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Kubala's legacy at Barcelona

Lionel Messi could become the standalone second highest scorer in Barcelona's history on Saturday night as the Spanish champions take on struggling Racing Santander - Messi needs just one goal to pass Ladislao Kubala's 194-goal record in all competitions. César still stands in his way but, while the 24-year-old continues to press his claims as a Barcelona great, he still has some way to go to overhaul the legacy that Kubala left when he played his last game for the club on August 30, 1961.

Voted the best Barcelona player of all-time by those who know, the culés [Barcelona fans], for the club's 100th anniversary in 1999, Hungarian Ladislao Kubala is a man revered at the Camp Nou. One of the greats to have played for three international teams, Kubala's 2002 obituary in The Guardian described him as ''a thick-thighed, blond, muscular, cheerfully heavy drinker, who allied exceptional skill with tactical flair and a devastating right-footed shot'', and he was influential in Barcelona's development on the European scene.

His story, like other greats of world football, is one that involves many struggles. After being spotted as a youth player, the 18-year-old signed for Ferencvaros and scored 19 goals there before fleeing to Czechoslovakia to join Slovan Bratislava in a bid to avoid military service. Two years in the country saw him marry there before returning to Hungary when his military obligations reared their head a second time. However, he did not stay long.

The post-war landscape of his homeland saw football, unusually, blossom. But what would be a golden era for Hungarian football began with one of their greatest players opting to leave - a year after Matyas Rakosi established a Stalinist dictatorship in 1948 - in the back of a truck destined for Italy. Kubala landed up playing for local team Pro Patria in early 1949 and so impressed that within a few months he was offered the chance to play for Italian champions Torino in a testimonial match against Benfica in Lisbon.

A week before the match, Kubala was reunited with his wife and son, who had fallen ill during the journey out of Hungary, and opted to stay with them in Italy. In doing so, he avoided tragedy as Torino's returning plane crashed into the Superga hills outside Turin killing all 31 on board, including Gyula Schubert, one of his best friends.

Kubala, though, could not mourn his friend in peace as there was a row brewing over his arrival in Italy. The Communist-dominated Hungarian FA denounced him as ''a delinquent and a fraudster'', according to author Jimmy Burns, as the ink had not yet dried on his contract with Budapest-based side Vasas before he had fled. Political motives played their part, but FIFA backed the Hungarians and placed a year-long ban on Kubala.

With a barrier to his fledgling career in place, Kubala was forced to move to another part of Italy, Cinecitta, and formed a football team named 'Hungaria' with others who had, in his own words, ''escaped from Communism''. Despite the name, there were Czechs, Croatians and Russians involved in the side and their star even made a film about them, subsequently titled Kubala: Stars In Search Of Peace.

On the pitch, they were not recognised by the football authorities, but most impressed on a tour to Spain where they beat Real Madrid 4-2, overcame the Spanish national team that was preparing for the 1950 World Cup and also dispatched Espanyol. It was at this game that Barcelona manager Pepe Samitier made his move for the forward amid interest from rivals Real.

Former Barcelona president Enrique Llaudet described the complex signing of the Hungarian: ''Kubala came to Spain thinking he was going to be signed by Real Madrid, but because he was half-pissed he didn't know whether he was coming or going ... there was a real confusion on the train and Kubala suddenly turns to Samitier and says 'Hey, we go to Madrid, don't we?' 'Sure, we are', says Samitier. 'But the sign says Barcelona,' insists Kubala. Then Samitier says: 'Don't you worry. We are going to the club now.' And that is how he brought us Kubala.''

When he sobered up, Kubala showed his negotiating skills and pulled out the draft contract that he had been given by Real Madrid and asked the Catalans to match it. The result was a deal that made him the highest-paid player in the club's history. He did not make his debut for another nine months - his FIFA ban was not lifted until April 1951 - but under the leadership of his brother-in-law, the Czech Ferdinand Daucik, Kubala quickly became a Barcelona star.

His debut eventually came in two friendly games against West Germany's Frankfurt, in which he scored six goals and helped to make five. Local paper Destino wrote: ''It would appear that with Kubala has arrived a new style of playing football... The public came out of these games in a state of amazement." He would continue to lead the side to unprecedented success.

Between 1951 and 1953, Barcelona were unstoppable and won almost every trophy on offer, only missing out on the league in 1951. Kubala was credited by Burns as having helped the club to overcome ''its post-war loss of confidence and shattered organisation'' and the 1952 season saw them land five trophies.

During his remarkable career in Catalonia, the side won the Spanish League in 1952, 1953, 1959 and 1960; Generalissimo's Cup in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1957 and 1959; Fairs Cup in 1958 and 1960; Copa Eva Duarte in 1952 and 1953; and Latin Cup in 1952. His great popularity was one of the reasons for Barcelona's move from Les Corts stadium to the Camp Nou, which opened its doors in 1957 to an initial capacity of 80,000 spectators.

Kubala's standing in Barcelona was unquestioned but, in the rest of the country, the non-Catalans did not receive him so well. An article by Jose-Maria Mateos appeared in a 1952 edition of El Correo Espanyol attacking the fact he had ''learned the game under Communism'' and it created what Barcelona historian Jaume Sobreques described as a ''black legend'' that saw him relentlessly abused at away games - not just by fans, but also by opposing players.

Throughout history, great players have been targeted for their skills, and Kubala was no different, with his Spanish record seven goals in a 9-0 win over Sporting Gijon only matched by the seven knee operations he was forced to undergo throughout his career. And his battles with alcohol created anecdotes that will long be told around the Barcelona halls, such as the time he was asked by a customs official about the whereabouts of two bottles of whisky he was declaring and simply pointed to his stomach with the words: 'Do you want to take an X-ray?'

Kubala is remembered for much more than his feats on the pitch and his departure from Barcelona in August 1961 brought rivals together as two Madrid legends, Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, pulled on the Blaugrana shirt to honour their friend in a testimonial against Stade de Reims. The resulting 4-2 win was a dream for the culés and Di Stefano paid tribute to his team-mate when he said: "Kubala was one of the best there has ever been. His game was pure, crystalline, a real joy for the fans. What I remember is his spirit of comradeship, the loyalty he showed as a friend."

What happened next? Kubala scored 194 goals in his 11 seasons at the club - 131 in the league, 49 in the cup, seven in the European Cup, six in the Fairs Cup, and one in the Latin Cup. He retired as a player in 1961 to become a youth coach at Barcelona before getting the senior job for the 1962-63 season. After being sacked, he came back out of retirement to play with Di Stefano at Espanyol, before finishing his career with FC Zurich. His coaching career is best remembered for ending Spain's 12-year absence from the World Cup by securing qualification for the 1978 edition, as well as spells in Switzerland and Saudi Arabia. Kubala died in May 2002, but is remembered as one of the greatest players to have graced the game, and a statue to honour his memory was erected outside the Camp Nou in 2009.


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