Kubala — Barça Superstar
Camp Nou is one of football’s most cherished cathedrals. A staggering collection of football greats have graced its pitch in the Blaugrana of F.C. Barcelona: Ramallets, Kocsis, Rexach, Cruyff, Maradona, Stoichkov, Laudrup, Guardiola, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Luis Suárez and, of course, Messi.
It was until the summer of 2019 that a single statue stood outside the stadium. Ladislau “László” Kubala Stecz was born in 1927 in Budapest, Hungary. He joined the junior ranks of local side Ganz TE at the age of 11 and quickly began holding his own against players three to five years older than him. He joined the senior side in 1944 in Hungary’s third division. He made nine appearances for Gantz before moving, at age 18, to domestic giants Ferencváros. Alongside another future Barça star, Sándor Kocsis, he appeared in 49 games, and scored 27 goals.
Mandatory military service drove Kubala to leave Hungary in 1946. He first moved to Czechoslovakia, where he joined ŠK Slovan Bratislava, for whom he appeared 33 times, netting 14 goals. His on-pitch exploits were not his most important achievement while in Czechoslovakia. During this time, he met Anna Viola Daučík, sister of national team coach, Ferdinand Daučík, whom he married in 1947. The next year, again to avoid military service, Kubala returned to Hungary, joining Vasas SC, for whom he suited up 20 times and scored 10 goals. At the start of 1949, Kubala once again fled his homeland, to an ally-occupied Austria, before moving on to Italy.
In a life teeming with “close calls” and “what ifs,” Kubala’s entire story hinges on a single decision in Italy. After initially joining Pro Patria, for whom he scored nine goals in 16 appearances, his brush with another club shaped the history of the sport itself.
Kubala’s defection to Italy had required him to leave behind his wife and baby son, who was ill. A miraculous trek by Anna across the Danube River, baby in tow, reuniting the family in the spring of 1949. At that time, Kubala — still playing for Pro Patria, was invited to join the legendary Il Grande Torino side for a testimonial match in Portugal.
After initially accepting the invitation, and planning to fly to and from the game with the club, Kubala chose to stay behind with his wife and son, who had arrived in Italy. Tragically, on May 4, 1949, the return flight from that game in Portugal crashed into the hill of Superga, killing all 31 of the plane’s passengers, including the entire Gran Torino squad. The loss was profound for anyone who loves the beautiful game.
In the meantime, the Hungarian Football Federation accused Kubala of breach of contract, leaving the country without permission, and failing to perform military service. The allegations resulted in a one-year ban from FIFA. In response, in 1950, Kubala helped form Hungaria, a team of refugee footballers from Eastern Europe.
That summer, the team traveled to Spain to play a series of friendlies. These matches put Kubala on the radars of both Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona. After considerable wrangling and politicking, his signature wound up on a Barcelona contract. What followed was, to that point, the club’s most spectacular and invigorating era.
Kubala joined Barça in 1950, as did his close friend and brother-in-law, Ferdinand Daučík, as coach. His FIFA ban precluded him from playing in competitive games, so, in the meantime, he played in friendlies. He finally made his return to meaningful action in the spring of 1951, in the second leg of a Copa del Generalísimo (now the Copa del Rey) semifinal against Sevilla. Barcelona won 3–0, thanks in part to a goal from their new leading man, and advanced, via a 5–1 aggregate score, to the final, where they breezed past Real Sociedad, 3–0.
The following season, 1951–52, was an absolute joyride. In addition to once again capturing the Copa del Generalísimo, El Barça de les Cinc Copes secured the league title, the Latin Cup, the Copa Eva Duarte and the Copa Martini Rossi. Despite playing just 19 games, Kubala scored 26 goals, including a staggering in a 9–0 victory over Sporting Gijón. He lost much of the following season to tuberculosis, though he did still help Barcelona to another league- Copa del Generalísimo- Copa Eva Duarte treble.
He continued to emerge as a leader. It is worth noting that Kubala’s impact on the Catalan capital extends far beyond his considerable contributions to the trophy cabinet — though 14 in a decade is quite the haul. His impact not easily defined by numbers — although 281 goals in 357 appearances, including 152 in 219 league games, is a legendary output. More than all of that, Kubala was a superstar.
He had a previously unnoticed combination of speed, strength, quickness and agility. A rock solid frame helped him thrive in physical encounters, while still possessing the ability to blow past opponents and finish with a rocket launcher of a right foot. He is credited with pioneering the now-common technique of curling the ball over and around the defensive wall on free kicks. That combination of style and substance mesmerized the city, and made him a sensation.
So significant was Kubala’s influence on the game that Barcelona’s existing stadium, Les Corts, which held 60,000 fans, could no longer meet the demand to see his exploits. In 1954, “Kubalamania” inspired the start of construction on a new ground that would hold over 93,000 fans.
Camp Nou opened its doors in 1957, and remains the largest football stadium in Europe. That it was constructed when it was, was no coincidence. If Yankee Stadium is “The House That Ruth Built,” it would not be unreasonable to dub Camp Nou “La Casa Que Construyó László.”
László Kubala’s journey to Barcelona wasn’t simply winding, but required a staggering amount of tenacity and good fortune. On his arrival, Kubala pumped in goals at rates previously unheard of in the club’s history, but, more importantly, he gave F.C. Barcelona a spectacular, legitimizing force at a time when the club desperately needed one. To a city and a fan base that places as much value on aesthetics as on-field results, Kubala was the hero that Barça needed. Kubala was a legend.
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Originally published at https://tenlegend.com.