As great as it is to live and watch the wonderfully talented and ageless keepers of today such as Casillas, Schwarzer, Cech, Neuer and Valdez it is also important to document and reflect on the players and teams that left an indelible mark on the great game that has carried through to our current batch. One such keeper that deserves high praise for his pioneering ways is the great Gyula Grosics. I wasn’t even born when Grosics was at the peak of his goalkeeping powers but from what I have read he is arguably the greatest keeper to ever play for Hungary for many reasons.
Grosics was a member of the “Magical Magyars”, a side that dominated football throughout the 1950s and he alone transformed the thinking of what a keeper’s role is within a team. Rather than remain a statuesque fixture in the six-yard box performing endless long clearing kicks, Grosics believed the keeper should add more value to the attacking potency of a team. His use of crafty throws to his defenders and fast running wingers could often catch opposing teams off guard and begin a quick counter attacks and often leading to scoring success.
Although Grosics was vertically challenged, he more than made up for his shortcomings with amazing ball control and jumping skills that were second to none. He defined his own style by thumbing his nose at the old school ways of keeping by creeping further and further off his goal line to form another layer to the defence. When watching such teams as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus you will often notice that keepers perform an important “sweeping” role at the back and play more like a part-time centre half that can be called on to add strength and width to a defensive line.
Outside of his physical and athletic talents on the pitch, Grosics can also be credited with changing the way keepers view themselves in terms of their all-important game day kit. Goalkeepers of the day rarely had preference or say in what match strip they could chose, which led to a young confident Grosics pressuring the football powers that be into providing him with an all black kit. His theory was that the colour black would compliment any colour his team may wear on game day. His love of the black kit eventually led to him being branded with the popular nickname of ‘the black panther’.
Grosics’ career began to blossom in 1947 when he agreed to join Budapest club Mateosz. It was at Mateosz where he came under the eye of the Hungarian selectors and was chosen for the national side in his first season. He remained a permanent fixture as the number one keeper for Hungary for the next 15 years. After a tumultuous political period in Hungary’s history, Grosics ultimately moved clubs to Honvéd where he would enjoy playing with the legends of the game such as the great Ferenc Puskas and József Bozsik.
It was in his time at Honvéd that helped mould him from a good keeper into a great keeper. In 1952 Honvéd won another championship going though the entire season undefeated. This winning feeling continued when he was part of the national team that qualified for the Helsinki Summer Olympic Games. His time in Finland proved fruitful and his keeping prowess came to the fore after conceding only two goals all tournament. His performance in the semi-final and final is what every keeper dreams are made. Keeping clean sheets in both matches and claiming Olympic gold!
Success continued for Grosics, winning another championship with his club in 1954, and then it was onto the World Cup in 1954 and heavily burdened by favouritism. The side handled all ahead of them by breezing past their opponents in the group stage before brushing aside Brazil and previous champions Uruguay to claim a place along side West Germany in the final. It was in this game that Grosics reputation was called into question as the Olympic champions faltered at the final hurdle by allowing the Germans back into the match after leading 2-0. It was Grosics that took much of the blame for the loss as his unfortunate stumble on the slippery surface allowed Helmut Rahn to set up the victory for West Germany.
It has often been claimed by many Hungarians that the loss to West Germany changed their team and country forever and was more than just a game of football to them. As I wasn’t there I cannot begin to understand or comment on the feelings of those fans as their political situation worsened in their country as their many lives were to be transformed for ever.
Grosics was never far from the spotlight and was subsequently investigated, placed under house arrest and charged awaiting trial for apparent treason and espionage. His career seemingly looked to be over, but for the fortunate lack of evidence that dismissed his case. He returned to the pitch in 1956 with Honvéd but with the political tension gripping the country he was forced to return to Tatabánya and ultimately see out his playing days.
Grosics played in the 1958 World Cup in a side that lacked the brilliance and awe of the heroic team of ’54. Sadly they were eliminated by Wales in a group playoff that Grosics proudly captained. Four years later he again wore the captain’s armband in Chile as they progressed marginally deeper into the tournament, this time to the quarterfinals. Sadly for Grosics it was to be his last World Cup and his last and 86th cap for the Magyars came later that year.
The biggest regret to plague his playing career was the failure to realise a dream of playing for Ferencváros. His wish was denied by the powers that be and he later retired that season with a heavy heart.
The fairy-tale ending to his career never materialised for Grosics but it was his long held criticism of the Communist regime that unfairly decided his football fate. Thankfully sanity prevailed and as a wonderful mark of respect to Grosics’ passionate and loyal service to his nation, the club he so desperately wanted to be a part of honoured him by allowing him to stand in the six-yard box for the opening minutes in a friendly against Sheffield United at the ripe old age of 82.
Gyula Grosics…One of the true legends of Hungarian and world football and a man who helped redefine the tactical importance of keepers forever. A part of football legend that should never be lost to the many young keepers lucky enough to pull on the gloves each week. Be sure to have a bit of black in your strip and emulate the feats of the “the panther”.