FLORIAN ALBERT: The unknown Ballon d’Or
«Twenty-eight years old. The ideal age for a footballer. The one where you reach the perfect blend of physical vigour and experience, of the ability to manage effort and the technique that has been refined over the years.
Instead I, at 28, am stuck in the pits.
I have a cast from my ankle to my groin.
“It’s a bad fracture Florian. We just have to wait. And hope”.
Those were the words of the surgeon who operated on me two months ago here in Budapest.
It was 15 June 1969. I was playing in Denmark with my national team. It was an important, crucial game. We were playing for qualification for the next World Cup to be played in Mexico in less than a year.
I was thinking of getting to the ball a moment before the Danish goalkeeper.
To get there first to touch the ball just enough to get it under his body just as he was rushing out to block that ball.
Instead he got there first.
And he took it all.
The ball and my leg which was under his body breaking in two places.
Now I have to look forward.
About getting back on a football pitch I don’t have a single doubt in the world!
The problem is another: will I still be the same as before? Will I be the same one who two years ago won the Golden Ball ahead of champions like Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Johnstone or Franz Beckenabuer? Will I be the same as I was at the last World Cup, the one in England in 1966? The one in which after we beat the Brazil of Gerson, Garrincha and Nilton Santos we walked off the pitch with the Goodison Park crowd chanting my name ?
Will I be the same one who in 1962 at the World Cup in Chile won the scorers’ table and was judged the best young player of that championship?
I don’t know, I can’t know.
Only time and the field will give that answer.
… What is certain is that at 28 years old I can’t retire…»
It would be practically a whole year before we would see Florian Albert, the greatest Hungarian footballer in history after the unreachable Ferenc Puskas, on a football pitch again.
Albert’s fears were well-founded.
In fact, he would return to more than decent form, winning the Hungarian Cup with his Ferencvaros in 1972, the year in which the Magyars reached fourth place at the European Championships in Germany and where Albert only played in the final for third place, losing to Belgium.
But he would never again be that phenomenal footballer who enchanted the world with his national team at the World Cups in Chile and England, or who led his club to the Fairs Cup in 1965, beating Juventus of Del Sol, Combin and Castano in the final and overcoming teams of the value of Manchester United, Athletic Bilbao and Roma along the way.
In 1974, at the age of 33, he would end his career, all spent in the ranks of Ferencvaros.
It is 17 March and Albert will come on in the second half, scoring a goal in the three-goal to nil victory of his ‘Green Eagles’. He will be the last of the great Hungarian talents to appear on the international scene … with the only fault of being born a few years later than his great predecessors Puskas, Koscis and Hidegkuti.
ANECDOTES AND TRIVIA
Florian Albert lost his mother when he was only two years old. His peasant family from the small village of
Hercegszántó, located a stone’s throw from the Yugoslav border, moves to Budapest. One day, Ferencvaros organises a scouting day at their headquarters for all the capital’s youngsters. Florian is immediately included in the ranks of the club’s youth sector. He is eleven years old. He will spend the next twenty-two in the ranks of the ‘Green Eagles’.
Florian is a shy, introverted boy who literally transforms on a football pitch. After a handful of games in the junior team, the coaches realised that the boy was more than ready for a move to the first team.
He made his debut on 2 November 1958 in a league match against Dioseyor.
He scored two goals and never left the team again.
His rise is impressive. Seven months after his league debut, in June 1959, he made his debut for the Hungarian national team. Opposite was Sweden, who had reached the final of the World Cup on friendly soil the year before, only to be defeated by Pelé and Garrincha’s Brazil. The Hungarians won by three goals to two and Albert was instrumental with two valuable assists.
From that day on, Albert also became a staple on the national team, starting with the Olympic Games in Rome the following year, which Hungary would finish in a prestigious third place and with Albert scoring five goals in four matches.
In these very early years of his career, Florian Albert acted as a pure striker.
He excelled in dribbling, had a powerful and precise shot with both feet and was also very skilful in aerial play thanks to his 185 centimetres height.
In 1960 and 1961 he won the top scorer’s table in the Hungarian championship and in 1962, although co-hosted with four other players, he also won this trophy at the World Cup in Chile.
Soon afterwards, however, his tactical transformation began. Albert began to move backwards and increasingly became the focus of manoeuvre both with Ferencvaros and with his country’s national team. Also contributing to this was the appearance on the Magyar scene of an excellent classic centre forward: Ferenc Bene, who, after his beginnings as a right winger, would end up moving more and more into the centre of the pitch, becoming the team’s first forward. It will be him from the following European Championships in Spain who will play the role of the main striker in the team, leaving the game-building tasks to Albert. For Hungary, another third place would come.
“The Emperor”, this was Albert’s nickname from his beginnings with the “fradi”, the “masons” as Ferencvaros was also nicknamed, reached the peak of his career in the following two years: 1965 and 1966.
In 1965 he was decisive in winning the Fairs Cup (to this day the only continental trophy won by a Hungarian team) played against Juventus at the Comunale in Turin in a one-off match, but it was above all his performances at the 1966 English World Cup that catapulted him to the attention of the entire football world. Above all those against Brazil in the qualifying round.
Brazil, who appeared without the injured Pelé, who was literally massacred by the Bulgarians in the first match, presented a top-class line-up including both the experienced Gilmar, Bellini and Garrincha and the young and promising Gerson, Tostao and Jairzinho.
But it will be Albert’s class and vision of the game and Bene’s speed and opportunism that will make the difference that day.
It will be Bene who, starting from his preferred position of outside right, after jumping over a couple of opponents will squeeze towards the centre and beat Gilmar at his post.
Brazil’s reaction was entrusted to youngsters Jairzinho, Gerson and Tostao, while for Garrincha it was clear that the polish of his best days was just a memory.
It was Tostao himself, with a left-footed shot from the edge of the box, who levelled the match.
But it was only a flare-up. In the second half, the Hungarians, led by Albert, who acted as a manoeuvring centre forward allowing the insertions from the outside of Bene and Farkas, would go ahead first with a great goal on the volley by Farkas on a cross from the right and then with a penalty kick converted by Meszoly a quarter of an hour from the end. It was the action that led to this goal that crowned Albert’s sumptuous game, repeatedly ovated by the Goodison Park crowd, happy to see the Brazilian favourites (and main bogeyman for the English national team) succumb against the Hungarians.
Albert will get the ball in his own defensive three-quarter and then set off with a truly impressive progression. He left two opponents on the spot before feeding the ball to Bene, who was brought down in the box by Paulo Henrique.
In the following match, Hungary sealed qualification by beating Bulgaria before going down in the quarter-finals at the hands of the Soviet Union of Yascine, Chislenko and Voronin.
Florian Albert’s name is now known worldwide.
In the Ballon d’Or ranking, he will place fifth behind such holy monsters as Bobby Charlton, Eusebio, Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Moore.
He would win the trophy the following year, lining up three of those who had overtaken him the year before (Charlton, Beckenbauer and Eusebio) and the Scotsman Jimmy Johnstone, who had won the European Cup with his Celtic a few months earlier.
Florian Albert is also the only Hungarian to have won the Golden Ball, despite the impact Great Hungary had in the 1950s. The anecdote of the awarding of the Golden Ball, which was supposed to take place before the European Championship quarter-final between Hungary and the USSR and in front of 70,000 people at the Nepstadion in Budapest, is amusing. For that match, however, Albert was injured. At that point, the representatives of France Football decided to present the prestigious award to Albert in the hall of the hotel hosting the national team. The new coach of the Hungarians, Karoly Sòs, objected. The award will be presented to him at his home a few days later … in the kitchen and with his wife as the only spectator at the event!
Very honest in this respect is the statement made by Albert at the time of the nomination. “I am the first Hungarian to win it only because it was created in 1956, the year the USSR invaded my country. In 1954 all the strongest footballers in the world were from my country. We would have been spoilt for choice’.
Little known to the general public is what happened in early 1967. Flamengo, perhaps the most famous team in Rio de Janeiro, invited Albert to Brazil. It is only a trip but Flamengo has clear ideas: they would like to sign Albert to a contract and keep him in Brazil, in defiance of the strict regulations that prevented Hungarian players from moving abroad. Albert will only stay two weeks in Rio … but in time to play one of the most heartfelt derbies for the ‘Cariocas’ with Flamengo: the one against Vasco de Gama.
Albert’s account of his arrival in Rio is also very amusing.
‘When I arrived at the airport there were hundreds of people. An incredible and unexpected welcome. I remember getting into the taxi that was to take me to my hotel and I heard my name on the radio. I asked the taxi driver what they were saying. He explained to me that behind us there was a radio crew from Rio following us on the way and the speaker was reporting the whole thing live on the radio!”
Then there are the ‘numbers’ for what they are worth in such an extraordinary career.
258 goals in 350 games with Ferencvaros and 31 in 75 games with the national team.
The greeting from the people of his Ferencvaros was very touching. Thousands of people had attended his funeral, which took place on the morning of 6 November 2011 and was filmed live on State Television and attended by all the highest officials of the country.
But it was what happened in the late afternoon of that same day that has remained indelible in the memory of the entire Hungarian people.
Ferencvaros was scheduled to play a league match against Paksi that day.
Shortly before the start of the match all the floodlights in the stadium were turned off … but thousands of candles of the fans present were lit.
The Ferencvaros players took to the pitch in black suits as a sign of mourning and a large banner appeared in the stands with the words ‘God is near you now, Emperor’.
Florian Albert, the least known and least celebrated ‘Golden Ball’ in history … but a wonderful footballer and the last true heir of the great Magyar school.
A footballer, as Lajos Baroti, coach of the Hungarian national team for many years, described him, ‘who was just as good at creating goal chances for his teammates as he was at scoring them himself. And all with his great elegance’.