Power vs. grace. Speed vs. strength. For the most part, the universe forces us to choose between one good thing or the other. We seldom can have our cake and eat it too. Soccer players (and athletes) normally come in two categories: slow & strong, or small but quick. In a world of limitless budgets, you could have Diego Milito and Xavi Hernandez on the same team, but they’d never be the same player. One is a battering ram. The other? A locksmith.
Yet, in the 1950s, Barcelona rode to glory on the back of a mutant of an athlete: Ladislao Kubala. He was both butcher and chef, elephant and mouse. This is his story.
Kubala’s journey to the Camp Nou was not so simple. He fled his native Hungary to escape the communist revolution, and the local football association requested FIFA to ban him for deserting the country, allegedly breaching a playing contract, and failure to do military service. FIFA banned him from professional football for one year. He was not alone. In spite of FIFA (or to spite FIFA), he and other refugees formed a team, named Hungaria, and played friendlies throughout Europe.
He caught the eye of a portly man by the name of Santiago Bernabeu. The then-President of Real Madrid, tried to sign him. However, he faced a problem: Kubala insisted that Bernabeu hire his father-in-law as coach. Bernabeu refused, and Josep Samitier, a Barca scout, jumped at the chance and signed him for the cules.The immediate result? Pain. At least for Madrid fans.
In his first La Liga season, he set the single-game record for goals (seven) and led Barcelona to five trophies: La Liga, the General’s Cup (the equivalent of the King’s Cup), the Eva Duarte Cup (the equivalent of the Super Cup), the Latin Cup (a precursor to the European Cup), and……the Rossi & Martin Cup. The what? An Italian beverage company sponsored this tournament, more aptly called a “game.” Basically, Barcelona played a “top European side” at Les Corts. The winner of the game won the cup. Barca won all six editions of this “tournament.” I don’t rate or count this cup, but, hey, winning four trophies is still a wonderful haul.
Modern fans wonder – why would Franco allow such a talented player to go to Barcelona and not Madrid? Well, Madrid did not sign Kubala despite a first shot at him. Second, aside from a single General’s Cup semifinal, Franco never tried to strangle the life or sporting success out of FC Barcelona. In fact, the club won several trophies during his reign. This goes along with his unique nationalist ideology and philosophy: he wanted a successful Catalonia, but a Castillian one. He wanted a successful Barca, but a “Spanish” one. Basically, he wanted them to be solo un club. As repulsive as that sounds.
On the field of play, Kubala was both a boxer and a piano player. He used his broad shoulders to push around opposing defenders, but also put his two-footed dexterity to work. He possessed a canon of a shot, but often disarmed defenses with a well-timed run or a delicate heel flick. He was the thinking fan’s player, but people who think too much get headaches. In those cases, Kubala could just use his brute strength to do what he wanted and when he wanted. Check out some highlights below.
Kubala lifted FC Barcelona to majestic heights and made the team a formidable counterweight to Real Madrid’s golden era of Di Stefano and Puskas. In fact, Kubala’s Barca was the first team to knock Madrid out of the European Cup and ended their fantastic run. However, all good things must come to an end. Kubala’s ego clashed off the field with Barca coach Helenio Herrera and on the field with fellow superstar Luis Suarez. Suarez and Kubala were both all-stars, but they both demanded the ball and often looked to score.
Kubala also had alleged alcoholism problems. He was once asked by a customs officials about some declared bottles of whiskey, and he pointed to his stomach. Still, he won the battle of the press, and Herrera and Suarez both left the club (and later reunited at Internazionale). However, his declining physical abilities and lack of focus meant he could no longer carry by himself the team he loved. Near the end of his career, FC Barcelona’s sporting decline had followed the club’s disastrous real estate dealings. His shadow and the looming debt from the non-sale of the Les Corts stadium weighed down generations of cules for decades.