Magyar Renaissance – The cherry red flame of Flórián Albert.

The Magnificent Magyars of Ferenc Puskás, Nándor Hidegkuti, Sándor Kocsis et al, who bedazzled and bewildered the pride of England’s Three Lions back in 1953, may well have been the greatest team in the world for the best part of a decade. Had they won the World Cup on a rain-sodden Berne pitch in 1954, there would even be less room for debate. When they were odds on favourites to adorn their glory with the Jules Rimet Trophy though, they squandered a two-goal lead to a West Germany team wearing boots fitted with revolutionary screw-in studs that allowed them to better adapt to the conditions, and the ultimate prize slipped through Hungarian fingers. By the time the next World Cup came around, South America’s Brazil and Pelé, the starlet who would become one of the greatest players ever to grace a football field had claimed the mantle. Hungary’s time in the sun had passed, the bright flare of their football dampened down by the aging of their Golden Generation, and a rain soaked Swiss pith. Now their accomplishments sat in the shadow cast by the, ironically, sun-yellow-shirted Brazilians and their exile initiated by Soviet tanks in 1956 precluded any return to their greatness.

As fires burn out though, just before their energy is spent, there’s often a late, last flaming of life, perhaps not as powerful as when in its hot and burning intensity, but still warm enough to give off a pleasing glow. For the Hungarian national football team, that late glow, arising as the embers of glory from the magical team created by Gusztáv Sebes were dying away, came from a new cherry-shirted hero; one that may even not have looked out of place amongst the luminaries of the mid-fifties.

Flórián Albert’s father was a farmer and blacksmith in the small Hungarian town of Hercegszántó in the county of Bács-Kiskun, near the border with Serbia. The people of the area are predominantly ethnic Magyar, with a small population of Šokci and Orthodox Serbs. It’s the sort of traditional homeland from which Hungarian heroes are born, and given the occupations of Albert’s father, it’s no surprise that his son went on not only to plant and grow the seed of Hungarian football’s brief renaissance, but also to forge a new, if slightly less glorious ‘cherry-red-hot’ period, in the early to mid-sixties.

Flórián Albert was born on 15 September 1941, and would therefore have been growing into maturity at the time when his countrymen were becoming the dominant force in world football. The loss of the 1954 World Cup Final would doubtless have been a severe disappointment to the young Albert, as would the loss of the palyers to all corners of Europe after the crshing of the Hungarian Revolution, but twelve months before that game, he had launched himself on his own footballing career.

After the death of his mother, when Albert was only two, the family left the countryside and moved to Budapest. It would be a key factor in shaping the youngster’s career. At an open day at the Ferencvárosi TC club in the city, the coaches there quickly recognised the young talent of the country boy, new to the city. It would begin an association between Albert and Fradi that would last more than 20 years, and include a first team playing career at the Üllői úti Stadion – later to be renamed as Albert Flórián Stadium in his honour in May 2007 – lasting from 1958 until retirement from the game in the 1974. Even then though, a true one-club man, he still maintained strong links with Fradi.

Although Ferencvárosi TC had a strong and long history as one of the country’s top clubs, at the time Albert joined them in 1952, their fortunes were in slight decline. They had not secured the Hungarian league title since the 1948-49 season and not lifted the domestic cup for the best part of a decade. It was a silverware drought that would change into a relative flood of trophies as Albert’s 256 league goals in just over 350 games, brought the glory days back to the club both domestically and in Europe, as they lifted the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1965. Despite being more a playmaker very much in the mould of Hidegkuti, rather than a Puskás-esque striker, he would also still end up as the club’s top scorer on three occasions. His 433 games for the club also places him third on the list of having played most games for the club. His contribution to the success of the club is plain to see. The club’s own official website still carries a quote form Albert, underscoring his devotion to Fradi. It reads:

“As the trees of Kosztolányi, so belonged I to Üllői Street. My foes might have said: Albert loiters on the FTC pitch like the trees from Üllői Street with a slight difference; they don’t have their arms on their hips. Well, I was indeed loitering; what’s more, sometimes with my arms on my hip, but between two loitering, I performed some tricks, scored some goals and pleased a few hundred thousand football friends. For me, the FTC stadium meant everything: I, the lad from the countryside, could have become and became somebody there. MY FORTUNE LEAD ME THERE SINCE SOMEWHERE UP IN THE SKY IT HAD BEEN DETERMINED THAT MY LIFE WOULD BE FERENCVÁROS.”

Flórián Albert quickly established himself as a promising yuongster at Ferencvárosi TC, rising through the junior teams until he made his first team debut on 2 November 1958, scoring twice to underline the vast potential he had in his boots. He played another 14 times for the club in the league that season, netting a further four goals, to bring his tally at the end of the term to a round half-dozen. It would be the last time he finished with a single figure total for league goals until 1970, just four years short of his retirement. His international debut came just a year later.

By now, the national team was in the hands of Lajos Baróti, and after watching Albert play in a youth international match, the manager had already marked the card of the youngster for an early promotion to the senior side. The debut duly came in June 1959 in a game against a Swedish side who had battled so gamely against Pelé and his Brazil teammates in the World Cup Final the previous year. Albert contributed much to the 3-2 Hungarian victory, providing assists for two of the goals. By the time of the next World Cup, at then ago of just 20, he would be a force to reckon with on the international stage, much to England’s chagrin.

Before that though, he would enjoy a successful few seasons with his club, building both experience and reputation as one of the most gifted players in the Hungarian league. Successive league goal tallies of 27, 21 and 17, told only part of the story. His ability to open up defences with a pass, or the seemingly effortless gliding acceleration past an opponent that would become so familiar over the years won many games for Fradi, even when he hadn’t troubled the scoresheet directly himself. It was a style that would earn him the epithet of ‘The Emperor’ long before a German midfielder would be granted a similar accolade.

As what was termed the ‘Swinging Sixties’ in England got under way though, both Ferencvárosi TC and the Hungarian national team prospered, and in the green and white striped shirt of his club, and the bright cherry red shirt of his country, it was the prodigious talent of Flórián Albert very much to the fore of their successes.

On the international field, the 1962 World Cup in Chile gave the opportunity for Albert to display his talents to a global audience. Hungary had topped a qualification group containing East Germany and The Netherlands, winning all but the last game in their programme, a meaningless 3-3 draw with the Dutch when qualification was already secured. Now in South America, they were placed into Group Four, alongside Argentina, Bulgaria and England. With the shock of the Wembley 1953 thrashing and the return hiding the team took later in Budapest a fading memory, plus a new and young Hungary team following the exile of many of their stars, it was thought that Walter Winterbottom’s side would exact some revenge on the Magyars, but that wasn’t to be.

The squad that travelled to Chile looked a pale shadow of the great team of two tournaments previous. None of the stars of the Magical Magyars were there. It was a young squad with only goalkeeper and skipper Gyula Grosics, along with veteran forward Károly Sándor having experienced birthdays over thirty. Albert was a mere 20 years of age, the second youngest player in the group, despite having 20 caps to his name.

Hungary against England was the opening fixture for both of the teams, and when a Ron Flowers penalty on the hour mark drew England level, following an early goal from Lajos Tichy, it seemed they may have a chance for victory. It was Albert, however, who netted the winner with 20 minutes to play, and Hungary had defeated England again.  In the following game, he bettered that total, scoring a hat-trick in the 6-1 dismantling of Eastern European neighbours, Bulgaria. It meant that a comfortable 0-0 draw in the final game against Argentina was sufficient to send Hungary through to the knockout phase.

As would recur four years later however, it would be a case of ‘after The Lord Mayor’s Show’ following some outstanding performances. A tame 1-0 defeat to Czechoslovakia sent Hungary back home. Albert however would share the Golden Boot award as the joint top scorer in the Finals. He was also given the ‘Best Young Player Award: FIFA World Cup 1962’ award. The footballing world was beginning to take note that Hungary had another star on the rise.

Back in domestic matters, things were also moving along nicely. In 1963, the Hungarian title returned to the Üllői úti Stadion, and it was retained the following year. The club also lifted the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1965, defeating the might of Juventus in the final after eliminating Manchester United and Roma on the way, becoming the first, and so far only, Hungarian club to lift a major European trophy.

Courtesy of the league title, Fradi enjoyed a run to the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1968, and although he played less games than many players of other teams, Albert still finished as the joint top scorer, alongside Benfica’s renowned striker Eusebio. He was also top scorer in the Fairs Cup the following year. This remember was the record of a playmaker, rather than a striker; a man who was playing as a ‘false nine’ well before the days of Lionel Messi. The championship was won again in 1967 and retained in 1968, the latter offering another entry to the European Cup but, thwarted by politics and withdrawals after the Soviet Union crushing of the Prague Spring, they didn’t play in the tournament. Politics and Hungarian football were poor bedfellows.

The 1964 European Nations Cup saw Hungary finish in third place, but by now Albert was not only the main creative force for the national team, he was increasingly becoming a regular and reliable source of goals. It was therefore, no surprise when he was selected in the UEFA ‘Team of the Tournament,’ It would be the World Cup, to be held in England two years later however, when the full flowering of Flórián Albert’s talent would be on display. His performances leading Sepp Blatter in an article on the FIFA.com website entitled ‘The eternal elegance of Florian Albert,’ to describe him as, “an extremely elegant footballer with extraordinary skill and ball control. These qualities ensured that he was highly respected by his opponents.”

The Hungarians were now enjoying the renaissance and went into the 1966 World Cup with confidence, having won the Olympic title in 1964. They would also retain their Olympic title in 1968. For the tournament eventually won by England, the Hungarians were placed into a group with reigning champions Brazil, Portugal and, reprising the 1962 Finals in Chile, Bulgaria. It was hardly a ‘Group of Death’, but the South Americans were strongly fancied to top the standings, with the others fighting for the runners-up spot. In the first games, despite the Bulgarians handing out some outlandish treatments to the Brazilians, and in particular Pelé, their skulduggery failed to influence the result, and Brazil triumphed 2-0. It did however preclude the world’s best player from participating in the second game, against Hungary. Although no-one would wish injury on an opposition player, the situation would be advantageous to Albert and his team-mates, who had surprisingly lost to Portugal in their opening fixture.

With many of the squad retained from the tournament in Chile, and the European Championships a couple of years earlier, the young squad of who ventured to South America were now much more mature and the used to international competition. They would prove the point when they faced the South American world champions.

The game took place at Everton’s Goodison Park ground on 15 July, and has gone down in the annals of World Cup Finals as one of the best games ever to grace the tournament. Hungary had no intention of following the Bulgarians’ lead in their approach to overcoming such exalted opposition. Instead, very much in the way of their forebears, they opted to pit skill against skill in a thrilling encounter, eventually won 3-1 by Albert and his team-mates.

Although the mercurial number nine did not find the net in the game, his was a starring role, every inch the suitable replacement for the supposed, but absent, star of the show, Pelé. Game management, control of the pace of the game, swerving runs, sublime acceleration and passing graced the Goodison Park pitch, enthralling all who were there to witness, and the millions watching on television, fortunate enough to enjoy the ultimate flowering of Albert’s talent. The cherry red flame lit up the stadium and burnt into the memory of those watching. Both teams left the field to a standing ovation by what was overwhelmingly a neutral audience, but one enthralled by the exhibition of football served up. Chants of “Albert, Albert” arose from the crowd as the man who had been the outstanding talent, in one of the best games seen on these shores, left the pitch.

After the defeat, Brazil needed to defeat the Portuguese who had beaten Bulgaria the day after Albert’s grand show, but sadly, they were faced by a team that took the Bulgarian approach, rather than the Hungarian one, when challenged with outstanding talent. Cravenly, they kicked both Pelé and Brazil out of the tournament, as the English referee failed to protect the players in particular and the ethos of the beautiful game in general.

At the same time, Albert was now turning his skills to destroying the Bulgarians. Despite falling behind on the quarter-hour mark, another scintillating show brought three goals for the Hungarians and passage to the knockout phase as runners-up. Despite the potency of Eusebio, it should have been a shamefaced Portugal that topped the group, whilst Brazil limped back to South America, with the greatest player on the planet vowing never to let himself be exposed to the competition again. Fortunately, for football, he relented.

Aside from the opening game, Hungary, and in particular Albert, had performed exceptionally well, and looked set for a decent run at the tournament. The quarter-finals however saw them face the Soviet Union, with all the political angst that such an encounter brought with it, a mere decade after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the repercussions it had for the country and its national football team. For all of the Hungarian players, the events of that winter and the withering crackdown that followed under the Soviet imposed regime, would have left a deep and open wound. It was no great surprise therefore, that in a fairly tepid encounter, they lost 2-1 at Sunderland’s Roker Park.

Regardless of the emotional dilemma felt by the Hungarians, the Soviet’s had clearly done their homework on Hungary. Crowding out Albert with two and often three markers, he was largely blotted out of the game, and the flow of the team’s play was critically compromised. Being the outstanding player in a team makes you an easy target, and the rest of his team-mates couldn’t exploit the spaces allowed by the opposition focus on Albert. That, and a less than inspiring goalkeeping display by József Gelei, doomed them. For the second World Cup in a row, a brief flaring of the Hungarian flame had been doused following the group stages.

What sort of impression had the Magyar renaissance, led with such style by Flórián Albert had on the world though? It’s significant to note that the following year, the Hungarian star was feted. In the same FIFA article as referenced above, Blatter states how he remembered Albert’s, “sensational performance in the game against Brazil at the FIFA World Cup in 1966 in England, which cemented his standing as one of the world’s top players.” It clearly had done so. In the Ballon d’Or poll for 1967, despite England being world champions, and the fact that Hungary had been eliminated in the last eight, Albert topped the votes, amassing 64 in his favour, defeating Bobby Charlton by a margin of no less than 28 votes. His special year was completed by Ferencvárosi TC lifting the Hungarain title. The world had a new football star and, only in his mid-twenties, the world was open for Flórián Albert to take centre stage.

Things began to follow the path apparently laid out before him when another Fairs Cup campaign led to a final, although a loss to Leeds United, was an aberration from the script. In 1969 though, fate dealt a cruel hand. Playing for his country in a World Cup qualifying game against Denmark, Albert collided with Danish goalkeeper Knud Engedal. The encounter exploded the bone in the Hungarian’s leg, and in that moment, also destroyed the promise of so many great things to come. These were the days when such injuries would often spell the end of a career, but Albert was forged of strong stuff and fought back to fitness. The injury had however blown away the stardust in his feet and although he returned, still with the game nous and vision to command a game, he was now merely a good player, rather than the one with sublime skill, blessed by angels, that he had once been. It was a gift that had now been taken from him, never to return.

Albert returned to the game for Fradi’s 1970 campaign, and played his first international following the injury the following year. Despite the loss of the stardust, he remained one of his country’s best players and featured in the 1972 European Championships, contributing significantly to Hungary’s fourth place finish, with a couple of appearances. Still a talent, but a pale shadow of the player before the injury.

Success still followed with Ferencvárosi TC, and in 1972, they lifted the Hungarian Cup, completing the set of domestic titles for Albert. Two years later, on 17 March 1974, his race was run. A second-half substitute appearance, crowned by a goal in a 3-0 victory marked the end of the road for his playing career. Carried from the ground on his team-mates shoulders and applauded by fans and opposition alike, Flórián Albert took leave of the stage that he graced so well, but perhaps lamenting what should have been had it not been for that broken leg. He was only 32 years old.

The club he had so honoured on the pitch, would repay the debt owed to him with the renaming of the stadium in his honour, and after a brief, and largely unsuccessful spell as manager in North Africa, he would return to his beloved Fradi in a number of positions. Some may have been sinecures, but if so, they were earned.

Following an illness, Flórián Albert died on 31 October 2017 suffering a heart attack following surgery. His funeral took place on 6 November. On the same day, Ferencvárosi TC were to play a league match against Paksi SE. Ahead of kick-off, the floodlights were all turned off, the only visible light being from candles brought to the ground by Fradi supporters to honour their lost hero. The team wore a special one-off all black kit for the game and fans displayed a banner saying, “God shall be with you Emperor.” It was an emotional mark of respect from a club, echoed by a country, that felt privileged and grateful that the Emperor had also been with them.

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