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Former Bayern Munich coach Pal Csernai dies at 80

September 2, 2013

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Pal Csernai, a Hungarian who coached Bayern Munich to a couple of Bundesliga titles in the early 1980s and later led North Korea’s national team, has died. He was 80.

Csernai died Sunday after an undisclosed illness according to Bayern and the Hungarian Football Federation, who both announced his death Monday.

“FC Bayern expresses deepest sympathy and condolences to Csernai’s family and friends and will always honor his memory,” the club said on its website.

Csernai was a midfielder and played briefly for Hungary before defecting in 1955, at age 22, while his homeland was under communist rule.

“I yearned for freedom, for a chance to get away from the oppression of the communist regime,” Csernai told The Associated Press in an interview in 2010. “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 coached 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, Csernai said.

“For them it wasn’t just simple game, it was politics,” Csernai 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 just once a week and armed police watched over team practice sessions. When choosing the squad for the match against the U.S., he had to give up two of the 18 places for members of the secret police.

North Korea was successful in part thanks to Csernai’s “Pal System,” a zone defense he perfected during his years at Bayern Munich.

North Korea compiled a 7-1 record in early qualifying matches for the 1994 World Cup, but lost its last match to South Korea 3-0 and failed to advance to the tournament held in the U.S.

Despite the defeat, the North Koreans 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,” Csernai said about his reasons for turning down an extension. “The chapter of Asian football in my life was closed for good.”

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