history | 2015-04-24
The Legend of Kubala (I)
The man for whom the Camp Nou was built
After almost 13 years since his passing, it was remarkable to discover that the last and only biography of Ladislao Kubala Stecz was written in 1961, when he retired from Barcelona.
It was a book made especially for that moment and it had less than a hundred pages dedicated to the man about whom entire encyclopedias could have been written. Since then, in the last half century, Kubala has earned barely a couple of light notes on the occasion of the club’s Centenary.
With surprises such as this one, Spanish football shows its incredible weakness in terms of historical memory. On top of that, the dynamics of new-millennium media work against us. There’s barely enough time to pay attention to the last match with its pile of repercussions, and the next one, characterized by an avalanche of expectations. So it’s not surprising that fans under the age of 40 barely recognize the peculiar last name of the player who forced the construction of the Camp Nou. Epidermal description, nothing too profound.
From a global perspective, there might not have been another period of time as important and special as the one written by the Hungarian in the history of Spanish football. The Amberes generation, with Zamora and Samitier leading, opened the doors to the social phenomenon, the professionalism and the popular infatuation with the ball.
The Spanish League was created in 1929 and, right after that, we became victims of history. With the action recommencing after the tragic break, the singularity of Athletic de Bilbao stands out in a new division of power and suddenly, in 1948, San Lorenzo de Almagro takes off on a tour across Spain to demonstrate that there’s more than fury and race, testosterone and desire, that football is a matter of technique and association naturally aimed at entertainment, at giving back the fans not only the price paid for the ticket, but also the emotional investment made.
Back then, thanks to Martino and Pontoni, stars from the Cyclone of Boedo, the fan experienced something similar to Saul’s fall on his way to Damascus. That’s how football should be played. Remember the anecdote of the San Mamés when, after seeing that the 11 Argentinians played as their divisive Panizo did, the fans did not complain about his personal style, elegance and technique anymore.
And in the end, the ones that better followed the example of the Argentinian maestros were the people at Les Corts, a place which will store the memory of such exhibitions forever. This was the first brick on a path that 60 years later, and after thousands of different pathways and contributions, would lead to the birth of the current model, polished at last to its most minute details.
The team was still lacking talent when an incomparable person showed up at Barcelona - someone unique, falling at the right time and place. Kubala and his Hungary arrived like a wandering tribe exposed in a showcase, whose only ambition was to win money if they found someone to sign with. Real Madrid brought them, a connoisseur of Laci’s talent, but it is Barcelona’s Sports Director who ended up cashing in. Samitier convinced Kubala to change his destination with a series of formidable perks, economic or otherwise. He turned Ferdinand Daucik, Kubala’s brother-in-law, into a coach, and promised to bring over his wife, Ana Viola, and both of his kids, who were still trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
The list of Kubala’s contributions is never-ending: He was the first to preach the virtues of warmups to avoid injuries. He took free kicks with a curve, something unseen before then. He protected the ball between his legs, taking advantage of his low center of gravity. He took penalty kicks with paradinha, in other words, stopping his shot until the keeper has chosen a side and sending it to the opposite one.
His appearance produced passion: Blonde, with small blue eyes and the chiseled body of an athlete, with thighs 73 centimeters in circumference (what an exaggeration). Kubala lived for football, his unique passion since the childhood times of a woven ball of rags shared with friend Ferenc Puskás. Then, years of adolescence that pushed him from Hungary to Slovakia, his mother’s land, to play for different national teams and to carve out an obsession, a goal: Making a living out of football wherever it paid the most.
There were difficulties for Kubala when he abandoned his native land: Passing through concentration camps in Udine, and his unbreakable will. Hungary crucified him in front of international organizations, and classified him as a felon for abandoning his club, Vasas, when he was under contract, and asked for his suspension.
That’s when Samitier took advantage of his friendship with General Franco, a man who admired him from the time he saw the Barça legend play for Real Madrid in the years of the Republic, to think up a propaganda strategy. That heavenly runaway needs to be protected from the red terror. Kubala was baptized in the Christian faith and granted Spanish nationality, a passport to naturalization, a few months after his arrival.
He made his debut for Barcelona in a Cup match and all hell broke loose. With him, the blaugrana became unbeatable. There is no division in the locker room even if Kubala took seven times more free kicks than César, who until that point had been the star and who now becomes his loyal squire.
And a phrase, “Now I roll my sleeves,” gets embedded in the culé imagination forever.
Popular passion crystallized in the way the team was welcomed home after winning the Latin Cup in Paris, the last of the Five Cups. From the border to the Catalonian capital, more than one and a half million people took to the streets. Barcelona and Catalonia recovered their smile, which had broken by the unending, tough losers’ postwar era, thanks to a blond Slav.
The need for a new Stadium started to be considered when the number of members jumped from 22,000 to 45,000 and at the charming, ancient Les Corts, those who can’t get a ticket stayed outside the stadium, following the match by transistor radio, walking laps during the 90 minutes as though on a pilgrimage. At a time with no big distractions, the best, the cheapest and the most socially-accepted hobby was called Kubala.
The urban legends with Kubala as a hero, whether true or not, multiplied. And a phrase, “Now I roll my sleeves,” gets embedded in the culé imagination forever.
In a League match against Sevilla, Barcelona was losing 0-3 a half-hour into the match. After the third Sevilla goal, Kubala picked up the ball from the net and calmly walked to the center of the pitch while ostentatiously rolling up his sleeves, wanting to send a message to the congregation: “Now I’m on it.”
Barça ended up winning, and the crowd came up with that phrase, “Now I roll my sleeves,” synonymous with going into the mud and taking matters seriously.
At Les Corts, the players entered the pitch from the stands and there, in another venerated anecdote, Kubala and his sidekick, ‘Gitano’ Biosca, performed a ritual of affirmation and trust before the matches start, followed like a sermon by those lucky enough to find themselves near them. For his teammates he’s “Big Head” or "Olegario", a nickname stemming from a Samitier idea. Kubala’s paperwork wasn’t complete, but his first contract had been signed. After having tucked him away in a loft and getting him to train with amateurs, Samitier asked Kubala to play mute and answer to "Olegario" to avoid having his training partners find out he’s a foreigner.
Songs are written, and the only thing talked about is Kubala, Kubala and Kubala, until he contracts tuberculosis, a dreaded disease that made some of his contemporaries retire. His illness is treated in Monistrol de Calders, where Kubala gains weight.
Meanwhile, the board is hysterical because its golden goose is in danger, so Samitier went back into action. He filled the temporary gap with a globetrotter, a friend of Kubala and Daucik named Jiri Hanke, and started looking for an adequate replacement, just in case. After watching Millonarios de Bogotá, the famous Blue Ballet, in action at Real Madrid’s 50th anniversary, Samitier falls in love with Alfredo Di Stéfano, who he contacts a few months later to inquire about his availability.
Di Stéfano leaves Millonarios and is presented at Barcelona, with an already recovered Kubala. The bond between the stars and their families is almost instantaneous, to the point of living together for three months in the Kubala family’s chalet in the Sarriá district, on Duquesa de Orleans Street. They won’t stop being friends. Each time Alfredo is exempt from his duties in Madrid he goes to Barcelona to have dinner with Laci and Ramón Alberto Villaverde, an Uruguayan who had also played for Millonarios and who is now Barcelona’s forward, in private gatherings that last until dawn in the booth of a restaurant on París Street.
By this time Kubala has managed to reunite his family. His wife, Ana Viola, also known as Iby, put her first-born son Branko in a truck tire and though also pregnant at the time with her second son, Laci Jr., she swam across the icy-cold Danube in the middle of the night. The risky adventure was successful and from Austria, Samitier manages to get her to Barcelona quickly, finally fulfilling his promise. Sixty years later, Laci Jr. still recalls this incident.
Even before the "Di Stéfano case", the canes of Spanish football became spears against Kubala. Centered in Bilbao, they load the artillery demanding respect for the sacred signs of Spanish football’s identity, the whole deal with the fury, the race. All of his technique, curves and such silliness didn’t fit with the national spirit.
Violence was used to stop Kubala, all means were justified. Kubala remained loyal to his style, and loved putting on a show - especially at Les Corts - when the score was in his favor. Like a performance routine, when there’s a couple of minutes left he ran to the corner, controlling the ball. The crowd understood his intention and bursts into cheers: Kubala will finish the match with his celebrated technique show, keeping the ball and not allowing anyone to take it from him no matter how many rival shirts gather in an inch of ground. Such a display of confidence, arrogance, quality, call it what you want, was answered with an abundance of hits and dreadful tackles, but Kubala remains unshaken by every kind of kick, a habitual response to the acts of provocation that would be unthinkable these days.
Samitier asks him to complain publicly about the butchery but Kubala doesn’t care, even though someone who he cherishes as a father asks him to do it. But since day one his gratefulness to this adoptive land was so enormous that he never raised any protest, about anything. And then, five minutes into a Cup match in Bilbao, he is hunted and suffers possibly the worst of his 17 serious injuries during his 11 years at Barça. The knee was shattered. The meniscus, torn from its natural place. In cast and crutches, he decides to take the trip to Bern to follow the final stage of ’54 World Cup.
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