It’s 1949 and László Kubala is sitting in the back of a truck, speeding away from the Budapest and the country of his birth under cover of night.
It’s not the first time he’s had to escape to a foreign land. Two years previously he’d decamped from Hungary to Czechoslovakia to play for Slovan Bratislava and avoid military service. A year after that he’d returned to complete it and play for SC Vasas.
But his stay with the Budapest club is brief – around 20 games – and now The West is calling. Kubala’s mind takes him far away from the Soviet-backed regime at home. He yearns for something different. And so he’s in this truck, headed for Austria and an escape from the Iron Curtain.
The odd thing about the bust that stands in the grounds of the Illovszky Rudolf Stadion (which will again be Vasas’s home once construction is complete) is why it’s there at all. Why bother commemorating a one-season wonder who not only left the club, but the entire country behind, burning all his bridges at once?
Because it’s László Kubala, and if he played for your team – even for just 20 games – you’d shout it from the rooftops too.
The name may not be as instantly familiar as Puskas or Kocsis. Kubala was not one of the Magnificent Magyars who demolished England in ’53 and ’54 (he was long gone by then), but in many places he’s a legend – THE legend – and the measuring stick for all who came after.
Difficult to believe? In 1999 Barcelona fans voted him the best player to ever play for their club. The fans that saw Stoichkov, Maradona, Romario, …that saw Cruyff and the other other Hungarian, Kocsis – those fans, after all those years had dulled the memories and replaced them with newer ones of more famous and flamboyant and impetuous players – still voted Kubala as their greatest.
He excelled early. A man of many backgrounds (he euphemistically referred to himself as “cosmopolitan”), Kubala was playing for Ferencváros and the Czech national team by the age of 18. Despite his age he averaged more than a goal every other game for both. By 21 he was playing for Vasas and had switched his allegiance – briefly – back to Hungary, winning 3 caps in 1948. He scored 10 in 20 for Vasas in what was otherwise a largely forgettable season and was a player the club wanted to build a team around.
But then, the back of the truck, speeding towards Austria and The West. The last few tortuous miles were walked on foot as Kubala and his companions were forced to abandon their ride. Favours were called in, bribes dished out, there was no turning back.
And this is where it gets complicated. Because in escaping one repressive regime, László Kubala walked right down the throat of another.
Kubala arrived at Barcelona in 1951 and immediately won the double. He tore up the Spanish league, knocking in 26 goals in his first season, including a still-intact record of 7 goals in one game (against a hapless Sporting de Gijón). More and more trophies followed, as did a call up to the Spanish national squad (Kubala’s third international team – he also went on to represent Catalonia and a European XI, as well as a Hungarian exile team – surely some sort of record). Kubala had simply walked into the team and taken over. The club even had to build a new stadium befitting of this new-found success and superstar forward. You may have heard of it. It’s called the Nou Camp.
The atmosphere at the club was fiercely political, with Barça often viewed as an unofficial bulwark against Franco’s authoritarian rule. Strikes and protests were common amongst fans of the team, who – by way of the club’s fame – had a national platform for their opposition to the government.
But Kubala was not one for policking. His priorities were football and the city’s nightlife – of which he was a notorious patron. Ironically it was perhaps because of his lack of interest in politics and desire for the good life that he was so easily utilised by the Spanish government. Kubala’s escape to Spain was portrayed as a propaganda coup for Franco, and the player’s desire for a new life was exploited to the full in The Stars Search for Peace – a biographical film in which Kubala starred as himself.
It’s not a great piece of filmmaking by any stretch; Kubala’s skills transferring unconvincingly to the silver screen and the obviousness of its message clear to see. But it was a win nonetheless for the regime, and anyway, Kubala obviously fell in love with his adopted country. Besides that, as a refugee with a young family (who had followed him out of Hungary in an equally perilous journey), he was unlikely to have been in a position to refuse any governmental media requests.
Kubala stayed at Barcelona for ten years, winning every domestic trophy into the bargain and inspiring the team to reach the 1961 European Cup Final, with a sweet first-round win against Real Madrid punctuating their run. Their loss in the final against Benfica was one of Kubala’s last significant games for the club. He saw out his playing days in Switzerland and Canada before returning to Barcelona for two short management spells as well as managing the Spanish national side (and many others). As a manager he was well-travelled but unsuccessful – an all-too-common trope for world-class players.
But a legend he remains: the man who built the Nou Camp. And though his statue stands at the Vasas stadium because of what he did after his time in Budapest, it’s still a perfect choice to adorn it.
And the colours are the same anyway.