MIDDLESBROUGH, England – Middlesbrough Ladies will become the first British soccer team to visit North Korea, strengthening the town's long-standing relationship with the isolated Asian country that dates back 44 years.
Fourteen players and three coaches, led by manager Marrie Wieczorek, will fly in to Pyongyang on Saturday for a four-night stay in the North Korean capital. The team will play two matches and hold coaching clinics for children.
The origins of the links between North Korea and the town in northeast England date to the World Cup in 1966, when Middlesbrough hosted the country's three group games. The players received a warm welcome from the locals, who adopted North Korea as their second team.
Surviving members of the 1966 squad, who returned to Britain to visit Middlesbrough in October 2002, will meet the British women's team during the tour, which was arranged following an invitation by the British Embassy in Pyongyang.
"I know North Korea is shrouded in mystery for many people in the U.K., but I get the impression that the Koreans will be wonderful hosts," said Wieczorek, a former England national player. "The trip is very much about friendship and is evidence of football's power to break down cultural barriers."
North Korea, a country with little contact with the outside world, played in the World Cup in South Africa, losing all three games in a tough group that also included Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast.
It was the country's second appearance on soccer's biggest stage. In 1966, the Koreans caused one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history by beating Italy 1-0 to reach the quarterfinals.
The scorer of that winning goal, Pak Do Ik, will be one of the former players receiving Middlesbrough Ladies, who fly out on Thursday to Beijing — via Moscow — before completing the journey to Pyongyang two days later.
"Everyone is so excited about the trip," Wieczorek said. "It's such a fantastic opportunity for all of us to visit a country that we could never have imagined getting to see."