Spanish Football Legends : Ladislao Kubala – More than a Player
Visit the marvelous Camp Nou in Barcelona and you will notice a single statue of one player, that of Hungarian striker Ladislao Kubala.
- Writer – David Fleming
When the scandal that rocked post civil war Spain subsided and it was eventually agreed or decided, a fact which Los Merengues and Los Cules still debate fiercely to this day, fans of the Catalan club were left to spend the next 50 years asking themselves one of life’s most painful questions – What if?
The player in question is of course the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano, who would go on to lead a golden age of success for the Whites of Madrid including the five European Cups in a row that would define that footballing era. But the Blaugrana were not just left asking if the projection of the great rivals’ respective clubs would have been reversed if the Di Stefano affair had turned out differently, but if they had just missed out on one of the most electrifying partnerships in footballing history.
The other half of that partnership is a name not known to many outside the Spanish footballing fraternity, but is the player Barcelona fans hold closest to their hearts – Ladislao Kubala.
Born into poverty in 1927 Hungary, Kubala found joy playing football and was to display his talent and physical prowess from an early age, going on to play professionally for two Hungarian clubs, Ferencvaros Bratislava and Vasas of Budapest before the age of 21.
In 1949 Kubala’s life was to change as Hungary became a communist state and Kubala fled the country. It wasn’t the last time that the politics of the time were to have a significant impact on Kubala’s life.
After initially settling in Austria, Kubala soon moved on to Italy but the one-year international ban imposed by the Hungarian FA and endorsed by FIFA due to his defection to the West meant that he could not play professionally. Little did he know it at the time, but if were not for this ban the turn of events that eventually resulted in Kubala signing for Barcelona would probably never had happened.
In Italy, Kubala formed his own club called Hungaria, consistently mainly of other East European refugees, and in 1950 the fledging side toured Spain to play games against a national eleven, as well as selected Madrid and Espanyol sides. This was a tour that was to change Kubala’s life, and the fortunes of Barcelona, forever.
It was during these games that, another legend of La Liga, Josep Samiter spotted Kubala. Samiter at the time was employed by Barcelona as chief scout during one of his more harmonious spells at the club, and despite Kubal’s international ban Samiter insisted that the Hungarian should travel north with him to sign for the Catalans.
Kubala had also attracted the attention of then Real Madrid President Santiago Bernabeu who tried hard to convince Kubala to sign for the capital city side. Legend has it that Kubala actually believed he was on a train to sign a contract he had agreed previously with Real Madrid, but it was only due to the fact that the Hungarian was so drunk that Samiter convinced him to sign for Barcelona instead.
The Bernabeu would not be denied so easily when it came to Di Stefano.
Kubala would go on to play the type of football that would install a new-found confidence in the Barcelona fans still suffering after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil war. He became renowned for his speed, agility and a powerful right foot shot.
“He was just unstoppable, he had so many moves opponents didn’t have a clue what to expect” reflected former Los Cules teammate Joan Sergarra on the official FIFA website.
“He’d go past one, two, three with style and ease, and then either put a chance on a plate or smash the ball home himself.”
In his first season he led the club to victory in the Generalisimo’s Cup. The season after was even more successful – with Kubala scoring 26 goals in 19 games, a record comparable with the phenomenal feats of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lio Messi in today’s game, and Barcelona won all 5 competitions it entered.
This including a league and cup double as well as the Latino Cup played between the champions of Spain France Portugal and Italy in a forerunner to what would go on to become the European Cup. Kubala’s 7 goals in a 9-0 win over Sporting Gijon that season remains the La Liga record for most goals scored in a single match.
Such was the clamour to see the superstar that it soon became evident that the 60,000 seater Les Corts stadium was no longer big enough to meet the demands of the club and, as a direct result of Kubala’s popularity, the building of the Camp Nou was commissioned and opened in 1957.
By this time the Di Stefano inspired Real Madrid were beginning to dominate both the domestic and European scene, however Kubala’s bravery in the face of brutal defending and poor refereeing as well as his goalscoring talent would ensure that he would be remembered with the highest affection of the Barcelona fans, who voted him the greatest Barca player of all time during their 1999 centenary year.
Kubala was to underline his legendary status when in 1952-53 season he returned to inspire the side to a domestic treble, this despite missing most of the season with tuberculosis that threatened his career.
On the international scene, Kubala is the only player ever to represent 3 different countries in official matches – playing for Hungary and Czechoslovakia before representing Spain 19 times after he became a naturalised Spanish citizen following the end of his FIFA ban.
Kubala was never to grace the biggest stage of all however after Spain missed out on qualifying for the 1954 World Cup, losing the qualifier to Turkey on a toss of a coin.
Kubala retired in the 1961/62 season having won 5 league titles, five Copa Generalisimos and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups. He went on to have an unsuccessful stint as coach of his beloved club before being sacked.
Kubala then made a comeback with neighbours Espanyol as player-coach where he was eventually united with Di Stefano who was also enjoying a stint with the club at the twilight of his career. Despite being at the end of their respective careers, the duo still displayed enough moments of magic to leave the Barca faithful thinking, what if?
Many players mean different things to fans of different clubs.
Whilst Kubala never won the European Cup or played in the World Cup, it was his spirit in front of adversity which won his place in Barcelona folklore with the player and club sharing a kinship of history.
Kubala brought back a feeling of pride and defiance to a club which had suffered so much and to understand his significance to Barcelona is to understand the history of the club itself. Kubala reminded the club and the fans what it was to win again and to feel the unique joy that only football can bring.
Los Cules enjoying the scintillating football being displayed by the current side can do much worse than taking a second to stop by his statue outside the Camp Nou and say thanks.