László Kubala: FC Barcelona’s Original Spellbinding Icon

By Charlie Pritchard

When Kubala died, his Real Madrid counterpart of the 1950s, Alfredo Di Stéfano, paid an emotional tribute to him. Di Stéfano heralded Kubala as “one of the best there has ever been”. Di Stéfano also said about the Hungarian superstar: “His game was pure, crystalline, a real joy for the fans. He was potent, technical, fast, and a great goal-scorer”, a quote from Jimmy Burns’ book La Roja.

FC Barcelona’s official history describes Kubala as “the most charismatic Barça player of all time”. The magician’s sumptuous ability with the ball at his feet was matched by his extravagant love for partying and women. As Sid Lowe notes in Fear and Loathing in La Liga: “Nights out were legendary. Mornings after were too”.

Kubala’s genius transcended a glorious spell in Barça’s early history. The man was “our Messi”, according to Josep Seguer, a former teammate of the Hungarian. Another former Barça stalwart of the 1950s, Gustau Biosca, offered the most illustrative evaluation of Kubala’s impact. Biosca claimed: “When he [Kubala] was on the pitch we had the feeling that we couldn’t lose. He dominated the game and dominated the ball, created an atmosphere of optimism, a winner’s mentality… he transformed football”.

To understand how the ‘House that László built’ [Lowe] was constructed, we must go back to Kubala’s formative years.

Unearthing the phenomenon

Jimmy Burns interviewed Kubala in May 1998 and gained an insight into the miracle behind the Hungarian’s career. Burns details how Kubala architected an “epic escape” from his native Hungary to reach Spain. Kubala played for Ferencváros, Slovan Bratislava and Vasas of Budapest during the post-war period. Growing up under “the shadow of Soviet influence” was repressive for Kubala. It was to the benefit of football that he ultimately fled his country and graced Spain with his majesty. Fleeing to the West, Kubala initially plied his trade with Pro Pratia in Italy, 34km northwest of Milan. However, in a bizarre turn of events, Kubala was denounced by the Hungarian Football Federation for “leaving his country without authorisation”. His failure to partake in military service was also central to the appalment of the Hungarian authorities.

It was at a refugee camp under U.S. control in Italy where Kubala founded a football team called Hungaria. The team travelled to Madrid to play a friendly against Spain who were preparing for the 1950 World Cup. Luckily for Kubala, Josep Samitier, Barça’s chief scout at the time attended the match. The story goes that Samitier approached Kubala after the match and invited him to Barcelona. Kubala said he would obviously love to, but was aware of a FIFA ruling that would prevent such a move. According to Burns, Samitier shrugged off Kubala’s concern, responding, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it”.

As Sid Lowe has argued, there is ambiguity, as there usually was with Kubala, surrounding his transfer to Barça. Burns maintains that Kubala boarded his train to Catalonia intoxicated, believing that he was going to sign for Real Madrid. Kubala allegedly asked Samitier if they were indeed travelling to Madrid, Samitier replying, “sure we are ”. However, as Lowe has pointed out, the train which Kubala boarded was from Madrid. Therefore, it would make no sense for Kubala to ask Samitier if they were going to Madrid. Lowe concludes: “It’s a nice story; it is probably not true”.

Ultimately, Kubala signed for Barça on 15 June 1950, not making his official debut until 29 April 1951. Such was the severity of the FIFA injunction, Kubala was prohibited from playing in professional matches for nearly a year. The lifting of the ban, however, led to Kubala’s granting of Spanish nationality. The Hungarian’s new nationality status was fast-streamed due to Samitier’s friends in the bureaucracy. The influence of Muñoz Calero, president of the Spanish Football Federation was also pronounced. Calero was also a friend of General Franco. Burns argues that this made the transfer political. Burns maintains it “perfectly suited Franco’s effort’s to exploit the developing Cold War to break out of his diplomatic isolation”. Therefore, Kubala’s official transfer to La Liga became a political statement as it played into the hands of Franco.

Away from the political significance of the transfer, once Kubala began playing for Barça, his impact was sensational. He inspired Barça’s Spanish Cup 3-0 triumph in the May 1951 final over Real Sociedad, his influence paying dividends straight away. The following season, Barça won the Spanish double, Kubala’s most mesmerising performance being a seven-goal haul in a 9-1 victory over Sporting Gijón. In the 1951-52 campaign known as the ‘season of five cups’, Kubala also helped Barça to Copa Latina, Copa Eva Duarte and Copa Martini Rossi titles.

Yet the political meaning of Kubala’s arrival in Spain re-surfaced on many occasions. According to FC Barcelona official historian Jaume Sobreques, Kubala was the “object of relentless persecution in Spanish stadiums”. Not only was Kubala heckled from the terraces, but he was targeted on the pitch by the opposition. Sobreques continues: “an organised butchery of fouls would have broken a player without his physical strength”.

Kubala attempted to rally against those who slandered him on and off the pitch. Sobreques maintains that the Hungarian made himself “separate from and defiant of the political horrors identified with Real Madrid”. The historian continues: “his [Kubala] persecution was Barça’s persecution, and Catalonia’s as well”. Therefore, there is the idea that Kubala’s links with Communism made him a political symbol, not just a glorious footballer.

A flaunting superstar of extraordinary resolve

If we are talking about his exploits on the pitch, however, Kubala was a footballing specimen. From head to toe, the Hungarian possessed a remarkable ability to keep the ball in spite of pressure from defenders to wrestle him off it. As Di Stéfano remembers: “you couldn’t knock him over with a cannonball”. This was a testament to Kubala’s combination of strength and technical genius. Furthermore, Lowe has depicted Kubala as a man of “sheer size, all ripping muscles bursting out of a tight shirt and short shorts… with a real hammer of a shot”.

This is not to say that Kubala was a player who did everything alone. He was also seamlessly accommodating for his ten teammates, aware that he could not run the Barça show alone. Samitier claimed that due to his sumptuous blend of talents, “Kubala was the foundation stone which the growth of support for football in Catalonia was built”. With Di Stéfano transforming Real Madrid as well, Samitier believes that “football became opera” because of the two icons.

Kubala quickly became a celebrity in Barcelona, followed almost everywhere. Kubala certainly had the personality to back up the many myths that became associated with him. Lowe notes that on a trip to Las Palmas, the Canary Islands, Barça coach Sandro Puppo (between 1954-1955) declared a thousand peseta fine for any player caught exploring the city’s nightlife. In response, Kubala pulled out a thousand pesetas and handed it over to Puppo. Kubala rebuked: “That’s permission sorted”. This was typical Kubala; a man whose wit and knack for amusement at times superseded his flair as a player.

Instead of receiving criticism for his mischievous behaviour, Kubala had a “cheerful, childlike wonder, an innocence” according to Lowe. This therefore protected Kubala and allowed him to thrive as a symbol of Catalan culture. Club directors and journalists joined Barça’s new star on nights out, embracing his aura, one of mystique and hedonism. Kubala had an “extraordinary capacity for drinking” as Burns has noted, yet would play competitive matches mere hours after partying. Coffee with cognac was Kubala’s way to “get the engine running”, as well as long baths and massages.

A remarkable comeback against the odds

The lifestyle that Kubala led wasn’t always sustainable. Unfortunately for the Hungarian, he missed much of the 1952-53 season due to a contraction of tuberculosis (TB). With Barça’s title hopes dashed as a result of Kubala’s illness, the mood around the club grew despondent. Losses to Real Madrid, Valencia and Málaga left Barça in fifth when Kubala returned on Matchday 21 of the season.

Kubala returned in February 1953 but he was unable to guide Barça to victory against Racing Santander in a 1-1 draw. However, the rejuvenated forward was influential as Barça thumped Zaragoza 8-0 in the following match. This victory began a run of eight consecutive victories for Barça as they won their second successive league title. They also beat Atlético Bilbao to win the double. After Kubala’s weight had dropped by six kilos during his illness, Lowe concludes that his return was “a miracle few had believed possible”.

Yet with Real Madrid dominating the European stage during the 1950s, Barça’s continental relevance failed to live up to their domestic success. Real Madrid had won four of the previous five league titles preceding 1958. Helenio Herrera thus arrived at FC Barcelona with the brief to immediately halt Madrid’s glory in Spain and beyond. Unfortunately for Kubala, the new Argentine coach was not as tolerant towards the Hungarian’s definition of ‘down time’ as previous Barça managers. Herrera was determined to guide FC Barcelona back to glory, with only one Copa del Rey and one Fairs Cup won between 1954 and 1958.

As Alex Leonard has written for These Football Times, Kubala essentially “stood in the way of the new imposing manager” Herrera. Kubala was the “heavy-drinking womanising superstar” of Barça. In the eyes of the authoritarian Herrera, Kubala’s charisma as a celebrity was immaterial whilst the team was failing to win trophies. Kubala was also thirty-one when Herrera arrived, the new coach believing that the Hungarian was more focused on entertaining than winning. Lowe argues: “his [Kubala’s] status eclipsed everyone else and his lackadaisical, playful approach to the game, the almost child-like way that he acted, clashed head-on with the ideas of his coach [Herrera]”. Surely there was no way back for Kubala?

Defying the ‘Special One’

It was not quite as simple as Herrera merely ditching Kubala to lead Barça back to glory. It was actually the downfall of the Argentine at FC Barcelona that he shackled Kubala at the most critical moment. Indeed, Barça won league titles in 1959 and 1960, as well as the Copa del Generalísimo in 1959. However, it is alleged that Herrera was sacked in 1960 because he left Kubala out of their European semi-final against Real Madrid. Los Blancos defeated Barça 6-2 and the directors of the club made the decision to sack Herrera as a result.

Alex Leonard eloquently condensed the affair as: “The directors knew where their loyalty lay. Kubala had won”. It appeared that Kubala’s grandeur superseded any fundamental shift in attitudes at Barça. Once Herrera had led the team to La Liga glory with Kubala, it became clear that Barça could still win with the ageing superstar. Therefore, because the Hungarian was dropped for one of the biggest games in the history of FC Barcelona, the club’s directors perceived Herrera as betraying the legacy that Kubala had created.

Herrera was deemed to have undermined the profound adoration that Barça fans had for Kubala. The fans viewed Kubala as the man who had propelled them to the glory they savoured for so long thereafter. The reason why the Camp Nou was built was essentially because of how Kubala enticed people into watching Barça play. The Hungarian was an adopted Catalan, embracing the culture of Barcelona as a city as well as the football.

And so it was that Kubala defined an era of success for FC Barcelona. He played under numerous coaches and won numerous titles, playing football that made him “the first real star in grey, post-war Spain” [Lowe]. Although Kubala was used as a “political pawn” [Burns] during his transfer to Barça in 1950, the reverence that he received from his former teammates, opposing players, and fans alike was reciprocated with profound emotion.

Reflecting upon the role that Samitier played in his career, Kubala proclaimed: “I loved him a lot. My father died before I escaped Hungary so that Pepe became like a father to me. He loved me like his own son”. It was not just Samitier who adopted Kubala, but the whole of FC Barcelona. Kubala became Barça’s most adored son for a generation. From his drunk train journey to Barcelona to his mischief in Las Palmas and his infamous clash with Helenio Herrera, László Kubala’s story is one marvellously laced with ambiguity, controversy and invigorating glory.

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