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Pal Csernai: Title-winning coach of Bayern Munich


Pal Csernai, who died on 1 September at the age of 80, coached Bayern Munich to two Bundesliga titles in the early 1980s and later led North Korea's national side. Csernai was a midfielder and played briefly for Hungary before defecting in 1955, at the age of 22.

"I yearned for freedom, for a chance to get away from the oppression of the communist regime," he recalled. "It was a big risk at such a young age but I knew I had to try."

After retiring as a player in 1964, Csernai earned a coaching diploma in Germany and worked there and in Belgium before taking charge of Bayern between 1978 and 1983. Later, he also coached in teams in Greece and Portugal, among other countries.

After he took over North Korea, the team earned a politically charged 2-1 victory over the United States in 1991 in a friendly in Washington, D.C. After the victory, Csernai said, he was treated as a "small god" in North Korea.

Despite arriving at night in Pyongyang on a military plane, "the airport was lit like it was daytime," and long lines of children with flowers and heaps of politicians welcomed the team home.

"For them it wasn't just a simple game, it was politics," he said. "I transformed a scrappy, raggedy bunch into a real team."

His time in North Korea was challenging – he was initially put in a hotel where hot water flowed once a week and armed police watched over team practice sessions. When choosing the squad for the match against the US, he had to give up two of the 18 places for members of the secret police.

North Korea were successful in part thanks to Csernai's "Pal System," a system of zonal defence he had perfected during his years at Bayern Munich. They North Korea compiled a 7-1 record in early qualifying matches for the 1994 World Cup, but lost their last match to South Korea 3-0 and failed to advance to the finals tournament held in the US.

Despite the defeat, the North Korean authorities appeared to want Csernai to stay on as coach, but he said he was uncomfortable with their efforts to have him acquire North Korean citizenship and he never returned.

"They gave me a pamphlet describing their whole party system and the communist principles," he said about his reasons for turning down an extension. "The chapter of Asian football in my life was closed for good."