In the mid-1930s, Gyorgy Sarosi was named in European XIs published by La Gazzetta dello Sport, Kicker and L’Auto. And while there may be nothing surprising to that concurrence, there was a stupefying undercurrent to the three prestigious publications’ selection of the Ferencvaros and Hungary stand-out: the former picked him at centre-back, the German magazine in midfield and the French sportspaper in attack! It was an emphatic testament to the fact that Sarosi couldn’t just play in multiple positions, but could excel in them.
“One match he’d be at the back, and the next he’d be in midfield or up front – that was impressive enough in itself," said Silvio Piola, the legendary Italian who played against Sarosi for Lazio and Italy. “But what was more impressive was that he was probably the best defender in the world, the best midfielder and the best striker.
“I’d breathe a sigh of relief when I saw he wasn’t marking me. But then I’d think, 'I’m going to have to score two or three to give us a chance', as you knew that when he was in an attacking position, his team were likely to score a good number of goals. And sometimes even that wasn’t enough. In the 1937 [Mitropa] Cup final, I scored four goals, but Sarosi scored six and we lost!”
That Mitropa Cup conquest was the zenith of a club career spent exclusively with Ferencvaros, whom Sarosi also inspired to five league titles and Hungarian Cups apiece, while he also captained Hungary to a runners-up finish in the 1938 FIFA World Cup France™.
From books to boots
Yet, had Sarosi had his way, his career would have unfolded in courtrooms rather than on football pitches. Born Gyorgy Stefanicsics in Budapest in 1912 - the family name was later changed to Sarosi to make them sound more Hungarian – he joined Ferencvaros’s youth ranks as a 15-year-old. When the capital giants wanted to tie him to a professional deal a couple of years later, though, the youngster had other ideas.
“I wanted to become a lawyer,” Sarosi recalled. “I saw football as something to play for fun, not a career. However, my father (who was struggling for work as a tailor) convinced me that too many people were losing jobs in the depression, and that I was good enough to make a real go of being a footballer.”
So, at 18, Sarosi made his Ferencvaros debut as a centre-back towards the end of the 1930/31 season, before performing a fundamental role as they made history in the subsequent campaign. FTC, indeed, became the first and to date only side to win every single game in a Hungarian championship.
“He was only a boy, but on the pitch it seemed like he was the man playing against kids in the park,” said Zoltan Blum, who handed Sarosi his bow. “It was just so easy to him. He was big, really strong, quick, never lost a header. He was impossible to bully. Moreover, he played with such confidence – even at that age he played with the confidence of a captain. He would stride out of the defence with the ball, taking on opponents and launching attacks.”
Because of his class on the ball, Sarosi was gradually deployed further forward in the FTC formation – first as an attacking midfielder, and then as a striker. It was in the former position that he headlined their inconceivable 11-1 thrashing of Ujpest, who had just won the league title, in the 1933 Hungarian Cup final, scoring a hat-trick and setting up another four goals.
But it was in attack that he most often appeared during his 17 years in the green and white. There, he averaged at least a goal per game for eight successive seasons from 1935/36, and twice finished as top scorer in the Hungarian top flight. Sarosi also remains the most prolific marksman in the history of the Mitropa Cup, a prestigious competition for clubs from, among other countries, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Italy – then all leading powers in European football.
‘Gyurka’, as he was nicknamed, helped Ferencvaros finish second in 1935, ’38, ’39 and ’40, and played the leading role in their 1937 triumph. In the first leg of the semi-final away to Austria Vienna, Sarosi did a good job containing iconic striker Matthias Sindelar, but he couldn’t prevent injury-stricken FTC losing 4-1. A return to Budapest coincided with a return to the strike force for Sarosi, and he responded with an electrifying two-goal display as the hosts beat the defending champions 6-1 to go through 7-5 on aggregate. In the decider, Ferencvaros beat Lazio 4-2 at home and 5-4 away, with Sarosi bagging a treble in each game.
Silver, bronze and a sensational seven
Piola and Italy would exact revenge one year later, but this time during Sarosi’s international career, which began as an 18-year-old in a 3-2 loss to Yugoslavia in May 1931. In just his second Hungary appearance, the teenager shackled Czechoslovakia goal machine Antonin Puc as his country recorded a 3-0 win. Because of his infallible performances in defence, it was not until his 15th outing that Hungary experimented with Sarosi in attack. Predictably, he scored that day against Sweden, as he did in a 2-1 defeat by Austria that ended the Hungarians’ chances of Italy 1934 glory at the quarter-final stage.
But that was not the end of Sarosi’s FIFA World Cup tale. Four years later, he was on target four times in three games as Hungary cruised to the Final, where they met defending champions Italy. And though Sarosi set up one goal and scored another, on this occasion he was outstruck by Piola, whose brace propelled Gli Azzurri to a 4-2 success. Sarosi’s consolation was the Bronze Ball and the Bronze Boot awards, which he received for being the competition’s third-best player and third-highest marksman.
But if that day in Paris was not the jour de gloire Sarosi had craved, what remained his crowning Hungary exhibition was one any player would have been proud of. It unfolded in a Central European Championship contest against Czechoslovakia in 1937. With Hungary trailing 2-1 past the half-hour mark, their infallible captain struck seven goals past Frantisek Planicka – arguably the finest goalkeeper on the planet – to seal an emphatic 8-3 victory.
“Scoring seven goals in an international is almost impossible, yet alone past the great Planicka,” commented his coach that day, Karoly Dietz. “But ‘Gyurka’ was the greatest goalscorer of his era – just look at his statistics.”
Those figures state that Sarosi scored 639 goals in 633 matches for Ferencvaros in all competitions, and 42 in 62 for Hungary. But refusal to scrutinize those statistics would be an injustice to Sarosi. For while the four men above him on Hungary’s list of all-time leading marksmen - namely Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Imre Schlosser and Lajos Tichy – were exclusively deployed in attack, Sarosi incepted and ended his national service as a defender and made flitting appearances in midfield.
Tellingly, between March 1934 and December 1938, when he was invariably if not exclusively positioned up front, Sarosi struck 37 times in 29 internationals – a staggering ratio for a man who also made European XIs as a centre-back and a midfielder.