The 1956 Uprising ravaged Hungary and a national football team that had, beforehand, lost just once in 52 matches. Zoltan Czibor, Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis sought refuge in Spain, and in their absence, the Hungarians suffered first-phase elimination from the 1958 FIFA World Cup™ before defeat by Soviet Union in their opening qualifier for the 1960 UEFA European Championship.
Hungary required a knight in shining armour, and a teenage prince answered the SOS. Florian Albert was just 17 when he was surprisingly handed an international debut for a 1959 friendly against Sweden. The forward’s response was to torment the reigning FIFA World Cup runners-up and set up two goals in a 3-2 victory.
Albert had impeccable ball control, instant acceleration, extrasensory vision, immaculate passing and a powerful shot. With the posture of a ballerina and the capacity to effortlessly glide past opponents as if he were a downhill skier and they were static gates, he had, in just 90 minutes, given Hungarian football fans hope that there was light at the end of a tunnel of depression.
There was. Those 90 minutes, indeed, were the prologue to a magnificent career in the Hungary jersey. Albert scored five times - and made a series of assists, including four in a 7-0 thrashing of France - as the Central Europeans won three successive games to waltz into the semi-finals of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rome 1960, and although Lajos Baroti’s team were then upset by Denmark, they did finish on a high by beating hosts Italy 2-1 to finish third. ‘The Emperor’ was again instrumental in Hungary seizing another bronze at the 1964 UEFA European Championship, and nor did he disappoint on the grandest stage of all.
At Chile 1962, Albert hit the winner as his country beat an England side including Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves 2-1 in their opener, before his superb hat-trick inspired a 6-1 rout of Bulgaria. Hungary nevertheless lost 1-0 to Czechoslovakia in the last eight, though their No9 could at least take consolation on an individual level as he succeeded Pele as the tournament’s Best Young Player recipient and finished it as one of six joint-leading marksmen, with the other five four-goal men having all played more games than him.
Four years later in England, the 1.81m tall Albert emboldened his status as one of the world’s greatest performers, forming a telepathic tandem with the diminutive, right-lying attacker Ferenc Bene. Together, they inspired the Pannonian Basin land to a 3-1 reverse of Bulgaria and an historic defeat of Brazil by the same score.
Hungary defender Sandor Matrai remembered: “Garrincha, Gerson and Tostao were on the field in Liverpool, but there were 50,000-plus neutrals roaring “Albert, Albert, Albert” throughout! Albert added: “The atmosphere in the dressing room beforehand was something else – we were so up for that game. And afterwards it was a feeling of sheer ecstasy that will stay with me forever.”
However, in a quarter-final against Soviet Union awash with barbarous challenges – a circumstance of the piercing political unrest between the two nations – the Hungarians committed two fatal errors and consequently lost 2-1.
Albert continued to excel for Hungary, but in a FIFA World Cup qualifier against Denmark in 1969, he suffered a badly fractured leg. It would be almost two years before he reappeared on the international stage and, in truth, he was thereafter a mere shadow of the ornate model he had once been.
Baroti recalled: “He was as good of a No10 as he was a No9. It’s rare to see a player who is outstanding at both scoring goals and creating them. Albert could do everything, and he did it with such elegance.”
Lajos Tichy, whose 51 goals in 72 international was indebted to Albert’s invention, commented: “He would come deep, gallop past [opponents] like they didn’t exist, and then thread these wonderful through-balls for us to run on to. He was joy to play with – he made it so easy for us.”
Another team-mate, Gusztav Szepesi, said: “He was a very modest, respectful and well behaved person who was as intelligent off the pitch as he was on it. Everybody liked him. And as a footballer, he was exceptional. He would have fit into the Golden Team. Had Albert been born in many other countries, he would be considered their greatest-ever player. But he was born in Hungary, and Hungary had Puskas.”
Brilliance in Budapest
But if the incomparable king of Hungarian football denied ‘The Emperor’ a place on the national team’s throne, his status on Ferencvaros’s seat of sovereignty has never come under threat and likely never will. Albert joined the club as an 11-year-old, netted twice on his debut aged 16, and was fundamental to the club becoming the dominant force in Hungarian football in the 1960s, during which time they won four top-tier titles in a six-year period and engaged in some epic battles with fierce enemies Ujpest.
Ferencvaros’s tour de force in nevertheless came on the continent. In the 1964/65 UEFA Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – a precursor to the UEFA Cup – Albert inspired them to upsets of Roma, Athletic Bilbao and Manchester United en route to the final. The Fradi were nonetheless the colossal underdogs, given that their opponents were the mighty Juventus and the venue for the single-legged decider was the Turin giants’ own Stadio Comunale, but they somehow emerged with a 1-0 success. In the 1967/68 edition of the same competition, Ferencvaros eliminated, among others, Liverpool, Bilbao and Bologna to make the decider, before losing 1-0 to Leeds United. Still, they remain the only Hungarian club to have won a European trophy.
If that proved Ferencvaros’s annus mirabilis, 1967 was undoubtedly Albert’s. For, at 26, he became the first man to win back-to-back Hungarian Footballer of the Year awards since World War I – a distinction that had eluded the likes of Gyorgy Sarosi, Ferenc Deak, Jozsef Bozsik, Nandor Hidegkuti, Puskas and Sandor Kocsis – and, by finishing comfortably clear of closest challengers Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Johnstone, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio, the first and to date only Hungarian to be named the European Footballer of the Year.
“It was my proudest moment,” Albert said of a career that ended in 1974. “I’m very happy with all the titles I won, but I’m also happy I could bring joy to the fans by playing attractive football. I once played in a youth match and we were booed by the fans – it was then I realised the importance of entertainment.”
The grand entertainer's death, last week at the age of 70, provoked national mourning. His funeral on Sunday was attended by a who’s who of Hungarian celebrities and broadcast live on terrestrial television. Later that same day, before Ferencvaros hosted Paksi, the floodlights were turned out and candles lit. Then, the hosts walked on to the field in a tributary all-black kit, while a banner was laid out reading: ‘God shall be with you forever, Emperor’.
Likewise, Florian Albert’s legacy will rest infinitely in the hearts of Fernencvaros and Hungary fans.