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Born: Friday 10 June 1927, Budapest, Hungary
Died: Friday 17 May 2002, Barcelona, Spain (aged 74)
Believed to be the only player in the world to have appeared for three different countries at international level, Hungarian-born László Kubala had something of a nomadic existence early in his career. Eventually settling at Barcelona, he was at the heart of the club's successes throughout the 1950s and made such an impact that in 1999 he was named as the club's greatest player in their first century of existence.
Born László Kubala Stecz on 10 June 1927 in Budapest, Kubala was also known as Ladislav in Czechoslovakia and Ladislao in Spain. He was born into a poor family of Slovakian origin and preferred to think of himself as a 'citizen of the world' rather than any individual country. Kubala was an outstanding footballer from an early age, joining local club Ganz TE when he was only 11 and playing alongside boys who were four or five years older than him. By the age of 16 he was in the first team and was soon attracting the attention of bigger clubs.
In 1945, Kubala joined Ferencváros where he spent two seasons, but in the summer of 1946 he left Hungary and signed for Slovan Bratislava, where he was most often used as a centre-forward. Kubala was called into the Czechoslovakian national team in October 1946, going on to make six appearances for his adopted country, as well as eventually marrying the daughter of the Slovan manager. Kubala returned to Hungary in 1948, playing one season for Vasas SC and making three international appearances for Hungary, but fled when the Communists took power a year later.
Having been smuggled into Austria, Kubala eventually reached Busto Arsizio in Italy. Training with local side Pro Patria, he impressed several Serie A clubs and was offered the chance to appear for Torino in a friendly against Benfica in Lisbon. When his son fell ill, Kubala pulled out of the trip and that decision turned out to save his life. On the way home from Portugal, Torino's plane crashed just outside Turin, killing everyone on board.
Kubala's hopes of playing in Serie A were frustrated by the Hungarian FA, who convinced FIFA to ban him from competitive football on the grounds of breach of contract. Instead he joined a representative team of Hungarian refugees, who played several friendlies in Spain. Kubala impressed Real Madrid, who thought they had a deal in place to sign him. However while he was on his way to Madrid, former Barcelona star Pepe Samitier conviced him to move to Catalonia instead, allegedly after putting him on a train to Barcelona when Kubala was blind drunk. Kubala signed for Barcelona in the summer of 1950, with his father-in-law Ferdinand Daučík becoming coach as part of the deal.
With Barcelona, Kubala appeared more often in a deeper role, nominally an inside-right but a role more like that of a modern-day attacking midfield playmaker. His greatest strength lay in his ability to beat several players on a surging run, before laying the ball on a plate for a team-mate or finishing the move himself with his fearsome right-footed shot. The team had been struggling in the years before his arrival, but Kubala quickly changed their fortunes.
He did not make his league debut until 1951, as his ban was still in place, but in his first season Barcelona completed a league and cup double. Kubala scored 26 goals in just 19 league games and with the cup final against Valencia going into extra-time at 2-2, scored early in the extre period to set Barcelona on the way to a 4-2 win. Both league and cup were also won the following season, with Kubala again getting a vital cup final goal, this time the opener in a 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao.
The summer of 1953 brought a call-up to the Spanish national team, meaning that Kubala had now played for three countries. He appeared for Spain in crucial World Cup qualifier against Turkey, where a 1-0 defeat ultimately cost the team a place in the finals as they went out after the drawing of lots following a drawn play-off. He also played in the qualifiers for 1958, but Spain finished second in their group behind Scotland and missed out on the finals again. While playing for Spain, he also represented a European XI against England at Wembley, scoring two goals, and played four matches for the Catalan representative team.
After three consecutive seasons where Barcelona finished without silverware, Kubala's next domestic honour came with another cup victory in 1957, followed by success in the first ever Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1958. Kubala did not appear in the final against a London XI, but had scored two vital goala in the the semi-final against Birmingham City. The first secured a 1-0 second leg win to take the tie to a replay, before his late winner in that replay secured Barcelona's place in the final.
After the Hungarian uprising of 1956 many of the country's top players ended up in western Europe and Kubala persuaded two of them, Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor, to join him at Barcelona. The Hungarians helped Barcelona to a first league title in six years in 1959, with a cup final win over Granada sealing a third double of the decade. That title win gave Barcelona a first chance to play in the European Cup, where they met great rivals Real Madrid in the semi-final. Kubala however had fallen out with coach Helenio Herrera and did not play. Without him, Barcelona lost both games and Herrera lost his job.
With Kubala restored to the team, Barcelona retained both the Fairs Cup and their league title, the latter by the narrowest of margins on goal difference ahead of Real. That gave them another crack at the European Cup, where they gained a measure of revenge in 1960-61 by becoming the first team to beat Real in the competition. Barcelona reached the final against Benfica, but were narrowly beaten 3-2 in a match which marked the end of Kubala's playing career at the club. At the time of his retirement he ranked second in all-time competitive goals for Barcelona and still hold third place on that list today.
After briefly coaching Barcelona's youth team, Kubala was soon made first team manager but left early in 1963, with Barcelona off the pace in the league and out of Europe. He movec across the city to Espanyol and resumed his playing career for a couple of years, before becoming player-coach first at FC Zürich and then Toronto Falcons. In 1969 Kubala was appointed Spanish national coach, with the team having just failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. The fortunes of the national team were at a low ebb and Kubala was not able to take them to a major tournament until the World Cup of 1978. In those finals in Argentina, Spain went out in the group stage and after a similar early exit in the 1980 European Championship Kubala left the job.
Through the 1980s, Kubala coached several Spanish clubs including another spell with Barcelona, and also briefly worked in Saudi Arabia. His final managerial job came with the Paraguayan national team in the mid 1990s, where he instilled a new sense of discipline into the team and laid the foundations for that country's regular World Cup appearances in subsequent years. After several years of heavy drinking, Kubala's health declined and after a long illness, he died in May 2002 at the age of 74.
References (all accessed 25 March 2012):
- Published on Sunday, 25 March 2012 20:45