As the man between the sticks for the wonderful Hungary team of the 1950s, Gyula Grosics made his name as a trailblazer, breaking new ground for goalkeepers in the realms of tactics and technique. A breath of fresh air on the style front too, he racked up 86 caps for his country and deserved every comparison with legendary contemporary Lev Yashin – even if the serial innovator had to wait until turning 82 to fulfil his dream of keeping goal for Ferencvaros.
Still officially registered as a player, Grosics is today celebrating his 86th birthday, giving FIFA.com the perfect opportunity to look back over the career of one of the game’s true heroes.
Grosics was born to a modest family of miners in Dorog, a small town around 40km outside of Budapest, where he was originally destined to join the priesthood. His mother reasoned that taking the cloth would spare him a life down the pits, but football has its own proud history of miracles and the youngster soon felt the pull of a different calling. “Life is sometimes full of surprises,” he recalled. “At the age of 15, and basically still just a child, I played my first match in goal for Dorog’s senior team. From that day onwards, football became a huge part of my life.”
The Panther pre-empts the Spider
Grosics’ life was transformed by football, but the sport itself was about to be disrupted by war. The then 18-year-old had to put his future on hold as Hungary sided with Nazi Germany from 1938 onwards, which meant all males between the ages of 12 and 21 were sent to Austria to work. Grosics did not return home until 1945, but he rapidly made up for lost time by showcasing his talent in the colours of Dorogi FC.
Standing 5'8 tall, he lacked the height usually associated with his position but compensated amply with an excellent leap, solid ball-handling skills and a superb sense of anticipation. Where he truly excelled, though, was with the ball at his feet, his touch rivalling that of his outfield colleagues. As a result, he became the starting point for his team’s attacks and advanced far off his line to pick out passes, challenging the idea that a goalkeeper should remain confined to his box.
Meanwhile, growing weary with constantly having to change shirt colours over the course of a season, Grosics began taking to the field dressed entirely in black. It was a style choice that earned him the nickname the ‘Black Panther’ on account of his cat-like reflexes – and the all-black approach soon proved popular with his fellow No1s, with Yashin later being dubbed the ‘Black Spider’ out of recognition for his impressive reach.
A defeat and a nightmare
Called up by Hungary for the first time in 1947, Grosics brought his abilities to bear alongside a generation of outrageously gifted players including Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti, Zoltan Czibor and Sandor Kocsis. Together, they would make history, setting out on an incredible run of 42 wins and seven draws between a 5-3 defeat by Austria in May 1950 and the heartbreak of their 3-2 1954 FIFA World Cup™ Final loss to West Germany. During that sequence, the ‘Magic Magyars’ consigned England to humbling 6-3 and 7-1 reverses, subjected Uruguay to their first ever loss in a FIFA World Cup final tournament (4-2) and beat Brazil 4-2 in the ‘Battle of Bern’, a few days before the ‘Miracle of Bern’ in the Switzerland 1954 showpiece marked the end of an era.
Helmut Rahn’s winning goal six minutes from time in that game still haunts Grosics, whose slip on the wet grass helped the match-winner find the net. “I keep having the same nightmare, even today,” says the Black Panther. “I keep seeing that goal by Rahn. All of a sudden, I was plunged into an abyss.”
Despite being persona non grata in his homeland, Grosics retained the faith of Honved and Hungary, serving between the posts at the 1958 and 1962 FIFA World Cups. Nevertheless, he increasingly found himself harassed by bureaucracy and even threatened by the authorities, not least because of his openly hostile stance towards the country’s communist regime.
A dream come true
Following the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, the goalkeeper joined up with his team-mates during their tour of South America. Several moved west after touching back down in Vienna, with Puskas signing for Real Madrid and both Kocsis and Czibor agreeing terms with Barcelona, but political pressure forced Grosics to return home, where he was transferred without much say in the matter to modest provincial outfit Tatabanya. He stayed there until hanging up his boots in 1962, and though he remained first choice for Hungary, he ended his career nursing the massive regret of having never turned out for Ferencvaros, as the authorities opposed his move to the country’s most prestigious club.
Great teams are capable of great gestures, however, and in 2008 officials at Ferencvaros organised a friendly match against Sheffield United to allow Grosics to appear on their team sheet at least once. As dignified as ever and dressed in his usual black, with his white hair slicked back, the octogenarian took up position between the posts and got a touch on the ball before ceding his place to regular custodian Adam Holczer.
After the game, Ferencvaros retired the No1 shirt in his honour and, every year, his name features prominently on the list of players the Budapest giants send to the Hungarian Football Association. Forty-six years on from his retirement, Gyula Grosics’ dream had finally come true.