CHARLIE CONNELLY on the Hungarian-Spanish escapee-turned-footballer, László Kubala.
It was cold in the back of the truck and the ill-fitting uniform wasn’t providing much protection against the January chill. The engine whined and coughed as the old lorry wheezed its way towards the border, hitting every pothole and causing the men sitting in the back to bump shoulders with every lurch. A packet of cigarettes was passed around, a match flared and was shared. Nobody spoke.
The lorry slowed to a halt and the engine idled. There was conversation between the driver and the short, clipped tones of someone official. There were footsteps back and forth, then suddenly the canvas was pulled back and the bright white of the snow beyond caused the men to wince. A man in a peaked cap mouthed a headcount, nodded to himself and let the canvas drop. There was a double-knock of a fist against the chassis, the gearbox groaned and the lorry lurched forward. The men eyed each other nervously. The lorry thundered on.
One of the men freezing in the back of that lorry in January 1949 was 21-year-old László Kubala. Dressed like his fellow travellers in a knocked-off Soviet army uniform and carrying fake papers, he was trying to escape the newly-communist Hungary. He wasn’t entirely sure what the future might hold but he had faith that his extraordinary talent as a footballer might see him through. First, though, he had to keep going west, hoping he’d make it, hoping his wife and baby would be able to follow. Wherever he ended up he’d be an outsider but he was used to that. The only place he truly felt he belonged was the football field. It was there that he would represent three different national sides and play a key role, possibly the key role in turning Barcelona into one of the greatest teams in the world for generations to come. All that seemed a long way off as he pulled the scratchy combat jacket around him in the back of a truck in the depths of a central European winter.
Born into a working-class Budapest family to parents of Slovak and Polish descent, Kubala had risen through the ranks of junior teams at third division Ganz TE to break into the first team at 17. Within a year he’d been snapped up by Ferencvaros, one of Hungary’s leading clubs, and scored 27 goals in 49 games. A brief move with his family to Czechoslovakia – some accounts say this was Kubala’s way of avoiding military service in Hungary – saw a spell at Slovan Bratislava, six caps for the Czech national side and marriage to the national coach’s sister Anna, but he returned to Budapest in 1948 and joined Vasas. Twenty games – and three caps for Hungary – later, he had seen enough of life under communism and decided to flee.
Kubala and his fellow travellers made the last stretch of their cross-border flit on foot, knee-deep in snow that deadened the air into wintry silence through which they expected to hear the crackle of gunfire at any moment. After several hours of tramping, wet through and freezing cold, they came across some American soldiers who smiled and offered them cigarettes. They’d made it to Austria.
Within 18 months of that furtive border crossing Kubala had signed for Barcelona. In 1951-52, his first full season with the blaugrana, he would inspire the team to five trophies, scoring 26 goals in 19 games, the start of a decade in which he was a success so spectacular that a 1999 poll voted him the greatest player in the history of the club. Ten years later they erected a statue of him outside the Camp Nou. They called it ‘the stadium Kubala built’: it opened in 1957, with some saying the cathedral-sized arena was necessary to accommodate everyone who wanted to watch Kubala.
His success was even more extraordinary given the obstacles placed in his way, from that snowbound Cold War escape to a run-in with tuberculosis. There was even a close brush with death just a few months after his escape from Hungary.
Kubala had found himself in Italy playing just over the Austrian border for Pro Patria in Serie A and made enough of an impression in hauling them almost single-handedly clear of relegation that in May 1949 he was invited to play as a guest for Torino in a testimonial match against Benfica in Lisbon. Torino were arguably the strongest team in Europe at the time, on course for their fifth consecutive Serie A title. Impress in Lisbon and Kubala could find himself joining the champions.
A few days before he was due to fly out with the team Anna and their four-month-old son Branko arrived in Italy after a perilous escape from Hungary that necessitated her swimming across a freezing Danube and had left Branko in poor health. Kubala promptly withdrew from the Benfica game, on the flight back from which the plane carrying the Torino squad smashed into the side of a hilltop basilica just outside Turin, killing everyone on board.
His escape from Hungary had not gone unnoticed. The Hungarian FA lodged a complaint with Fifa, citing a broken contract, leaving the country without permission, absconding from his military service and an accusation of stealing money from Vasas. The world governing body imposed a one-year ban on Kubala and other players who had fled the repressive regime, and he soon found himself on the move again, this time to an American transit camp outside Rome.
There he found similar refugee footballers who banded together and formed their own team, Hungaria, playing friendlies against professional sides and coached by Kubala’s brother-in-law Ferdinand Daucík. In matches against a Madrid selection and a Spain national XI Kubala was easily the best player on the pitch. Barcelona secured his signature ahead of Real Madrid.
Perhaps because his life and career to that point had been largely dictated by politics, it’s arguable that Kubala’s attempts to stay out of current affairs allowed the Franco regime, delighted to have such a high-profile refugee from communism choosing to come to Spain, to take advantage. A 1955 feature film Kubala: Stars in Search of Peace starred the man himself and was loosely based on his story, yet was little more than a propaganda exercise. It wasn’t enough to dim his stardom in Catalonia, however.
He was soon a naturalised Spaniard, allowing him to be selected by the national side. But while he scored 11 goals in 19 games for Spain he would never play at a World Cup or European Championship finals. For Barcelona, however, he was unstoppable. In a decade at Barca he scored 131 goals in 186 games despite missing almost the entire 1952-53 season with tuberculosis. It was a period in which he steered the side to four La Liga titles, five Spanish Cups and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups (the equivalent of today’s Europa League). Barcelona reached the semi-final of the 1960 European Cup but after a falling out with coach Helenio Herrera, Kubala was dropped and the Camp Nou side lost the game to hated rivals Real Madrid. Herrera’s tenure as coach was over and Kubala restored to the team.
The following season he helped Barcelona to the final, becoming on the way the first side ever to beat Real Madrid in the history of the competition, but in a thrilling game in Bern Benfica emerged 3-2 winners.
He might have missed out on the big prize but Kubala’s impact in Catalonia went way beyond the trophy cabinet. When he received the ball it was like a jolt of electricity ran through the crowd. A combination of physical strength, balance and extraordinary skill made him the complete player, robust in the tackle yet with the lightness and grace of a dancer with the ball at his feet, all flicks, stepovers and drag backs.
A target for opposition hatchet men Kubala endured seven knee operations during his career yet never shirked a challenge and, with his boxer’s physique all but bursting out of his shirt, he took some stopping.
Off the field he embraced the lifestyle of a pop star, enjoying late nights, heavy drinking and the attention of women but to the fans who flocked to the newly built Camp Nou he was a king.
After later spells in Switzerland and Canada, where he played for Toronto Falcons alongside his son Branko, Kubala returned to Spain for an indifferent career as a coach before retiring to Barcelona, the one place in the world where he didn’t feel like an outsider.
‘Kubala was one of the best there has ever been,’ said Alfredo Di Stefano, another legendary exile who made a life in Spain. ‘His game was pure, crystalline, a real joy for the fans. But what I remember most is his spirit of comradeship and the loyalty he showed as a friend.’