Soccer and politics: The story of Gyula Grosics

Gyula Grosics is in the news again, although it was quite some time ago that the Black Leopard was the idol of the country. In case not everyone is familiar with the source of his fame, he was the goalie of the Hungarian national soccer team known as the Golden Team (Aranycsapat), and he was called the black leopard because he dressed in black. The Hungarian team had been undefeated for three years and ranked No. 1 in the world when they played against England, ranked No. 3 but undefeated by any foreign team on its home turf for ninety years!  It was 1953, and the British press hyped the match by christening it the Match of the Century. Even those who didn't care at all about soccer but who either listened to the match over the radio or learned about the results later (Hungary trounced the English 6-3) can still rattle off the names of the players: Bozsik, Budai, Buzánszky, Czibor, Gellér, Grosics, Hidegkuti, Kocsis, Lantos, Lórant, Puskás and Zakariás.

If I'm correct, of the twelve only two are still alive: Buzánszky and Grosics. Buzánszky, although still active in the Hungarian Soccer Association and the subject of a book last year, is not in the news as frequently as Grosics, who at almost every Fidesz meeting or demonstration can be seen sitting right behind Viktor Orbán. Orbán, himself a soccer player, finds it politically important to collect famous faces as backdrops to Fidesz's carefully orchestrated performances. Orbán obviously figures that if he can show the country that such famous people as Gyula Grosics are in his camp, then Fidesz must be more than okay.

There is no question that Grosics is a man of decidedly rightist political views. The once good-looking GrosicsGrosics then is not in the best shape. He is in and out of hospitals. Every time he undergoes treatment the prognosis is bleak, but then he bounces back. He is released and soon enough is expounding on his favorite political themes. His criticism of the Rákosi and Kádár regimes sounds a bit hollow because, after all, he and his colleagues lived extraordinarily well in those days. They were pampered because their accomplishments brought fame to the country and a certain level of support for the regime from the soccer loving population. Yet Grosics attacks the regime that practically made him with astonishing fervor.

Although it is hard to know how much one can believe Grosics (as we will see later he is not the most reliable storyteller), it seems that he was born into a dirt poor family. His father worked in a coal mine as a locksmith and the family lived in two rooms, kitchen and living-bedroom, without running water. However, his parents were ambitious and thought that their son might succeed if he became a priest. We must remember that Grosics was born in 1926. Instead of the priesthood came soccer and fame.

According to the biography released by the Sports Museum, in 1944–that is when Grosics was eighteen years old, Szálasi's men "collected the members of Levente," a paramilitary youth organization, and "with food for three days they were sent west by train. They apparently reached Salzburg where they spent their days in camps." According to the biography, details of which were obviously supplied by Grosics, "they could return to Hungary only in August 1945." Relatives thought them dead, but they were only half starved.

This story is not quite accurate. It is indeed very possible that Grosics spent some time in Austria and it is also likely that he didn't return to Hungary until August 1945, but, as we will soon discover, his trip west had nothing to do with the Levente organization.

This year the City of Budapest wanted to honor Grosics and decided to present the freedom of the city (díszpolgár) to him. He took a good look at the list, decided that all the other recipients were politically to the left of him, and announced that he was not going to accept the honor. For good measure he added that he didn't want to join a list of recipients that contains the name of Joseph Stalin. He also called the mayor of Budapest, Gábor Demszky, a well known opponent of the Kádár regime, a communist. Stalin is not on the list because the city council more than five years ago unanimously decided that "Stalin is no longer considered to be a citizen of the city." However, Grosics either didn't take notice or, if he did, he doesn't care. Once these fellows get something into their heads it sticks. Facts don't matter.

There is a saying that "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." How true it is in this case. As soon as the media became full of Grosics's decision not to accept the honor, someone discovered an old story buried in a book about Viktor Orbán (Péter Kende, Az igazi Orbán. A Viktor 2 [Budapest: Hibiszkusz, 2006]). I read the book when it came out, but I must admit I had completely forgotten the story. According to documents unearthed by Kende from the Archives of the National Security Office, Gyula Grosics in the 1980s suddenly decided that he wanted to become a party member. The district party committee sent the application to the Ministry of Interior, a routine followed with every membership application. To their greatest surprise the word came back that Grosics couldn't be accepted as a member of the party because in 1944-45 he had been a volunteer in the 25th SS Hunyadi Páncélgránátos Hadosztály (SS Hunyadi Armored Division). They added that according to the Treaty of Paris any volunteer in this SS division is a "war criminal."

A huge upheaval followed and the case went up all the way to János Kádár, who didn't budge: no party membership. "Our Gyula should support socialism and the party as a Bolshevik without party membership. After all, what would the Soviet comrades say if we allow a man who served in the SS into the party," says Kende sarcastically in the book. As compensation he received a salary from two different places. In addition, he remained an officer in the army, receiving income from that source as well.

One can add an interesting tidbit in this connection. In November 1956 Grosics escaped from Hungary with his family and joined the rest of the team that happened to be abroad. They toured South America after which they returned to Vienna. There he decided to return to Hungary while Kocsis and Czibor chose Barcelona and Puskás the Real Madrid. According to Kende he returned to Hungary not because of homesickness but because he was told abroad that they were aware of his past and therefore his chances of playing soccer in the west were slim. If that was the case, the foreign clubs must have received this information from the Hungarian government.

When Kende found these documents in the Archives, he believed that Fidesz didn't know the details of Grosics's sordid past and that's why he could have a place of honor at Fidesz meetings. However, it turned out that Kende was wrong. Viktor Orbán knew about Grosics. Kende spoke with one of the officials from the MSZMP district party headquarters who knew about Grosics's membership application. This official, it turns out, passed the information on to his acquaintances in the Fidesz leadership. Obviously, Grosics's SS past didn't and doesn't bother them.

In addition to the 2006 revelations by Kende there is a newer exposé that appeared in April 2009. The author is Tamás Szemenyei-Kiss, a controversial man about whom I wrote at some length on July 16, 2008. The title of the piece is "Legenda és valóság" (Legend and Reality). Szemenyei-Kiss used the same documents as Kende, but he also visited the Archives of the Military History and the Hungarian National Library. He most likely also used two books that appeared after the publication of Kende's volume on Viktor Orbán. One contains a series of interviews with Grosics conducted by a person whose political sympathies most likely more or less agree with his. I base this supposition on the publisher, Kairosz, where for example Zsolt Bayer's books have been published. The editor of the 2007 book is Ildikó Benkei and its title Fekete párduc a nemzet szolgálatában (The Black Leopard in the service of the nation). Another book is by András Kő, A Grosics (Apriori International Kft, 2008). Szemenyei-Kiss draws from these sources to recount some of the stories (tales) told by Grosics that are highly suspect. What I can't understand is why Grosics, given his past, is calling attention to himself.

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Craig
Guest

Wauuu… Excellent piece!
Congratulations!
Hungary still doesn’t understand that these people would be considered war criminals and some of them would be put on trial in the West.
The idea of fascism is widely accepted by the people, they simply don’t understand that it is wrong to kill gypsies, Jews or be a member of the SS..
It is still a primitive, feudal society.

Lia
Guest

“Yet Grosics attacks the regime that practically made him with astonishing fervor.” Forget soccer. This has become the new national pastime. We could spend an entire afternoon replacing Grosics’s name with hundreds of others, and the sentence would still ring true.

yankee doodle
Guest

Craig, mate
what’s your opinion on Henry Kissinger being a respected political commentator and advisor in the US of A to this day? is he not a war criminal? is American society also primitive and feudal? how about Britain offering a safe heaven to every single Russian oligarch or Thai dictator, who, after raping their countries, flee to the UK with their billions?
i think Grosics is an idiot and a liar, and might have committed war crimes as an 18-year-old. he probably did. at the very least he should be looked down upon for these reasons, naturally.
However, the wast majority of Hungarians have no idea that Grosics was in the SS. And if they found out almost all of them would be disgusted.
calling Hungarians a “primitive and feudal” society tells much more about yourself than about Hungary.

Tomas
Guest
“Yet Grosics attacks the regime that practically made him with astonishing fervor.” That fervor may come from being arrested in autumn of 1954 before he was about to play in a soccer match, being imprisoned, interrogated and abused for 15 months, sent into internal exile and forced to play with the tiny provincial miners’ club Tatabanya for the remainder of his career. Going back to 1938, prior to the rise of communism in Hungary, the national team had already placed as runners up in the World Cup. The footballing infastructure was largely inherited by the communists who ran unopposed in the 1949 elections. I think it is a stretch to say the communists “made” Grosics. He was a very innovative keeper, perhaps the first to come out and challenge for long passes through his club’s defensive line and was also one of the first keepers to roll the ball into space to start counter attacks. He would have been a star player under any political or economic system. While the regime he attacks probably can’t claim to have made him (the talent was his, not theirs), they can certainly claim to have undone his career. That he harbors resentment from… Read more »
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