Love Letters to the European Union: Sunday is Gloomy

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. Today we splitting the history of Hungary apart, as we look at the Mighty Magyars’ finest moment, and paint the portrait of a player who was never able to show his genius in the national team. Stock up your cupboards, because here comes Hungary. 


The Player: Laszlo Kubala


Though born and raised in Budapest, Laszlo Kubala never truly felt Hungarian. His mother and father came from mixed heritage backgrounds, with Polish and Slovak ancestors, and rather than a fierce patriot, Kubala considered himself cosmopolitan. By the age of nineteen, the intrepid forward had already left his native Hungary, having impressed during the early stages of his career at Ganz TE and Ferencvaros, moving to Slovan Bratislava in Czechoslovakia. Two years later, having made his international debut for his adopted home and married the sister of Czech national team manager Ferdinand Daučík, Kubala returned to Hungary with Vasas. Alongside his obvious keen eye for goal, the youngster had already earned a reputation for shirking responsibility, with the evasion of military service the prime motivation for his spate of border-hopping. It was during his spell with the Iron Workers that the 21 year old earned three caps for Hungary, though dramatic changes in the political landscape would prevent him representing the Magyars again.

In 1949, months after returning to his homeland, Kubala was on the move again, as Hungary ushered in the Stalinist Era. While thousands of his countrymen were purged for their resistance to the new regime, Hungary’s bright footballing prospect was travelling west to escape the violent repression. Eventually arriving in Italy, Kubala spent a season with Pro Patria and his obvious talent led to an invitation from Il Grande Torino, the dominant force in Serie A, to participate in an exhibition match against Benfica in Lisbon. Days before he was due to travel, Kubala’s wife Anna arrived in Italy with their infant son, having swam across the Danube to escape the Hungarian authorities. With his son Branko taken seriously ill, Kubala informed the Torino coaching team that he would be unable to travel to Portugal. It would prove to be a fateful turn of events as, on returning from the match, the plane carrying the Torino team crashed into the Superga hill, instantly killing all thirty-one passengers.

At the end of the 1949/50 season, having scored nine goals in sixteen appearances for Pro Patria, Kubala was handed a one-year ban from football by FIFA, following a complaint of desertion from the Hungarian FA. In a defiant move, the striker set up the Hungaria football team alongside brother-in-law Daučík, enlisting fellow political refugees from Eastern Europe. A tour of Spain followed – another moment of serendipity – and alongside his talent on the pitch, the tall, fair and handsome Kubala was scouted for a role off it, eventually starring on-screen alongside Daučík in the Franco propaganda vehicle The Stars Search for Peace.

A tug-of-war for Kubala’s signature then followed between Spain’s two biggest clubs, as Real Madrid legend Santiago Bernabeu and Barcelona chief scout Josep Samitier battled it out to secure the Hungarian’s services. In the end, the Blaugrana sealed the deal by promising to install Daučík as head coach. It was in Catalonia that Kubala would finally blossom into one of Europe’s most feared frontmen. He was forced to wait a year to make his full debut, courtesy of FIFA, but in his first season it became clear that Barcelona had signed a special talent. In his first full season at the Les Corts, the club’s former home, Kubala fired his new team to an unprecedented five trophies, and set a La Liga first for most goals in a match with his incredible seven-goal haul against Sporting Gijon – a  record that still stands today. A muscular, powerful bull of a footballer, Kubala’s physical presence was matched only by his innovation. In Spain he revolutionised the role of the striker.

Across ten years at Barcelona, Kubala scored a remarkable 131 goals in 181 appearances, winning four La Liga titles, five Copa Generalisimos, and two Inter-City Fairs cups. His longest spell as an international came following his adoption of Spanish nationality, with 19 caps for La Roja producing 11 goals. A brief, unsuccessful stint in the dugout at the Camp Nou was followed by player-manager roles at Espanyol and FC Zurich, before a swansong at Toronto Falcons saw him team up with son Branko under the management of Daučík.

After his playing retirement, Kubala continued his nomadic career, managing in Canada, Saudi Arabia and Paraguay, and taking Spain to their first World Cup finals for eleven years in 1978. For the Blaugrana’s centenary celebrations in 1999, the Hungarian was voted the club’s greatest ever player. Born in Budapest but made in Barcelona, Laszlo Kubala was the original citizen of Europe.


The Game: Hungary 4-2 Brazil, 1954


Before the Tiki-Taka of Pep Guardiola and Spain, and the Total Football of Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands, and even O Jogo Bonito of Pele and Brazil, there was Gusztav Sebes’ Golden Team. In the 1950s, Hungary’s Mighty Magyars were the greatest football team the world had ever seen. Before becoming head coach, Sebes had enjoyed a career as a trade union leader in Budapest and Paris, alongside playing football for local sides Club Olympique Billancourt and MTK Hungaria. Having been appointed to a three man committee in charge of picking the national team, Sebes was given complete control in 1949, and quickly set about changing the landscape of international football.

His experience of encouraging unity in the workforce and fighting for the rights of the working man were inspirational to his coaching methods, as he introduced the idea of Socialist Football into the Hungary squad. Essentially a prototype for the Total Football that Dutch coach Rinus Michels would later implement at Ajax, Socialist Football relied on all ten outfield players working as a unit. When one player attacked, everyone went forward. If the team needed to defend, then all eleven men would get behind the ball. The community spirit fostered by this team-ethic gave the Hungary national team the feel of a football club, and Sebes harnessed this by arranging regular meet-ups with his squad.

Alongside his revolutionary fitness regime and focus on game management, Sebes was also a tactical innovator. During an era in which Herbert Champman’s WM formation was de rigeur, Hungary’s manager introduced the 2-3-3-2 formation, and created the ‘deep-lying forward’ role. This allowed the central striker to efficiently drop into midfield and contribute defensively where necessary.

Of course, tactics can only get a manager so far, and it was Sebes’ infinite fortune that Hungary were producing a clutch of once-in-a-generation players all at the same time. In goal was Budapest Honved’ Gyula Grosics, credited as the inventor of the sweeper-keeper role thanks to his ability to dash out of goal and snuff out danger from the opposition. Grosics’ club-mate József Bozsik was the complete central midfielder. Though lacking pace, Bozsik possessed a breathtaking range of passing, along with a fierce tackle. Zoltán Czibor, who would go on to play for Roma and Barcelona, was a constant threat down the left wing, possessing electric pace and a powerful shot. The jewels in the Golden crown, however, were Sebes’ front-three. Nándor Hidegkuti slotted perfectly into the manager’s deep-lying forward role, able to slip devastating passes into the penalty area for his fellow strikers. Sándor Kocsis was one of the most naturally gifted goalscorers to have ever played the game, ending his career with a staggering 519 goals in 579 games for club and country. And of course, there was Ferenc Puskás.

Having opted against the 12,000 mile round trip to Brazil in 1950, the Magyars travelled to Switzerland in 1954 hoping to go one better than their appearance in the final sixteen years previous. Sebes’ side headed to the tournament as clear favourites, thanks to some beguiling performances in the years leading up to the World Cup. Having won gold at the 1952 Olympics, Hungary became the first team from outside the British Isles to come away from England with a win, after a spellbinding display at Wembley Stadium saw Hidegkuti net a hat-trick in a 6-3 victory. In the return leg, a month before the beginning of the World Cup, England travelled to Budapest looking for revenge, and were duly sent home disappointed as Puskás and Kocsis helped themselves to a brace each in a 7-1 demolition.

Given their form coming into the tournament, it was no surprise to see Hungary swat aside their opponents in the group stage, with newcomers South Korea humbled 9-0, and a curiously weakened West Germany team on the end of another Kocsis masterclass, succumbing 8-3. At the quarter-final stage, however, things would begin to get tougher, as the Hungarians were drawn to meet Brazil, second-favourites to lift the Jules Rimet, and arriving in Switzerland with their own scores to settle.

Supporters of the Selecao were still reeling from the final match four years earlier as, in a packed Maracana, underdog neighbours Uruguay shocked their hosts with two late goals to steal the World Cup from under Brazil’s noses, having seen the local papers celebrating victory before the match had even kicked off. Hardened by that bitter experience, the South Americans had set about righting the wrongs of Rio in business-like fashion, putting Mexico to the sword and earning the point against Yugoslavia that saw them through to the quarter-finals.

On a wet, overcast Sunday afternoon at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern, an entertaining match reached half-time with Hungary leading 2-1, thanks to goals from Hidegkuti and Kocsis. When Mihály Lantos converted a penalty for Sebes’ team on the hour, it looked as though the Magyars route to the semi-final would be plain sailing. Instead, it was a cue for anarchy. Firstly, seconds after Hungary’s third goal, Brazilian journalists and officials streamed onto the field in protest at the decision. The acrimony on the sidelines soon spilled onto the pitch, and thunderous tackles began to reign in from both sides. Minutes after Julinho had pulled a goal back for Brazil, Nilton Santos flew into a challenge on Boszik. The Hungarian took umbridge, and both players began throwing punches, leaving referee Arthur Ellis little choice but to send them off. Then, eight minutes later, Brazi striker Humberto kicked out at Gyula Lóránt and received his marching orders. Kocsis’ late goal secured Hungary’s place in the semi-finals, but the battle between the two sides continued after the final whistle, as the Brazilian players began brawling with their opponents in the tunnel, while their fans were back on the pitch.

Though the circumstances may have been unedifying, Hungary had shown their ability to mix silk with steel against a side that had come looking for a fight. In the semi-final, holders Uruguay were eventually beaten in extra-time, having come back from two goals down, leaving Sebes and his team one match away from World Cup glory. Two-nil up against West Germany, the magic finally ran out, and Helmut Rahn’s double sealed an incredible comeback for the outsiders. It would be the last time Hungary appeared in a World Cup final.

It’s perhaps unfair that, for everything they gave the sport, we should remember Hungary’s Golden Team for their part in one of the World Cup’s most brutal matches. It is testament, however, to the character instilled by Gusztav Sebes that, in the face of barbarism, his collection of technical wizards were able to keep their cool and let their feet do the talking.

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