A drunken foreigner staggered on to a Barcelona-bound train. “We’re going to Madrid, right?” he mumbled to the companion whose shoulder he was using as a human walking frame. Following assurance, he slumped his body into an unoccupied seat and dozed off. Had fellow passengers known the 23-year-old believed he was headed to the capital to sign for Real Madrid, they would have laughed. Had the culés among them known that he was actually going to sign a contract with a professional football club, but that it was their beloved FC Barcelona, they would have cried.
But the only tears Barça fans shed because of Ladislao Kubala over the next decade were ones of joy – triggered by his enthralling repertoire of tricks, defence-piercing through-balls and devastating right-foot shooting from free-kicks and open play. The attacking midfielder inspired one of the greatest sides in the club’s history; Kubalamania inspired the creation of Camp Nou.
That June 1950 train ride was merely the last leg on a bizarre journey from his native Budapest to Barcelona, one which involved him eluding military service, hiding under a tarpaulin on the back of a truck to get out of Hungary, masquerading as a Soviet solider to get into Italy, and starring in a film about his plight to escape communism and play the sport he loved.
Kubala started out as an 18-year-old inside-forward at Ferencvaros, before excelling for Slovan Bratislava as an out-and-out striker. There, he represented Czechoslovakia, before returning to Hungary to avoid a stint in the army. He wouldn’t stay long, albeit long enough to dazzle for Vasas and win three Hungary caps. When his birth country became a communist state, the youngster conned his way to Busto Arsizio. The Italian city was home to Serie A side Pro Patria, and Kubala’s immediate request to train with the club was given the thumbs-up.
He explained: “When I arrived I saw they were going to start with fitness exercises, so I pretended I wasn’t ready until they had set off on a jog and then began juggling the ball on my own. The club president saw me and said, joking, ‘If you can do 400 [keepy-ups] without the ball dropping to the floor, I’ll give you my watch!’ He thought it was impossible, but I didn’t need asking twice. Right, left, right, left, thigh, a sequence of headers now and again… 398, 399, 400, no problem. Just for good measure, I then did a lap round the field while keeping the ball up! He was amazed. So was I – it was a really nice watch!”
The Pro Patria president didn’t mind; he felt he had relinquished one piece of expensive jewellery to land a gem of far greater value. His mistake was that he was too enamoured to keep word of Kubala’s genius to himself. It swiftly travelled south-west to a team widely regarded as the finest in Europe. Torino, who were firmly en route to a fifth successive Scudetto, invited Kubala to represent them in a friendly away to Benfica, but on the cusp of departure, the Budapest native elected to postpone the chance to play to attend to his ill son. That bout of travel-sickness spared Kubala’s life. For on 4 May 1949, on their flight home from the Portuguese capital, the entire Torino squad tragically died in the Superga Air Disaster.
Kubala’s next move was to co-form a team for eastern European refugees along with his father-in-law, Ferdinand Daucik. Hungaria, as they were called, embarked on a tour during which an early stop saw them lose 4-2 to Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. Kubala nevertheless wowed
Real president Santiago Bernebeu, who immediately offered him a lucrative contract. Kubala told Bernabeu he had two more matches to play in Spain, but that he would then join Los Merengues on one condition: that they appointed Daucík as coach.
‘Who was this club-less Hungarian to make such a demand to one of the biggest clubs in the world?’, was Bernabeu’s initial though. ‘How could Real pass up the opportunity to sign such an extraordinary player?’ was his overriding one. Bernabeu therefore told Kubala to return after the two matches and that they would sort something out regarding Daucík. The pair shook hands.
In one of those subsequent games, though, Kubala’s terrorising of opponents was witnessed by Pepe Samitier, the legendary former Barça striker who was now scouting for the club. It was he who deceived an inebriated Kubala into thinking that train was headed for Madrid in June 1950. Kubala had sobered up by the time Barcelona flashed a similarly lucrative contract in front of him, but it came with a sweetener: that Daucik was being installed into their hot-seat.
Kubala put pen to paper and though a ban prevented him for representing them officially for another year, he proved well worth the wait. Barcelona had finished fifth in 1949/50 and fourth, just six points above relegation, in the campaign prior to Kubala’s debut, yet they won all five of the competitions they entered in 1951/52 and completed back-to-back league and cup doubles the following season.
“He was just unstoppable,” recalled Kubala’s Barça team-mate Joan Segarra. “He had so many moves opponents didn’t have an idea what to expect. 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.”
Les Corts, which had a sizeable capacity of 60,000, became unable to satiate the demand of Kubalamania. Construction consequently began on the footballing temple now known as Camp Nou, which was packed to the rafters from its 1957 opening to the time Kubala hung up his boots in 1961. By that time, despite competition from a Real Madrid side many regard as the greatest in history, 'Kuski' had helped Barça conquer La Liga four times, win five Copa del Rey crowns and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups. Moreover, alongside Luis Suarez, Evaristo and Sandor Kocsis, they became the first team to inflict defeat on Real in the European Cup – Los Merengues had won its first five editions - though the Catalans were upset by Benfica in that 1960/61 final.
During his time at Barcelona, Kubala pulled on the Spain jersey to become the first and only man in history to represent three countries. He nevertheless missed out on their play-off for a place at the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland™ through injury, and after a 2-2 stalemate with Turkey in Rome, the drawing of lots denied Kubala the chance to parade his immaculate skills on the biggest stage of all.
For this, and the fact that, unlike other greats who had failed to illuminate the FIFA World Cup such as Alfredo Di Stefano and George Best, he never won the European Cup, Kubala remains unjustly underappreciated outside eastern Europe and Spain.
“He was up there with Alfredo and Pele, one of the very greatest in football history,” Ferenc Puskas later remarked. “And when it came to ball juggling, there was no-one better. Even the Real Madrid fans were fixated by his routine when Barcelona came to play us.” Di Stefano added: "Kubala was one of the best there ever was. His game was crystalline, such a joy to watch.”
The Hungarian finished as a narrow runner-up to Di Stefano as the best player in La Liga history, but in a poll to find the greatest all-time Barcelona player, Kubala took gold. Not even Kocsis, Suarez, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona or Romario could deny him that impressive and thoroughly deserved accolade.