history | 2015-04-27
The Legend of Kubala (II)
The man for whom the Camp Nou was built
Have you read the first part of this article? Read it here before you continue:
Just before the final of the World Cup, he visits the Magyar wizards who he has not seen in five long years. The scene is exciting: He reconnects with his old friend Puskas – who he wanted Barcelona to sign, and who is a Colonel in the Hungarian army – he greets Grosics, Bozsik, Kocsis, Czibor, Hidegkuti, he hugs them all, so happy and nervous he can’t get the language right. He speaks to them in Czech, Hungarian, even in Spanish. The reception drives him to continue after discovering that his former teammates not only bear no grudge against him for fleeing the country, but still see him as the missing gear in the engine of a national team that wrote history during the 1950s.
It’s curious that no one recalls Kubala when talking about that fantastic Hungary team. He couldn’t play with them because he’d been banned by the Hungarian Federation, but he was destined to be the natural leader of the group, a role later played by Puskas. This omission, along with forces of destiny in form of injuries and physical ups and downs, kept him from reaching the Olympus of football that is formed, upon almost unanimous agreement, by Di Stéfano, Pelé, Cruyff, Maradona and Messi.
When Kubala landed in the Spanish League he became a top-notch scorer, despite his favorite position being the right interior, in charge of assisting César or launching balls to the wingers. His love of tactics made him come up with an almost childish, but utterly effective, way of driving rival defenses dizzy: He alternates his position with César’s. With just a look of acknowledgement, one fell back to take the defender out of his position while the other moved into the center of the attack.
But after the disaster at San Mamés, Kubala was never the same again. He lost speed, and decided to play deeper, now an organizer with incredible technique who liked to amuse himself, maybe too much, with ball possession, delaying the arrival to the rival goal.
At a club as bipolar as Barça, attention wanders. Samitier signs a host of figures, none of which can reach the right rhythm or the right number of titles, while the president Miró Sans focused on plans for the new coliseum, a work of almost pharaonic dimensions.
A curious concept is born, the dekubalization, or how to make the team rely less on its unquestionable star, the lighthouse for the rest of the squad. Many coaches failed until Helenio Herrera arrived, a man who had triumphed at modest teams such as Valladolid, Atlético de Madrid and Sevilla. Herrera might also have been the first trainer to focus the spotlight on himself. He applied a certain amount of psychology to his work and, given his dominating character, gets approval to do what he pleases.
From the start, Kubala clashed with Herrera. H.H. wanted to build the team starting from the goal protected by Ramallets, and triple the wages of the defenders, who had been extras thus far, mostly local boys turned into bodyguards. Kubala, along with Czibor and Kocsis – two friends he rescued after the Soviet invasion in Hungary in 1956 – declared himself a fervent supporter of getting the best out of talent, of playing end to end football with goals and of forgetting the strategy, especially when he understands that Herrera is a staunch conservative.
Kubala didn’t lack for arguments: Make Luisito Suárez, maybe the best midfielder in history until then, move the ball and put it up front for the enjoyment of scorers like Eulogio Martínez and Evaristo, the wingers or the midfielders made of silk like Villaverde, Tejada or the Hungarians themselves. With this constellation of stars up front, let rivals worry.
Beneath the confrontation lies another secret kept even today: Allegations that Kubala is a clean sportsman while Herrera was one of those who believe that anything goes. There were rumors about certain thermoses with coffee, slightly loaded with stimulants and amphetamines. Kubala refused this coffee, which turned the coach‘s loyal followers into motorcycles. Back then, the term doping wasn’t even coined, wasn’t even on the radar.
Herrera, facing the riot started in that locker room overflowing with stars, opted for rotation in attack and limiting Kubala’s appearances to home matches. Away, he called upon Ribelles, an all-terrain player who was able to cover the ground that Kubala abandoned.
Simultaneously, the fans tangled themselves in a battle between Suaristas and Kubalistas, an absolutely artificial polemic. From when Kubala first saw a 17-year-old Suarez, who had just started with Depor, he advocated for his signing. Suárez was a sensational architect who performed tasks which qualify almost as antithetic to Kubala’s. The two were an egg and a chestnut in terms of style and function. They were friends, and the Hungarian served as a mentor for the Spaniard, a detail that Suárez always remembered, seeing Kubala as a reflection of what he should be as a professional even if Kubala barely cared about himself.
...he reached an agreement with the coach at the time: “I score twice and go back home.”
Kubala was a die-hard night owl, and when he went partying with his friends, they went late and long. Years later, the massage therapist Ángel Mur would reveal his cures for the tremendous hangovers the star had when he arrived to the locker room: the Aragonese gave him quick massages, put him in cold water showers, gave him coffee with salt and got him to the minimum level required to perform.
Kubala’s body could handle everything. In friendly matches after binges, he reached an agreement with the coach at the time: “I score twice and go back home.” Said and done.
Any barcelonian of the time has an anecdote about Kubala and nightlife. Some are just unbelievable. Others, though they may seem like the product of a delirious imagination, ended up being true despite the aura of secrecy that had been imposed by the club, who was conscious that the genius had turned his life into an exaggeration. During the ‘50s, a few private investigators in the city earned quite a big salary from Barça doing reports about the details of the star’s dissolute life.
But anyone can hang a bell on Kubala, who was whimsical and detached, the protagonist of thousands of feats of good faith, a man who anyone can take advantage of, wasteful to the core. Since his wife’s arrival, household economy is part of an agreement: the wife will manage his salary and annual wage while the player fills his pocket with bonuses and other incomes that will allow him to keep up with the unbridled pace of his life. Kubala is a big child, a huge loaf of bread that everyone wants a piece of, from the Hungarian refugees that appeared at his doorstep to beggars and a full variety of rascals worthy of the best classical literature.
Club de Futbol Barcelona (this was how the club was named according to the imposed terminology at the time), just finished spending 288 million pesetas on its new stadium, originally priced at 90 million when plans were drafted. The ghost of bankruptcy hovers above the club, that can’t sell the old stadium of Les Corts – pending paperwork to qualify it for other purposes for nine years – and is victim of other strategic mistakes.
For example, Barça ignored the invitation to take part in the organization of the brilliant Europe Cup, a proposal by the journalist Carlos Pardo, in favor of playing in the already expired Latin Cup.
In Madrid, Raimundo Saporta hops on that speeding train, and the results are known. Since 1953, with Di Stéfano’s signing, Real Madrid becomes the major adversary. It is a rivalry with undeniable political roots that supersedes the local one with Espanyol, that club that Barça battled during the first half of the century.
With Herrera comes the desired reaction and after many vain attempts Evaristo’s goal, decisive in a tremendous knock-out stage loaded with events and with arbitrary interpretations according to the colors you wear, brings the white continental hegemony to an end. Barça was in the Final in Bern, 1961.
Of course, even the analysts back then were unable to predict that the house of cards would fall apart so loudly. The Blaugranas arrived at the most decisive match in the club’s history to date in a bad state. The club was being ruled by a interim board, during a period between presidencies, that sold Luis Suárez to Inter (claimed by Herrera who had already fled) for 25 million pesetas. The excuse? Paying the debts incurred by the stadium. The surreal part is that the new President, Enric Llaudet, spends 20 million of that sum making 15 sterile signings that would guarantee the renewal of an aged squad when it was obvious that Suárez, at only 24 years old, was the pillar to buttress the team from the ‘60s on.
Secondly, then-coach Ljubisa Brocic has been fired and his place on the bench is taken, provisionally, by Enrique Orizaola who, days before the final, Kubala convinces to let him play as a starter. His argument was that his European fame would make Benfica pay attention to him, leaving his teammates free. Kubala suffers from a slipped disc at the time and plays as a right winger, with his whole torso wrapped in bandages. He can barely move, a reckless move that at the time goes unnoticed, but that can be revealed today after it was verified by people close to the player.
The match turns out rich in disgraces, an incredible jinx for Barcelona. Ramallets failed on two out of the three Portuguese goals, and later opted for retirement after the collapse in Bern. Kubala followed his lead in a curious way. At 34, the club asked him to manage its new football academy, the proto-Masía, and to be an interim coach the next season if the current one was fired. The club subsequently changed the agreement four days later and made Kubala take control of the team.
He doesn’t say anything, but knows that coaching his former veteran and young teammates without the necessary talent wouldn’t end well. He started well, but got knocked out of the Cup and is fired. Because he was part of the club’s patrimony he asked to return to the academy, but Llaudet had closed it for budgetary reasons.
Almost 36 years old and mostly recovered from his physical slump, he asks the President to be a player again, to get back out on the field. Llaudet rejects the offer and Kubala is left out on the street, feeling betrayed by his superiors not once, but thrice.
He decides to play again, with one condition: He wanted to stay with his family in Barcelona, the city where Kubala had laid deep roots. Espanyol opened its doors and Kubala had a single condition, to be allowed to play as an amateur. Sporting legislation forbade this, so Kubala received a symbolic salary of 500 pesetas per month, that he planned to give to charity.
Kubala trips over the same stone again: He doesn’t talk, doesn’t explain his reasons for fear of being misunderstood, and the reaction of those who used to worship him is furious one. It is considered the greatest treason since Judas, or almost. When Kubala visits the Camp Nou with Espanyol, his friend César tells Vergés to stick to Kubala, possibly convinced that time had not passed for the legend. Barça won 4-0 and the reception for its former star is harsh - he is whistled continuously. He would endure another season in Sarriá as a coach, and signed his friend Di Stéfano, who had also left Chamartín after some bickering. The matter of dealing with decaying myths was very difficult.
A review of these 12 years of his life left the image of a famous actor who has played all kinds of parts and plays appears. Kubala in comedy and tragedy, always adored by his contemporaries, maybe too naïve in his bonhomie, devoted to the club and its people, punished by the forces of destiny in that cruel trickle of injuries that forbade him to perform satisfactorily for a long time. Kubala played at his top level at Barça for only his first three years, when his physique was intact.
Kubala was a revolutionary, and his story is proof of the fact that Barcelona, and by extension Spanish football, dismisses the lessons that can be derived from his evolution, ignores that historical memory from which so much might be extracted. Very few know and recognize in this day and age that Kubala deserves the role of a visionary capable of opening a new era, later shared with his friend Di Stefano, another genius who changed the personality and fate of his institution.
With Kubala came modern times. He was Picasso in his area. He and Di Stefano were friends, both revolutionaries who are comparable philosophically. If Kubala is a pioneer of the current Barcelona model, Di Stéfano also deserves a highlighted place for inspiring that air of a team unable to give up in his Real Madrid, something that still prevails in last minute comebacks when fury is unleashed at the Bernabéu.
But really, everything is written in history. It is enough to draw from it when convenient in order to extract lessons and impart admiration.
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