A Dream Denied
But for the politics of Greek football, Ferenc Puskás might have ended up in Athens not Madrid
Holy Thursday morning. Typically a solemn day for Greeks. This one, in mid-April 1957, was even more solemn than usual. A group of friends left the most fashionable hotel in Athens to travel from the northern suburbs into the centre. They took a taxi, but it broke down. The two passengers laughed, one insisting the breakdown was the result of the other's excessive weight. Neither of them were obese but equally neither was thin, particularly not the shorter one. As they waited by the side of the road for another taxi, passers-by began to recognise them, the shorter one in particular. In a few minutes, word spread. Everybody knew who and where they were: "Puskás and Kocsis are in the Royal Garden." Thousands of people flocked to see the two of the most famous members of Hungary's Aranycsapat [Golden Squad], so many that even after the second taxi arrived, what should have been a quick drive lasted for hours.
A few months earlier, in November 1956, Honvéd had been on their way to Bilbao for a European Cup match against Athletic when a revolution against Communist rule broke out in Budapest. Honvéd were one of the greatest club sides of all time and a product of the Communist state, having been taken over by the army when football was nationalised in 1949 and transformed from Kispest, essentially a village club — albeit it one featuring the immense promise of Ferenc Puskás and Jozsef Bozsik —into what was effectively a nursery for the national team: Sándor Kocsis, Zoltán Czibor, László Budai, Gyula Lóránt and Gyula Grosics all played there.
Athletic won that first leg 3-2, after which it was decided, because of the disturbances in Budapest, to play the second leg in Brussels. Honvéd stayed in Antwerp, where Puskás gave an interview, widely quoted in the Greek press, in which he said arrangements had been made for him to come to Athens to play some friendly matches in the spring.
At around the same time, and given far less prominence, the Greek newspapers reported that Ethnikos Piraeus had been in touch with both Honvéd and the Hungarian government to try to secure the registrations of five players who had agreed to move to Athens and play for Ethnikos. The players were not named and the reports stressed that the main sticking point was securing consent from their families.
The move was typical of the power and ambition of Ethnikos at the time. Ethnikos had been established in 1923 and remained always in the shade of the great club of Piraeus, Olympiakos. The key person in their development was Dimitris Karellas. Born into a family of noted businessmen, he was the owner of Aegeon, the biggest textile manufacturer in Europe with infrastructure and facilities unique in post-war Greece. He was powerful and rich and, having been invited onto Ethnikos's board in the early fifties, aimed to make the club a competitor to the traditional big three of Greek football — Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK.
His investment soon paid off and, in 1956, Ethnikos finished second, a point behind Olympiakos, their best ever finish. Karellas thrust himself to the forefront, keen to exhibit his power, not merely in terms of finance, but also in the courts, the mass media and public opinion. He was also adept at playing political games behind the scenes, something that has always been of great importance in Greek football. For the Greek football establishment, used to the same three teams dominating, he became a tremendous irritation.
Honvéd drew the second leg against Athletic 3-3 and so were eliminated. The Hungarian authorities ordered them to return, but the players had no desire to return to a war zone and began using the contacts they had made in their years as superstars to try to smuggle their families out.
The team manager, Emil Östreicher, arranged a tour to Latin America, which drew the wrath of the Hungarian football federation. In early January 1957 it banned the team from using the name or colours of Honvéd. They adopted the name Hungaria (and were sometimes known as Free Hungary, while the press at the time dubbed them 'Puskás & Co'), wore a kit in the colours of the Hungarian flag and, undaunted, set off for Rio de Janerio. Fifa threatened sanctions, both for Hungaria and any team who played them, which led to Santos and Vasco da Gama cancelling matches, but they nonetheless managed seven exhibition games in Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico, raising significant revenue.
The players returned to Europe in February, where they discovered the football federation had taken the decision to dissolve the club. They were warned to return home by March 31 and that if they didn't, they would face serious penalties. Even those who did return found themselves facing bans of several months. Puskás, Kocsis, Zoltán Czibor and Gyula Grosics, though, all issued statements saying they were unwilling to go home.
Ethnikos, meanwhile, were living up to expectations. They qualified with some difficulty from their regional division to reach the 10-team final stage of the national championship, but then beat each of the traditional powers in the first round of games. Karellas, meanwhile, was throwing his weight around off the pitch as well. Since the war, the big three had played a moneyspinning Easter tournament, inviting an overseas guest — and, on occasions, more than one. In 1957, the team they invited was Progresul from Romania.
Karellas decided to shake up the comfy arrangement. After months of contact with the representatives of Honvéd/Hungaria, he sent the infamous fixer Sotiris Volonakis to Vienna, where the majority of the exiled members of the team were staying and reached an agreement for them to come to Athens to play a friendly — at precisely the time of the Easter tournament.
Although the Hungarians were still to be declared political refugees, and their ban was still to be ratified by Fifa, Ethnikos sought authorisation —which was granted —from the Greek government for the games. And so, on Holy Wednesday, thousands of fans descended on the airport to greet the Honvéd players, something unprecedented in Greece at the time. At around the same time, as the ultimatum for returning home expired, the Hungarian federation issued its penalties: a one-year bans for Puskás and Czibor (who had gone to Italy expecting to sign a contract with Roma), six-month bans for Grosics, Kocsis and István Szolnok, and four-month bans for Gyula Szabó and Ágoston Garamvölgyi.
The friendly against Ethnikos was scheduled for the Monday after Easter Sunday. In the four days they were in Athens, every public appearance by Honvéd's players prompted a frenzy. The newspapers charted their every step, from that morning out in the centre of Athens to their visit to the Acropolis, to their first training session at the Karaiskakis Stadium, the shared home of Olympiakos and Ethnikos, to the way they celebrated Easter Sunday in the traditional Greek style. Karellas — along with Volonakis and the Hungarian coach of Apollon Athens, János Zsolnay — followed them, making the most of the opportunity for publicity. He went with Puskás to watch Panathinaikos play Progresul on Holy Saturday. The crowd was small, and Puskás's thoughts on the game generated more publicity than the match itself. The establishment's irritation grew, and all the more so as rumours emerged that Ethnikos intended to sign the cream of the Hungarian squad.
That wasn't apparent at the friendly against Hungaria. With 30,000 fans squeezing in, they thrashed Ethnikos 7-0. But that wasn't the worst thing for Ethnikos and their leader's ambitions; that was the gravel pitch. Kocsis said it was like playing in Sudan. Grosics, for the first and only time in his career, wore knee-pads. Puskás said it was "a road made for bicycles and cars".
The next day it was announced that a second game against the national team of the armed forces would be played two days later. It was then that Ethnikos confirmed the rumours, announcing that the team had agreed terms with five Hungarian players: Szabó, Cholnok, Zsámboki, Garamvölgyi and Sági, all of whom had signed the relevant registration forms. All that remained to finalise the deal was to get the consent of their families, with the players available after their bans from the Hungarian federation had expired at the beginning of the following season.
Hungaria were defeated 2-1 in their final friendly by the Greece national team, the last game of the renamed club's brief existence. The squad stayed on in Athens for a few more days, Karellas continuing to make the most of their presence. He went with Puskás to watch Olympiakos play Panathinaikos in the Easter Tournament. Midway through the first half, Panathinaikos's players, aggrieved by the refereeing, walked off the pitch. They agreed to carry on only an hour later, and then only with reserve players. The referee would not consent to that, though, and refused to continue the game. Puskás left his seat and, encouraged by fans, trotted onto the pitch, taking the whistle and offering to referee the match himself. In the end a compromise was reached and the original referee carried on the game, but Puskás's actions, with Karellas always in the background, again took all the publicity.
Ethnikos were the big winners. They won new fans, recognition and publicity. They won in terms of revenue and strengthening their squad, and looked set to dominate Greek football. A few days after Hungaria's departure Karellas brought Internazonale to Athens for a friendly. These were big events for Greek football and an unambiguous threat to the established order. Karellas pushed harder. He arranged a tour of Egypt and sought permission from the Hungarian federation to use Garamvölgyi and Szabó as well as three Under-23 internationals, Tamás Fridwalszky, József Kuzman and István Sztancsik, on that trip.
Finally the grandees of the Greek game acted. The Greek federation decided the contracts with the Hungarians breached its rules on amateurism, refused to acknowledge the licence granted by the Greek government for Ethnikos to play the friendly against Hungaria and imposed a huge fine and a two-month ban from sporting activity.
The penalty was transparently unjustified as there was no evidence the players were anything other than amateurs. The Hungarian federation might have renounced its players but it would never have declared them professional because to do so would have meant giving up the gold medal Hungary's footballers had won at the 1952 Olympic Games.
So the Greek federation took further action, accusing Ethnikos of bribery and match-fixing — the second such allegation made that season, which perhaps says something about the work Karellas did in the background. This time, though, the charge didn't stand up. For one thing it related to a game Ethnikos had lost against Proodeftiki and, for another, the player who lodged the complaint soon withdrew it. The damage, though, was done. The accusation was enough to remove the suspended nature of the two-month ban and the tour of Egypt had to be cancelled.
Karellas took on his enemies in the civil courts, demanding compensation for the cancellation of the tour. Ethnikos were not allowed to play their final four games of the season; they had been two points behind the eventual champions Olympiakos, whom they would have played in their next game.
That same week, in June 1957, Fifa at last acted on the issue of the Hungarian players, confirming the penalties imposed by the Hungarian federation. The agreements with Ethnikos were terminated and so was the ambition of Karellas to change the established order in Greek football. That summer, the Greek federations, responding to an appeal by Fifa, reduced Ethnikos's penalty, allowing them to compete in the championship the following season1. But it never won anything again.
Yet it had come close. It remains one of the enduring myths of Greek football that Karellas had reached agreement with Puskás, Grosics and Kocsis to continue their careers at Ethnikos. Certainly Karellas wanted them to and he had the financial capacity to persuade them. If things had gone differently, he may well have achieved it. But the stories that claim Hungaria's stars played friendly games in Ethnikos shirts simply aren't true — they simply trained with Ethnikos a couple of days before the first match.
The penalties imposed on Ethnikos are still considered one of the greatest scandals of Greek football and clearly had less to do with Hungaria's arrival than with the establishment's desire to run down Ethnikos. Perhaps that's why the myths endure, because the story of the upstart challenging the grandees and crushed for its temerity has a universal romantic appeal.
Emil Östreicher, the general manager of Hungaria, was eventually taken on by Real Madrid and ended up taking Puskás there in 1958. He failed in an effort to land Koscis, who joined Czibor at Barcelona. Karellas remained active at Ethnikos and was the team's only sponsor until the late eighties. So dedicated was he that he sold personal property to keep funding the side. He ended up broke and emigrated to England, where he died in the early 1990s. His beloved team limped on another two decades before being overwhelmed by debt and shut down in 2011.
He did at least see a dream fulfilled as Puskás came to Athens, being appointed manager of Panathinaikos in May 1970, 13 years to the day after the first penalty was imposed on Ethnikos. A year later, Karellas was at Wembley to see Panathinaikos lose to Ajax in the European Cup final, still a fan of the man he had pursued to the point of destroying his club.