Kamamoto and Pak Doo-Ik: We can be heroes

KUNISHIGE Kamamoto and Pak Doo-Ik are footballing legends in Japan and North Korea respectively. On April 15, Japanese football fans may raise a glass of Sake to a player that many still believe to be the finest forward ever produced by Japan. It will be Kamamoto’s 79th birthday. Pak Doo-Ik also celebrated his birthday recently, he was 79 in December 2022.

Both players made an impact on the world stage. Kamamoto was the leading scorer in the 1968 Olympic Games football tournament as Japan won the bronze medal in Mexico. Pak Doo-Ik scored a memorable goal in the 1966 World Cup in England, sending Italy to an embarrassing defeat at the hands of unknown and unfancied North Korea.

These Asian icons have led contrasting lives. Kamamoto has lived in a post-playing world of politics and sports administration, Pak Doo-Ik has been hailed as a hero and villain before finally being recognised for his part in a genuine sporting miracle.

It’s debatable whether Kamamoto would have stayed in Japan for his entire career had the game been more global in his hey-day. He would certainly have been more well known in the 1960s and 1970s had more news filtered back from Japan across the football world. He played for Yanmar Diesel, the forerunner of Cerezo Osaka, for most of his long career, topping the goalscoring charts more than half a dozen times in Japan. His international record was beyond compare in the region, scoring almost a goal a game in his 80-plus games for his country. When he finally stopped playing, his farewell was graced by the likes of the great Pele.

After his spectacular 1968 Olympics, seven goals including a hat-trick against Nigeria and the two goals that earned Japan a 2-0 win against Mexico in the third place play-off, Kamamoto was singled out as a player to watch in the 1970 World Cup. But Japan didn’t get to Mexico 70, losing out in a group that featured South Korea and Australia. Kamamoto would never get the chance to build his legend outside of his own country.

He was recognised, however. When Arsenal visited Japan in 1968, Kamamoto scored a goal and won admirers, standing out in a series of games called the “Anglo-Japanese Football Matches”. Three years later, Tottenham Hotspur followed their North London neighbours to the Far East.

By this time, poor old Corporal (later Sgt.) Pak Doo-Ik was experiencing how life in a Democratic Republic can turn against you (any nation with those words in its title is rarely democratic). Initially hailed as heroes after their exploits in England in 1966, the North Korean squad was “punished” for throwing away a three-goal lead against Eusebio’s Portugal in the World Cup quarter-finals. They were “psychologically re-evaluated and re-educated” for letting their nation down. If it all sounds a little James Bond, you’re not far wrong.

Pak Doo-Ik, while being named an “Athlete of the People” was also expelled to a    North Korean backwater to work as a forest labourer for 10 years. It makes you wonder what the party would have done to the likes of Albertosi, Mazzola and Rivera of Italy – they lost to North Korea and only had to contend with rotten tomatoes.

At last someone saw sense, or considered that Pak Doo-Ik had served his time in the woods, and by 1976, he was coach of the North Korean Olympic football team in Montreal. It was short-lived, but at least he wasn’t a lumberjack anymore.

In many ways, Pak Doo-Ik became a cult hero. His goal, well-taken, but not spectacular, had a major impact on Italian football: it reminded greengrocers to stock up on tomatoes around World Cup time; it changed the Italians’ view on foreign imports (cited as one of the reasons why they had a miserable 1966); and it gave the World Cup one of its most romantic stories. It was good to see him running with the Olympic torch in 2008.

As for Kamamoto, it was only when I was researching this piece that I realised I saw him play for Japan in Copenhagen in July 1971. He scored but Denmark won 3-2. Little did I know…

Kamamoto and Pak Doo-Ik: Two fine old men of the global game we all love.

One thought on “Kamamoto and Pak Doo-Ik: We can be heroes

  1. Splendid that these two heroes of Asian and world football are celebrated here.
    Times are different now – but it’s important that these icons are remembered.
    North Korea beating the Italy of that period remains one of the great international giant killings.

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