For Kubala, the last European Cup Final was almost certainly the greatest disappointment of a long and honour packed career. Thirty-four years old a few days after that match it was obvious that it would be his first and only opportunity to win the Copa Europa, yet though Barcelona were desperately unlucky not to have won there was no finer player on view than the Hungarian-born Ladislav Kubala.
Kubala was born in Budapest on June 10, 1927, a time when all Hungary seemed obsessed by football and practically every youngster seemed to have a natural feeling for the game. Had he been a little older the war might well have made it impossible for him to go as far in the game as his talent merited, but fortunately for him he was just eighteen when the war ended and peace-time football began again. In 1945-46 season Kubala was with one of Hungary's Most famous clubs, Ferencvaros, and with them he had his first taste of success—helping them to win the Hungarian championship.
So impressive had he been in his first season of league football that all the critics were tipping him for an early introduction to the national team, yet though he was later capped many times he had to wait three years before he played for his country. Without warning he suddenly left Budapest for neighbouring Czechoslovakia, where he spent two seasons with Sportklub Bratislava between 1946-1948, represented his newly adopted country in full internationals and continued to improve by leaps and bounds.
In the summer of 1948 Kubala was persuaded to return to Budapest and reluctantly it seems he went home. There for a while he seemed quite content, playing for the Budapest Metalworkers team Vasas and gaining long overdue Hungarian caps, but two years later he left Hungary for good.
The opportunity presented itself in June, 1950. With a party of Hungarian inter- nationals under the name Hungaria F.C., he toured Western Europe and after giving an especially good performance against CF Barcelona, the Spaniards made hirn a tempting offer which he accepted. Eventually as everyone now knows, things turned out well for both Kubala and his new club, but at first there were many problems to be overcome. The Hungarian Football Association immediately complained to FIFA at the "blatant poaching" of Barcelona and though the international body could do little but uphold the Hungarian complaints Barcelona refused to give him up.
Under pressure from FIFA, the Spanish FA was unable to recognise Kubala officially and after waiting several months for his registration to be accepted, he went off to Italy in search of a club. There were at that time dozens of imported players in Italy and many clubs were anxious to sign one with the talents of Kubala but again officialdom interceded and reluctantly Kubala returned to his temporary home on the sunny coast of Spain.
In September, 1950, Kubala signed a private contract with Barcelona, who could only play him in friendly matches at first, and then after months of pressure the Spanish FA surrendered. Immediately the Hungarians again took their complaints to FIFA and though they were all passed on to Madrid the Spaniards refused even to discuss the situation and in time the matter was forgotten. Spanish naturalisation quickly followed and in April, 1951, Kubala was firmly established with his new club.
With Barcelona Kubala has more than justified his early promise and risen to the highest class. Throughout the world he has repeatedly been rated among the outstanding players of all time and though offers have been received for his services from places as far apart as Chile, Argentina and Turkey few players have ever been so close to the hearts of their followers as Kubala has been to the Catalan crowd.
During his ten years with Barcelona, Kubala has helped the club to four championships in 1952, 1953, 1959 and 1960, to four Spanish Cup successes in 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1957—and was their main source of inspiration when they won the Latin Cup in
Kubala's selection for the Rest of the World Eleven that met England at Wembley to celebrate her 90th anniversary came as something of a surprise, for though he had gained a large following in Spain, he was largely unknown elsewhere. Before the side was chosen a trial match was arranged to which more than thirty players from all over the Continent were invited. The game was staged in Amsterdam—and the opposition was provided by CF Barcelona! There the class and skill of Kubala stood out like a sore thumb and the man responsible for naming the final team, Karel Lotsy, had no choice but to include him.
The game at Wembley was an occasion that will be long remembered and was a personal triumph for Kubala. A brilliant exhibition by the team as a whole shattered the English defence, who found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed, by a team with all the talents. Attacking with seven players —few of whom could understand each other —the FIFA XI were magnificent. Kubala's role was that of general, but so well did the team move together that his task was made extraordinarily simple and he took advantage of the unexpected circumstances by scoring a couple of goals himself. One was an immaculately taken penalty that sent English goalkeeper Gil Merrick moving the wrong way, the other a tremendous drive from thirty yards that was in the unstoppable category.
Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of his game in the mid-fifties was his unusual body feint. Moving with the ball, Kubala was able to beat opponents repeatedly simply by moving his body from the hips up. Turning first one way and then the other he co-ordinated these movements with a feint to pass— that sent would-be challengers chasing off to intercept a pass that never came!
Another facet of the game at which Kubala is particularly adept is screening. So skilfully and cleverly does he hide the ball from an opponent that there are few better examples that a youngster could watch for guidance. As an opponent closes in to tackle Kubala turns away from him—placing his body between the ball and his opponent, who is then shown a variety of feints. Sooner or later, though with Kubala it is usually sooner, the opponent "buys" a feint and thus unbalanced gives the Hungarian his chance to move off unchallenged.
Although Kubala has earned practically every honour open to him, and has gained the unique distinction of having played for three different countries, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Spain, two things have eluded him. He has never played in the World Cup proper and as already mentioned he failed to win the European Cup. The 1954 series took Kubala closest to the Jules Rimet trophy, when the Spanish team failed to qualify for the finals. Drawn against Turkey Spain won 4-0 at home, lost 0-1 in Istanbul and then, after a 2-2 play-off in Rome, a small blind boy was called upon to settle the issue by drawing lots—and Turkey qualified.
Kubala was not a regular member of the Spanish XI at that time largely because his status was still being queried in official circles. The Turks complained about his inclusion against them and had Spain qualified they would have been pitched against Hungary in the first round in Switzerland. This would have created an interesting situation had it arisen, but the little Italian boy solved the problem and helped prevent Kubala from playing in the World Cup.
In the European Cup Kubala had two chances, in 1960 and 1961. Real Madrid put paid to the first Barcelona attempt and unwittingly opened the way for Kubala to play a leading role in the second. While Helenio Hererra was the man in charge of CFB, Kubala was never a regular choice. H.H. has always preferred a team that is closely knit and playing to a pattern based upon his own ideas and Kubala failed to fit into his plans. When Madrid hustled Barcelona out of the 1960 European Cup, Serior Hererra was dismissed and Kubala has emerged as one of the dominant personalities in the club once more.
In the season just ended Barcelona started on their European Cup campaign as one of the favourites and though they were clearly not the force they had been a few months earlier their victory over Real Madrid gave them the majority vote among the critics.
Lierse SK, Real Madrid, Spartak Hradec Kralove and Hamburg SV all fell to CFB and though they made hard work of the German champions they were firm favourites to win the final tie.
At Wankdorf when inside-left Suarez faded out of the game against Benfica it was Kubala who sparked off the Barcelona revival. Moving in from the right wing where he had started the game, he took over the role of organiser in midfield and largely as a result of his promptings CFB were completely on top during the last half hour. Benfica hung on grimly to their 3-1 lead and though Czibor did score to add even greater tension to the proceedings, bad luck and faulty finishing prevented the Spaniards from winning the trophy.
Five times Barcelona hit the Benfica framework and several other shots were scrambled off their goal-line by anxious Benfica defenders, but the goal Barcelona needed so desperately wouldn't come. Everyone present must have felt that if they could draw level they would win. Perhaps if the game had gone on for another five minutes CFB would have pulled it off but fate decreed otherwise. Kubala himself hit one tremendous drive against an upright, and when it shot across the goal-mouth without a player of either team close enough to touch it—hit the other post and then came out into play once more —Kubala must have realised it was not to be his day!
Kubala's future is now uncertain. Barcelona have recently elected a new Presidente, who has long been an admirer of the Hungarian, and it may be that he will cancel the provisional transfer to River Plate. Many other clubs have been after his services both as player and coach—and one of the most interesting offers came from the Chilean FA who wanted him to prepare their team for next year's World Cup. In all probability Kubala will remain in one capacity or another with CFB. For more than ten years he has been the darling of the Catalans and with the departure of Suarez to Italy they may even retain hit' as a player for the new season. Certainly there exists a great deal of affection between Kubala, his club and his public, and while he may seek experience as a coach elsewhere for a time, the vast majority of Catalans would not be surprised if he were to be appointed the club coach.
Passionately interested in football and devoted to Barcelona it will be a wrench for him if he does leave, and my own personal opinion is that he will stay there. By the time this appears in print a decision will have been made and though the situation is full of possibilities it seems probable to me that Kubala will remain a Catalan.This article originally appeared in the August 1961 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.
Thanks to Dan from the outstanding Three Match Ban for his help publishing.