against local teams and also hold training sessions with school children.

Marrie Wieczorek, coach and manager of the team said: "Nobody gets an invite really that I've heard, to go to North Korea, certainly not to play football and plus the fact that we're not just going there as tourists, we're going there as invited guests. It's fantastic.

"I don't think a lot of people clicked on [but] over the last couple of weeks we've been saying 'We're going to North Korea' and they go 'Yeah, yeah' as if we're going to Alicante. Now they say 'My God, North Korea? Wow! What an opportunity."

Video: UK football squad to visit N. Korea

The people of Middlesbrough are intrigued by the team's trip, due to a special relationship between the north-east town of England and the Asian nation.

The bond between them is all because of one goal scored in 1966, at Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park stadium.

The goal came in North Korea's match against Italy, when the World Cup debutants stunned the football world by beating European giants Italy thanks to a solitary Pak Doo Ik strike.

"I was actually at the match in July 1966, where North Korea against all the odds beat Italy and sent Italy home in disgrace," said Wieczorek.

Chris Raistrick, 68, who is retired but works as a local football referee, came over to Marrie just before her interview with CNN and said, "I wish it were me going! I wish I could swap places with you," he beamed clasping her hands in his. "They are such lovely people."

Chris still has his World Cup program and his ticket stub from the Italy-North Korea game.

"The Koreans just won the hearts of Teesiders [those resident in Middlesbrough]," said Raistrick. "You've got to remember that in 1966, the Korean War had only been over 13 years - technically we were still at war with them because we'd never signed a peace treaty.

The Koreans just won the hearts of Teesiders.
--Chris Raistrick

"I remember questions in the houses of parliament about the Korean flag being flown above the town hall in Middlesbrough - and it eventually was.

"But the Koreans [were liked] because of the way they played football and just the delightful way that they interacted with the local community - they went and had kick-arounds with primary school children, and went into Marks and Spencers [a local supermarket]."

Forty-four years later, Middlesbrough still resonates with North Korea as a place where one of the country's greatest sporting achievements took place. North Korea is fanatical about football, especially their women's league.

Women's football is more popular and more successful than men's - the women's national team is ranked fifth in the world. So it makes sense the Middlesbrough Ladies team got an invite.

Wieczorek and her girls will be the first British football team to play on North Korean soil; and will be among a select few to have gained a rare insight to the country.

"We know very little about it -- North Korea, it's a closed book. I do envy Marrie and her team. I would just love to go with them - what an experience that would be, just to see behind the bamboo curtain, to use a cliché," added Raistrick.