THE CURSE OF ZAKARIÁS

Andrew Gibney delves into the past to deliver a warning from the 1954 World Cup. 

In just a few weeks the eyes of the world will descend upon Poland and Ukraine as Europe’s best players compete for the right to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy and put on a show at one of the biggest tournaments in the sporting calendar. The countdown has truly begun.

In 1998 as France went on to lift the World Cup on home soil, lone striker Stephane Guivarc’h’ performances impressed enough for Newcastle United to sign the striker for €3.5 million, despite failing to score for Les Bleus. After four appearances and only one goal for his new club the former Auxerre forward was quickly moved on to Scottish giants Rangers. A familiar scene: teams sign a player on the back of a big summer tournament; unable to match expectations the player ‘flops’ and is quickly moved on to another willing buyer.

Guivarc’h always scored goals in France, but never really performed outside of his own country and was quite cruelly voted the worst Premier League striker of all time. Usually with most poor signings a team can always carry on and the effect is minimal, however back in 1954 a signing made by French Champions Lille ensured they learnt a valuable lesson, one from which they never fully recovered until the 21st century.

Lille OSC were crowned champions of France on the very last day of the 1953/54 season and it was due to be a summer of celebration. President Louis Henno was on a mission to bring some of Europe’s top talent to northern France.  Winning the club’s first league title in eight years, together with the four Coupe de France victories led to the local newspapers dubbing them the “War Machine”. In the eyes of the Lille support “Louis XX” could do no wrong.

Over in Switzerland that summer also saw the fifth edition of FIFA’s World Cup tournament. Hungary had established themselves as one of the world’s top teams and the “Magnificent Magyars” coasted through the tournament with ease – until the final, of course, when Germany pegged them back from 2-0 in what is now known as the “Miracle of Bern”. A tough and determined German side would win the game 3-2 and lift the Jules Rimet trophy.

With the tournament over preparations for the new season in France were underway. Lille had lost the talents of Marceau Somerlinck, Jean Barette and Jean Lechantre and President Henno was scouring Europe for replacements. Top of his list was defender József Zakariás. The 30-year old had been a key factor in leading Hungary into football folklore and under Coach Gusztáv Sebes he would play 35 times for his country. During the 1954 World Cup the defender would take part in four of Hungary’s five games, however the final would be his last-ever appearance for the Magyars after apparently breaking a curfew on the eve of the final.

Even after breaking the strict rules set by Sebes it was clear to see the important role Zakariás had to play when he was allowed to take his place in Hungary’s starting XI for the final. So Imagine Louis Hennon’s delight when on July 27th, despite interest from many of Europe’s top clubs, Zakariás arrived in France declaring his intent to sign for Les Dogues. The player remarked that he was going “past the Iron Curtain and choosing the side of freedom”.

While trying to sign one of Europe’s hottest prospects Henno was at the same time in negotiations with their star defender Cory van der Hart. The Dutchman had moved to France in 1950, becoming only the third of his countrymen to move abroad and turn from an amateur into a professional footballer. All Dutch footballers who turned professional were automatically suspended by the KNVB and subsequently banned from playing for the national team. However the move was justified, as Van der Hart proved a great success for his new club, playing over 100 games in four years he was a leader and an inspiration. Without him Lille would have struggled to win the 1954 title.

Contract negotiations went back and forth and eventually, unable to reach an agreement with the player, Henno decided that with the capture of his Hungarian superstar complete he could afford to let Cory van der Hart go. The Dutchman decided to leave France and moved back home signing for Fortuna Sittard.

At the start of August Henno called together the nations press for the friendly meeting with Rouen. The whole basis of the game was a chance for the excited President to show off his crown jewel. Press and fans alike turned up to fill the Stade Henri Jooris hoping to get their first glimpse of Zakariás in a Lille jersey. The game must have only been no more than ten minutes old when it was clear to most in attendance that something wasn’t quite right. Zakariás looked awkward and clumsy on the ball, the composure of a top international player just wasn’t there; surely this couldn’t be one of the famed Mighty Magyars?

Journalists had already become suspicious when talking to the player pre-match. Strangely his answers didn’t quite match the story of the Hungarian’s heralded career. This was compounded when a French reporter visiting Budapest called to say he had just met the real József Zakariás – who apparently just laughed when he heard about the ruse. Minutes after “Zakariás” launched into a badly timed challenge, injuring one of the Rouen players, the police quickly ran onto the field and arrested the imposter there on the pitch.

Questioned by the police the imposter admitted he was not József Zakariás but in fact Ladislav Fereb, a Czechoslovakian national and former member of the French legionnaires. He admitting trying to swindle the club out of money and said he only want to create a big story from the deception. Fereb was sentenced to spend two months in prison, however for Lille and Louis Henno the sentence was much worse.

In all the excitement of bringing in a top international star Henno had signed the player without checking any of his documentation; in fact he had never even seen a picture of the player before offering him a deal. Without both Zakariás and the departed van der Hart Lille would struggle defensively and during the subsequent season they conceded 58 goals, a club record at the time. Dropping from 1st to 16th in twelve months destroyed the club’s reputation and lead to further demise.

The following year they again conceded 58 goals and again finished 16th. Unfortunately the number of teams relegated had increased to three and Lille would drop down to the second division. Henno himself surprisingly remained the president until 1959; the damage was done though and Lille would yo-yo between the two divisions until the 1980’s.

The club’s return to Ligue 1 in 2000 was the catalyst for the current and very successful project that has seen Lille become one of France’s dominant teams again and perhaps winning the league and cup double last year has finally banished the “curse of Zakariás”. So this summer when your club is heavily linked with a move for one of the European Championship’ stand out players, beware the imposters and pray your club doesn’t sign a “Zakariás”!

Andrew is the editor of French Football Weekly, and can be found on Twitter @AGibneyftbl

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