The Magyar martyr- the killing of Sándor Szűcs

There are certain teams that occupy a space in the popular imagination of the football fan not because of the trophies that they’ve won but due to their style of play and to an extent the romanticism of their glorious failure. The two that most readily spring to mind are the Dutch side of 1974 and the Hungarian side of 1954, both beaten by West German teams in the World Cup Final.

Even more than 60 years later there is a certain mystique around the Hungarian side of the 50s, the Magical Magyars or the Aranycsapat (Golden Team) as they were know in Hungary. Foremost in the minds of football fans surely are names like Ferenc Puskás, the goalscoring “Galloping Major” who would later star for Real Madrid and score 4 goals in the 1960 European Cup final. Other key figures included the wing half József Bozsik after whom the stadium of Honvéd is named, or Nándor Hidegkuti who revolutionised attacking play in his role as a deep lying centre-forward which gave free reign for the exceptional talents of inside-forwards Puskás and Sándor Kocsis to raid forward to devastating effect.

Despite losing the 1954 final in surprising (and according to plenty of Hungarians, controversial circumstances) the modern reputation of the Golden Team lies with their numerous other achievements, not least their twice systematic dismantling of the English national team (6-3 in Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest in 1954) which did away once and for all of the notion of innate British superiority or the idea that England could not lose to Continental opposition on home turf. This Hungarian side were also Olympic gold medallists in 1952, Central European Champions in 1953 after defeating Italy, and went over four years undefeated in international football.

Golden_Team_1953
The Hungarian National team circa 1953- Ferenc Puskás is crouched front and centre.

Hungarian football had emerged from the war strongly with a new generation of stars who it was felt could deliver international success. This team was born from a time of violence and into one of political tension and civil unrest from which even the brilliance of their play could not be a defence.

The Hungarians had lost out 4-2 to Italy in the 1938 World Cup final, by 1945 with the War in Europe complete, Hungary witnessed the international début of an 18 year old Puskás while the other stars of the Golden Team would follow in their débuts within the next few years. Despite the terrible damage caused by the battle of Budapest in 1944-45 which claimed the lives of over 45,000 people Hungary witnessed free elections at the end of 1945, despite the powerful influence of the Soviet Union, and a coalition government was formed, albeit one with senior Communist officials in positions of significant influence. For these first few post-war seasons professional football existed in Hungary and the emerging star players could earn decent money.

However as time progressed the political situation began to change. Mátyás Rákosi, the chief secretary of the Stalinist Hungarian Communist Party slowly set about removing political opponents from positions of power and influence while consolidating his own power base. He later boasted that he removed his supposed partners in government one by one, “cutting them off like slices of salami”. By 1949 there was a change in constitution, Hungary became the People’s Republic of Hungary and the nation officially fell behind the Iron Curtain. With this change of government came a change to how football was run in the country. Kispest, the club of Puskás and Bozsik became Honvéd the team of the Hungarian army, while Újpest FC became the team of the team of the police. Among the star players at Újpest was the international defender Sándor Szűcs. He’d be executed in secret within two years.

Szűcs was born in November 1921 in the town of Szolnok about 100km from Budapest and began his football career with local side Szolnoki MÁV. Already an international by the time he moved to Újpest in 1944 he would win three consecutive league titles with the Budapest club between 1945 and 1947 playing alongside team-mates like Gyula Zsengellér, who had played in the 1938 World Cup final and would later move to AS Roma, and Ferenc Szusza who still holds the record as the Hungarian League’s highest goalscorer and after whom Újpest named their stadium. Szűcs was also an established international by the time Puskás would make his scoring international début against Austria, both men playing in a comprehensive 5-2 victory.

However things started to go wrong for Sándor after the change of government and a chance meeting with a young, and crucially, a married woman. In 1950 a passionate Újpest fan invited Szűcs and some of his team-mates back to his house for a get together, it was that fateful night that Sándor met Erzsi Kovacs the 21 year old wife of their generous host. The young Erzsi was already becoming well known in Hungary as a popular jazz singer and the two apparently fell for each other immediately.

Sándor, then only 29, was also married and a popular international footballer playing for a club then just coming under the control of the police was in a hugely difficult position and tried to hide their affair to avoid a scandal that seemed inevitable. In fact due to the re-allingment of the club with the police force Sándor had technically become a policeman in the same way that Puskás and his Honvéd team-mates were army officers. That didn’t stop Erzsi was called for questioning by the AVH, the notorious secret police about the affair. After the interview Sándor recieved a chilling phone call advising him to cease the relationship or else he would end up somewhere where his footballer’s legs couldn’t help him.

The couple resolved to flee the country. Under the knew Rakosi regime everything that they had in Hungary was reliant on the good will of the state. Szűcs received better clothing and food than the regular working person and was able to benefit from additional income through the black market. As a form of bonus top Hungarian athletes were able to bring in black market goods from away internationals and foreign tours to supplement their income, the state security forces would conveniently look the other way. However in the current circumstance all that was at risk.

Their plan was to cross the border into Yugoslavia and from there into Italy. Sándor knew that the Italian side Torino had been interested in him in the past and he would have known that former team-mates like Zsengellér had found some success as a player in Italy but this bold plan carried a serious risk. An illegal attempt to cross the border carried the death penalty.

They resolved to borrow a car and to pay a smuggler a fee to arrange safe passage across the border and into Italy. They were to leave in March of 1951. Sándor had to be careful, he couldn’t risk telling his team-mates seeing as Újpest was the police club and a player, a team-mate, could turn informer to the dreaded AVH. The club were certainly not immune from AVH interference, indeed the club had only signed their new star striker Ferenc Deák after he got into a fight with two AVH men who threatened him with serious jail time if he didn’t move from Ferencváros to Újpest.

The young couple set out on March 6th, the person who agreed to smuggle them out had advised Sándor to take along a pistol as an added precaution, however this was just another part of an elaborate trap. The couple were stopped by a security patrol on the way to the border, at first everything seemed to be alright, they merely asked for their ID before sending them on their way, however a few kilometres later they were surrounded by AVH men, the smuggler had been a plant and they were waiting for the young couple all along. The gun that Sándor had been told to carry was seized and he and Erzsi were taken to the AVH headquarters at 60 Andrássy Avenue, commonly known as the House of Terror. Both were brutally interrogated before Sándor was charged with illegally attempting to cross the border and with high treason. He was tried in a Military Court in May 1951 with a court appointed lawyer that he did not know, the sham trial found him guilty of all charges and sentenced him to hang along with the confiscation of all his property. Erzsi was sentenced to four years in prison.

Former team-mates including national team players József Bozsik , Ferenc Szusza and Ferenc Puskás petitioned the National Defence Minister Mihály Farkas for clemency on behalf of Szűcs but they were refused. Puskás had in the past been able to use his influence to get team-mates and friends out of trouble but now his pleas fell on the deaf ears of the new Stalinist regime. On June 4th 1951 Sándor Szűcs was executed in secret. Erzsi didn’t learn about his death until her release in 1954 and details of the execution and the location of Sándor’s grave did not emerge publicly until 1989.

One theory explaining the severity of the sentence and the elaborate set up of Szűcs and Kovacs was that aside from the fact that their relationship offended a conservative Stalinist regime the execution of Szűcs would act as a deterrent to other sports stars or entertainers who might consider defecting. This is only a theory but perhaps it did work. We know that Puskás was offered a huge salary by Juventus which he turned down and he wasn’t the only player offered such inducements. Part of the reason for this could well have been the brutal treatment meted out to their erstwhile colleague Sándor Szűcs. It was only after the vicious reprisals against those who took part in the 1956 Uprising that players defected en masse. This was aided by the fact that Puskás and his Honvéd team-mates were out of the country, in Spain to play a European Cup match against Athletic Bilbao. Ultimately Puskás would have a hugely successful “second” career in the white of Real Madrid, international team-mates such as Koscis and Czibor would also find success in the blaugrana of Barcelona.

Erzsi was released towards the end of 1954 and after a short time was able to resume her singing career and found popular success in Hungary in the 1950s and 60s before moving abroad and performing around Europe as well as on cruise ships. She eventually returned to Budapest and continued recording music well into her 70s. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 85.

A later album of Erzsi Kovacs

With the collapse of Communism in Europe, Hungary held free, multi-party elections in  May 1990, as part of this return to democracy the crimes of the country’s past could be redressed and the execution of Sándor Szűcs came back to the fore publicly. In 1989 his death sentence was revoked, he was posthumously promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the police force and today a school is named after him as is a stand at the Ferenc Szusza Stadium where Újpest play. He was the only professional footballer killed by the regime although  many more fell victim to the AVH and the House of Terror. Sándor Szűcs is now better remembered in modern Hungary but his death casts a dark shadow on the glory of the Golden Team.

Szuszastadion.jpg
The Ferenc Szusza stadium, home of Újpest

 

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