Hungary’s Pal Csernai recalls 1990s stint as North Korea’s soccer coach

By Pablo Gorondi, AP
Friday, May 21, 2010

Csernai recalls 1990s North Korea coaching job

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hot water once a week, thousands of dollars kept in a bag and a politically charged win against the United States are just some of the memories Pal Csernai has from his nearly two years as coach of North Korea during the early 1990s.

While the North Koreans will make their second World Cup appearance — and first since 1966 — in South Africa next month, Csernai’s stories about the team’s thwarted attempt to qualify for the 1994 final tournament are still fascinating.

Csernai, now 77 years old and living a few steps from the Danube River in Budapest, was only 22 when he defected from Hungary in 1955 while playing for the national team in Vienna.

“I yearned for freedom, for a chance to get away from the oppression of the communist regime,” Csernai told The Associated Press. “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, who had studied mathematics and physics in Budapest and later earned a coaching diploma in Cologne, Germany, began a coaching career which peaked in the early 1980s when he led Bayern Munich to a pair of Bundesliga titles and, finally, a stint at Hertha Berlin which ended in 1991.

“I was ready to end my activities and trying to figure out how to arrange my life,” Csernai said.

Then a chance encounter at a Swiss tennis club with a businessman with ties to North Korean affairs offered an intriguing opportunity. North Korea was looking for a foreign coach to train the national team.

Despite the misgivings about North Korea’s totalitarian regime, Csernai agreed to travel to Pyongyang for a few weeks. After leading some practices with the national team and matches in Beijing, Csernai returned to Munich.

“I still wasn’t sure about the job, but the North Koreans were very insistent,” Csernai recalled, finally agreeing to a six-month contract in late 1991.

Lodged on the 15th floor of a huge hotel for athletes which only had hot water once a week, Csernai was given a personal manager, a translator and a chauffeur and the immediate challenge of putting together a team to play the United States in an unprecedented friendly match in Washington.

Csernai gathered a squad of 18 players, choosing from North Korea’s senior and Olympic teams.

“They said I had three weeks … but after two weeks they already wanted the names so they could arrange the U.S. visas,” Csernai said, remembering the deathly silence from the trainers, soccer federation officials and Korean Workers’ Party apparatchiks when he named the team.

“In the end I could only take 16 players because the other two places were for the secret police,” Csernai said, describing how armed police in civilian clothes would sit near midfield and behind the goals at every match or practice.

Unknowingly, the extra security came in handy for Csernai, who, having to get by without a more suitable arrangement after receiving his full salary in cash at the start of each contract, would carry around his many thousands of dollars inside a sports bag, keeping it in one of the goals during practices.

“I always told the goalkeeper to watch my bag but I doubt anyone ever suspected what was in it,” Csernai said.

After the 2-1 victory over the United States on Oct. 19, 1991, Csernai said he was treated as a “small god” in North Korea.

Despite arriving at night in Pyongyang from Beijing 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 simple game, it was politics,” Csernai said. “Everything changed. I transformed a scrappy, raggedy bunch into a real team.”

The improvements included “luxuries” like a new ball imported from Japan for every player, as well as new cleats and new uniforms, while he was guaranteed a room at another Pyongyang hotel with hot water every day.

The North Koreans had good physical and technical skills and the effects of Csernai’s personal touch and his “Pal System,” a zone defense he perfected during his years at Bayern Munich, helped North Korea compile a 7-1 record in 1994 World Cup preliminaries — albeit against feeble opponents such as Singapore, Qatar and Vietnam.

He also led by example, completing all the drills and exercises along with the players.

“The North Korean trainer and the assistants would sit and smoke in the stands during practices. Everyone in North Korea smokes,” Csernai said.

Playing games all over Asia also let players reap one of the most valued rewards provided by dictatorships — travel money in hard currencies.

“They were ecstatic about being able to buy foreign goods,” Csernai said, remembering his experiences with Hungary, when younger players like himself would bring back from Vienna 100 pairs of nylon stockings and a dozen Doxa watches.

“The older players would pack 500 to 600 pairs of nylons and a few hundred watches, enough to finance the construction of a new house in the 1950s,” Csernai recalled. “Before reaching Budapest, the team train would briefly stop outside the city so the goods could be secretly unloaded.”

Despite the auspicious performance during the first stage of the 1994 preliminaries, North Korea won just one of five games in the final qualifying round in Doha. Their last match was a 3-0 loss to South Korea, a result which gave their neighbors a ticket to the World Cup.

Despite the defeat, the North Koreans appeared to want Csernai to stay on as coach, but by then the not-so-subtle efforts to persuade Csernai to acquire citizenship had spooked him.

“They started dealing with me on a political level. They gave me a pamphlet describing their whole party system and the communist principles,” Csernai said. “That played a role in my return to Munich straight from Doha, without going back to North Korea. The chapter of Asian football in my life was closed for good.”

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