Lucky Loser – Sergiy Stakhovsky Fights for Ukraine (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #251)

He earned five and a half million dollars in his chosen profession, garnered numerous accolades and arena’s full of applause. He was well known throughout his country and represented it with professionalism and integrity the world over. By any reasonable standard, Sergiy Stakhovsky was a sporting success. He achieved what no other sportsman in his homeland had ever managed before. Stakhovsky, one of the two greatest men’s professional tennis players in Ukrainian history, gave hope to those in his homeland who might dream that one day they too could play at the highest levels of international tennis. In a nation where oligarchy and corruption had been rampant for far too long, where who you knew was often the ticket to riches, Stakhovsky carved out a career path in the ultimate meritocracy. No one lasts long in the cutthroat world of men’s professional tennis unless they are supremely talented and blessed with an incredible work ethic. Stakhovsky was up to the challenge. He managed to thrive in that world for 19 years. Then at the age of 38, ancient by the standards of men’s professional tennis, Stakhovsky decided to call it a career and move on to the next phase of his life.

Career move – Sergiy Stakhovsky being honored at the 2022 ATP finals in London

The Journeyman – To the Ends of the Earth
Retirement from professional tennis meant that Stakhovsky would finally be able to enjoy a respite from the jet set lifestyle of the touring pro. A way of life that looks glamorous to outsiders, is anything but to those who must endure it. Stakhovsky knew the reality of that lonely life. Years spent on an exhausting odyssey of travel to the ends of the earth in search of coveted ranking points, prize money, and sponsorships. Much of Stakhovsky’s tennis career was spent far from the maddening crowds that circle center courts at Grand Slam events. To keep his career afloat, Stakhovsky became a journeyman pro. He had no choice but to ply his tennis trade in locales that only the most fervent fans of the sport have ever heard of. Those places were now just memories in the rearview mirror of his tennis career. There would be no more tepid applause and half empty bleachers, nor would there be the thrill of striding onto center court at Wimbledon.

Stakhovsky said thanks for the memories, but it was now time to start living a normal life. He was going to settle down to a life of leisure and relaxation, no more sprints at the break of dawn, strict dietary requirements, or endless hours on the court pounding serves. No more missed flights, sleeping in airports, and late check-ins to hotels multiple time zones away from home. Stakhovsky would now be able to enjoy a second career that had already begun. He was the proud owner of a winery in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains not far from the Ukraine-Hungary border. The property was but a four-hour drive from Budapest, where he lived with his wife and kids. Finally, he would be in his chosen home and near enough to visit the winery anytime he pleased. 2022 would be a new beginning. And so it was, but not in the way Sergey Stakhovsky had imagined. On February 24th, everything changed for Stakhovsky when Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Stakhovsky could have stayed safely abroad, he had a family to help raise and the means to live a comfortable lifestyle. Instead, he chose to fight for his nation.

Lucky loser – Sergiy Stakhovsky holding court

A Far Cry – Tour of Duty
The first time I heard of Sergiy Stakhovsky was in March 2008, when he rose to prominence as what is known in professional tennis parlance a “lucky loser.” At the time, Stakhovsky was ranked #209 in the world and trying to fight his way up through the rankings to get into events on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour. To that end, Stakhovsky tried to qualify for the Zagreb Indoors in Croatia, but he lost in the final round of qualifying. Fortune was on Stakhovsky’s side when a player withdrew from the main draw. This allowed Stakhovsky a place in the main draw. He went on to win the event, one of only nine players to ever win an ATP tour event as a lucky loser. Two years later, Stakhovsky peaked at #31 in the world rankings. Besides winning four ATP tour level titles, the highlight of Stakhovsky’s career came at Wimbledon in 2013. That was where he defeated one of the greatest players of all time, Roger Federer in the second round. This would be the greatest victory of Stakhovsky’s tennis career. That glory is a far cry from where he has been for most of this year.

Only a week after the Russian invasion of his homeland began, Stakhovsky volunteered for the Ukrainian Army. He was sent to eastern Ukraine to help patrol and secure cities that have been recently recaptured. Last week, Stakhovsky managed to get away from the front and travel to the ATP Finals in London where he was honored as one of the pros who retired from the tour this year. Stakhovsky’s last match was at the Australian Open in January. The burning heat and cheering crowds in Melbourne are a far cry from the life-threatening dangers that Stakhovsky and his fellow Ukrainian soldiers endure every day. Stakhovsky’s sense of duty to his country is admirable, but not out of the ordinary as an overwhelming majority of Ukrainian men have answered the call to fight for their country’s independence.

Another struggle – Sergiy Stakhovsky in Ukrainian Army fatigues

Speaking Up – The Right Side of History
Stakhovsky is in a unique situation because of his previous career as one of the top tennis players in the world. He has won doubles titles with Russian partners, his wife is Russian, and Stakhovsky won a tour level event at St. Petersburg in 2010. Nevertheless, Stakhovsky is a Ukrainian patriot through and through. He has little time for Russian players who do not speak out against the war. He recently said that history will be the judge of their silence. As for Stakhovsky, history will have a very different verdict on his service to Ukraine. He answered the call when his nation needed it most. By doing so, Stakhovsky has put himself on the right side of history.

Click here Expect The Unexpected – Predictions & the Ukraine-Russia War (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #252)

A Pole Apart – Hubert Hurkacz: Many Happy Returns At Wimbledon

Polish sport, much like the country itself, has historically been overlooked due to its much larger neighbors that have dominated international competitions such as the Olympic Games. Germany and Russia have had many more champions in both individual and team sports compared with Poland. This is not surprising since Poland has a much smaller population. Plus, Germany and Russia have given a great deal of financial backing to sports. Nonetheless, Poles have had many great sporting achievements and sportsmen. In football, Poland’s national team was a force to be reckoned during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, coming in third place on two separate occasions. Currently, one of the best football players in the world, Robert Lewandowski is Polish.

Moving forward – Hubert Hurkacz

A Run For The Ages – Taking Home A Title
Besides football, Poland has really made a name for itself in professional tennis over the past two decades. This has mainly come on the women’s side due to the exploits of Agnieszka Radwanski who made it all the way to the Wimbledon Final in 2012 where she lost to the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, in three close sets. Radwanska attained a number two world ranking and won over $27 million dollars in prize money during her career before retiring in 2018. The only thing Radwanska did not achieve was winning a Grand Slam title. Poland would not have to wait long for another native daughter to send the nation’s tennis spirits soaring. At the pandemic delayed French Open last autumn, 20 year old Iga Swiatek went on a run for the ages.

The 54th ranked Swiatek had never won a tour level title in her career. In the 4th round, playing against Romania’s Simona Halep, she served notice that greatness had arrived. Swiatek thrashed Halep who was ranked #2 in the world at the time, 6-1, 6-2. What made the victory even more stunning was that Halep had beaten Swiatek 6-1, 6-0 the year before at the French. Swiatek continued her dominance in her next three matches, surrendering no more than five games to a single opponent. She ended up winning the title without the loss of a set. In the process, she became the first Polish woman to win a Grand Slam singles title. The question has now become when a Polish man might accomplish the same feat. The chance of that happening has become much greater since another Polish player is excelling at Wimbledon this year. Hubert Hurkacz has just become only the second Polish male to ever make the Wimbledon semifinals. The question is whether he will become the first to make the final and/or win the most coveted championship in tennis.

Always in style – Wojtek Fibak (Credit: Bert Verhoeff/Anefo)

The Art of Tennis – Wojtek Fibak
Polish professional tennis is now enjoying some of its better days. It cannot be called a resurgence because that implies Polish tennis once had a golden age. Besides Wojtek Fibak, pickings were extremely slim throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. Fortunately, Fibak represented Polish tennis well. He was an excellent player who won 15 singles and 52 doubles titles, there was really no one other than him to represent Poland in the upper echelons of men’s professional tennis. Fibak’s closest confidante on tour was Ivan Lendl. The two often traveled together throughout Europe, competing in tournament after tournament. They were accused of being renegades who were out to win as much prize money as possible. Ironically, they were both from communist countries, but knew how to make a mint out of the bandit capitalism that pervaded pro tennis at the time. Fibak faded long before Lendl. He then went into business, making another fortune and becoming one of Poland’s premier art collectors.

After Fibak, Polish tennis went into a deep freeze. The Cold War may have ended, but there were few potential pros rising through the ranks. The thaw would only come after the turn of the 21st century. The highlight occurred at Wimbledon in 2014 when two Poles faced off in the quarterfinals. Jerzy Janowicz defeated Lukas Kubot to become the first Polish man to ever make the Wimbledon semifinals. He then took the first set off eventual champion Andy Murray before losing in four close sets. Janowicz’s future looked bright until knee problems darkened his horizons. At Wimbledon, he had achieved the tennis equivalent of a false summit, getting close to the pinnacle of glory only to fall backwards. Fortunately. there was another Polish hope on the way. It arrived in the form of Hurkacz. Hurkacz is not only the second Pole to make it to the Wimbledon semis, but he also has to be the only player in history who lost his last six matches prior to arriving at the All England Club. He had displayed better form earlier in the season when he won a Masters 1000 event in Miami.

Many happy returns – Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon 2021

A Wave of Confidence – Beating The Best
Coming into Wimbledon, Hurkacz did not have many expectations. He just wanted to break out of his recent slump. The grass at Wimbledon was as good a place as any to do that since Hurkacz plays a power game. On grass he can more easily impose his game on an opponent. He sailed through his first three matches without the loss of a set. In his 4th round match against second seed Danil Medvedev, Hurkacz lost two of the first three sets. His hopes of a comeback looked bleak since he was only 1-4 in five set matches. Improbably, Hurkacs managed to beat Medvedev by winning 12 of the last 18 games.

This set up a match against Roger Federer on center court. Federer is probably the best grass court player of all time, but he was no match for Hurkacz who rode a wave of confidence after Federer made a couple of costly errors in the crucial second set tiebreak. Hurkacz then became the first man to ever win a 6-0 set against Federer at Wimbledon when he closed out the match in straight sets. Like Swiatek’s run at the French Open, Hurkacz has been a surprise. Whether his run will continue all the way to the championship remains to be seen. The hopes and dreams of Polish tennis have fallen on Hurkacz’s broad shoulders. Can he carry the load? We will find out.

Goulash Wimbledon – Marton Fucsovics: Making Hungarian Tennis History

In 1948 Hungary was on the verge of being sealed behind an Iron Curtain. Communism was ascendant, the Red Army was settling in for a long occupation and Stalinists were preparing to arrest a seemingly endless list of enemies of the state. For Hungarian, leaving the country was becoming increasingly difficult. Everyone was being watched. Sportsmen were not immune from the prying eyes of an increasingly totalitarian state. This was long before international sports competitions became another arena in which the Cold War was fought. In the late 1940’s, Eastern European athletes who went abroad to play in international sporting contests were viewed with barely disguised suspicion. The authorities knew they would be in contact with foreigners. In a Stalinist system this was a huge red flag.

Foreigners were spies until proven otherwise. Anyone talking with foreigners was also suspected of being a spy. Thus, athletes from countries such as Hungary were in a compromised position as soon as they left the country. Furthermore, there was always the fear that they might defect. This could cause embarrassment to the incipient communist regimes that were supposedly creating a brave new world. Utopian ideals did not suffer defections. Why else would these supposed paradises have to erect an Iron Curtain to keep their citizens from heading westward. Getting out from behind the Iron Curtain in a nation administered along Stalinist lines often took extraordinary circumstances such as intervention from a powerful individual or organization.

Fortunately for Hungarian tennis star Jozsef Asboth, he had a patron that helped him travel abroad. His patron was not a fellow Hungarian, instead it was none other than the King of Sweden. Gustaf V provided a personal warrant that Asboth would return to Hungary after playing at Wimbledon. A year earlier, Asboth became the first Eastern European player to win a Grand Slam tournament, when he triumphed at the French Open. Asboth repaid the king’s confidence by making it all the way to the semifinals. Asboth would play Wimbledon three more times with his best result a 4th round showing in 1951. His 1948 semifinal showing was the last time a Hungarian man made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon. That was until Marton Fucsovics won his fourth round match at the All England Club on July 5th.

Ecstasy in victory – Marton Fucsovics after defeating Andrey Rublev at Wimbledon

The Fall & Rise – Hungarian Men’s Tennis at Wimbledon
Jozsef Asboth’s career collided with a communist state that made it difficult for him to play abroad. For instance, following his 1947 title, Asboth did not play at the French Open again until 1954. On occasion, Asboth would compete in some of the major tournaments, but there is little doubt that his career was curtailed due to a ban imposed on his travel by the Hungarian communist state. It would fall to other Hungarian players during the 1960s, 70’s and 80s to surpass Asboth’s semifinal showing at Wimbledon. The two who did the best at Wimbledon were Szabolcs Baranyi and Balazs Taroczy. They had one common failing after each made it to the 4th round at the All England Club in 1975 and 1980 respectively. That failing was Bjorn Borg who defeated them both. Neither Baranyi nor Taroczy was alone in losing to the cool, blue eyed Swedish assassin who won five consecutive Wimbledons. Meanwhile, after Taroczy retired in the late 1980’s Hungarian tennis went into a precipitous decline. Just having a Hungarian in the main draw at Wimbledon was a cause for optimism. Then in 2010 things began to change with the rise of Marton Fucsovics.

The Wimbledon juniors are a showcase for rising talent 18 years of age and under. Fucsovics only played the juniors once, but made it count when he did, rolling to the title without so much as the loss of a set in 2010. The Wimbledon victory also sent him to number one in the world junior rankings. The tall, muscular Hungarian looked like he might be a breakout star for a country sorely lacking in top level tennis talent. The road to success got much rockier after Fucsovics turned pro. It took him six years just to qualify for a Grand Slam event. In 2017 he played Wimbledon for the first time as a pro.  He was quickly ousted in the first round. The same thing happened again one year later. In 2019, Fucsovics finally won a match. He came into this year’s Wimbledon with a 1-3 record. His form in tournaments prior to Wimbledon was lacking. When Fucsovics drew the rising Italian player Jannik Sinner who was seeded 19th, it looked like he would not last long on grass. Fucsovics had other ideas as he proceeded to defeat Sinner in four sets. In the 2nd round, he only played two sets before his opponent, Jiri Vesely retired. Then in the 3rd round, Fucsovics managed to defeat the stalwart baseliner and #9 seed Diego Schwartmann. The wins boosted his confidence as he got ready to face his personal nemesis and stiffest test yet, the Russian Andrey Rublev in the 4th round.

Rocket shot – Marton Fucsovics in the fourth round at Wimbledon 2021

Breaking Back – Defying The Odds
Fucsovics had reason to be worried going into his match with Rublev. His worries can be summed up in five words, Paris, Rotterdam, Doha, Dubai, and Miami. Over the past 10 months, Rublev had defeated Fucsovics five times at those tournaments. The Hungarian had only been able to take a single set in five matches. Fucsovics and Rublev had met indoors and outdoors, on clay, carpet, and hardcourts, on three continents and yet the result was always the same, a victory for Rublev. Fucsovics set out to change this by getting off to a fast start in their match at Wimbledon. He came out serving rockets at Rublev. The Russian scarcely knew what hit him. Fucsovics put in 78% of his first serves in the opening set and won every one of these points. He also broke Rublev’s serve early. After winning the first set, Fucsovics’ energy level seemed to drop, he lost focus and Rublev imposed his game on the Hungarian once again. The Russian managed a break of serve early in the set. He soon took both the second and third sets. It looked like Fuscovics was headed for a sixth straight loss to the fifth ranked Russian. And then everything changed.

Fucsovics did not just come out in the fourth set on fire, he was positively scorching. He took the set at love and then jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the fifth. After winning his ninth consecutive game, it looked like he finally had a handle on Rublev. In line with the rest of this rollercoaster match though, the Russian broke Fucsovics to get back on serve. Then Fucsovics broke back to assume what should have been a commanding lead. The only problem was that he still had to serve for the match. Sure enough, Rublev made it to break point, but Fucsovics won an extremely tense rally to get back to deuce. Two points later it was game, set and match to Fucsovics. He led out a shout of exhilaration and clenched his fist. He had finally made it to a Grand Slam quarterfinal. The first Hungarian to do it in 40 years and of course, the first one to make it this far at Wimbledon since Asboth’s charmed run in 1948.

The winner takes it all – Marton Fucsovics at Wimbledon 2021

Playing Favorites – Nothing To Lose
There is no rest for Fucsovics now. He has little time to enjoy his breakthrough accomplishment. In the quarterfinals he will face the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic. The Serb is going for his 20th Grand Slam title and still has a chance to be the first man in over a half century to win the Grand Slam, (winning all four major titles in a single calendar year). While Djokovic is heavily favored, Fucsovics faces little pressure. No one expects him to win. If he did, it would be a huge upset. Then again, Fucsovics has already defied the odds several times at this Wimbledon fortnight. Perhaps he can do so again.

A Sublime Brush With Fate – Endre Kabos: The Fall Of A Master Fencer (Part Two)

Endre Kabos was a master with the saber, able to overcome both world class competition and prejudicial barriers that failed to defeat him. He managed to become both an Olympic and World Champion while facing resistance at home and abroad. Kabos managed to overcome all opposition in the sport, mentally, physically and technically. Anti-Jewish sentiment was rife in Europe during the 1930’s, but Kabos enjoyed a charmed decade. In a six year period beginning with the 1930 European Championships, Kabos won an average of one Gold Medal a year at those competitions. Winning in Europe during that time was akin to winning the world championship.

He was also part of gold medal winning saber teams at consecutive Olympics. The mid-1930’s was the best of times for Kabos in a professional sense. Personally, the situation was less than desirable for Kabos. He struggled with financial issues and anti-Semitism. At one point, Kabos had to eschew his professional fencing career just to make ends meet. He took to running a grocery store before wealthy patrons provided funding for him to continue pursuing his passion for fencing. This allowed Kabos to focus once again on the sport. That focus was imperative when he traveled to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics which was supposed to be a display of Aryan athletic prowess. Kabos had other ideas.

The Master - Endre Kabos at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Master – Endre Kabos at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

A Winning Effort -Triumph of The Will
The 1936 Berlin Olympics is most often remembered for the athletic exploits of Jesse Owens, the African-American sprinter and long jumper. Owens won four gold medals, exposing the hollowness of Nazi claims that non-Aryan races were inferior. Owens’ fame was rightfully deserved. Another group that the Nazis looked down on also managed to prove that the Third Reich’s claims to racial superiority were patently false. Jews medaled in several sports at the Berlin Olympics and Hungarian Jews were at the forefront of these achievements. Endre Kabos and five other Hungarian Jewish athletes put the lie to the blatant racist ideology of the Nazis. In all, thirteen Jewish athletes medaled at the Berlin Olympics. Kabos’ greatest feat at the games and quite possibly of his career, was winning the individual gold medal in the saber event at the 1936 Olympics.

He achieved this result despite having to deal with the overt prejudice symbolized by the German government. Kabos was uniquely equipped to cope. The experience in Berlin was nothing new for him. Anti-semitism was already encoded into Hungarian law. Kabos and other Jewish athletes had been battling racism for years due to the pro-Nazi, Hungarian government that took power during the 1930’s. The difference with Kabos was that he showed a great amount of courage by not saying silent. He spoke out regarding the plight of Jewish athletes competing at the 1936 Olympics. He stated the Hungarian Jews competing “will fight not only for universal Hungarian nationhood and pride in Berlin but we Jewish sportsmen, must and want to show the image of Jewish power and virtue.” It was a courageous stand that certainly did not hurt Kabos’ performance.

Hungary’s involvement in World War II signaled a traumatic turn for the worse in Kabos’ life. He would manage to avoid being sent to a concentration camp. Unfortunately, he found himself in a labor camp instead. The latter could be almost as harsh, with prisoners working in deplorable conditions. Kabos was sent to a camp in Vax, Hungary. This may have saved his life for the time being. He did manage to make it out of the camp alive, but the war was still far from over. Reports differ on whether he was released so he could perform another job or escaped to the underground resistance. Whatever the case, Kabos was in Budapest during the autumn of 1944. The front lines were creeping ever closer to the city as the Red Army began to encircle Budapest. One of the nastiest sieges of the war would soon begin. Kabos would not live long enough to see it.

Paying homage to a champion - An opponent shaking hands with Endre Kabos (on the left)

Paying homage to a champion – An opponent shaking hands with Endre Kabos (on the left)

Crossing Over – On The Verge of Collapse
Some of the most tragic, fascinating and surreal images from the Battle of Budapest involve the destruction of the city’s bridges over the Danube River. Images in the battle’s aftermath are haunting. They show such iconic structures as the Liberty and Chain Bridges half submerged, with their upper parts eerily protruding above the waterline. Strangely enough, the first bridge to suffer damage occurred before the siege began. Margaret Bridge not only connects both sides of the city, it is also attached to Margaret Island. In the autumn of 1944, German commanders decided to have the bridge mined in order to quickly destroy it when the Red Army closed in on the city center. This was the plan, but the execution was flawed. The mining occurred in early November.

While this was still in progress, Endre Kabos happened to be on the bridge. Various accounts state that he was either driving a horse drawn carriage that was carrying supplies or in a munitions truck on November 4th. Up to that point, Kabos had sidestepped death. This was no small feat. He could have been shipped off to Auschwitz instead of a labor camp. He could have been a pawn in the deadly game of genocide through no fault of his own. Luck was on his side, until the moment that it was not. Vehicles and pedestrians were crossing the bridge on November 4th when an accidental explosion ripped through the bridge’s eastern end. Some of the explosives discharged prematurely with dire effects.

When this occurred, Endre Kabos was crossing the bridge. The vehicle he was in afforded him little protection. Kabos, along with hundreds of other innocents was killed. His remains were never found. Hungary’s famed Olympic fencing champion had battled world class competitors and anti-Semitism, always managing to come out on top. Tragically, he could not survive a sublime brush with fate. In a matter of moments his life was over. It was a sad ending for a great champion. The fate of Kabos was soon forgotten as an apocalyptic struggle for Budapest soon began.

Ready for Action - Endre Kabos champion fencer

Ready for Action – Endre Kabos champion fencer

A Driving Force – Rising To The Challenge
Endre Kabos died too soon, but few would ever match his records in international competition. Kabos left behind a legacy of excellence despite a star-crossed life filled with hardship. He struggled financially while laboring in a sport where he and his fellow Hungarian Jews were treated with ill intent. Perhaps It was this adversity that made him into an even greater champion. His fencing exploits helped him gain acceptance as well as self-fulfillment. Kabos was oppressed and overlooked, but this failed to defeat him. Instead, adversity drove him. All the way to the top of the fencing world.

The Crosshairs of History – Endre Kabos: Fencing & Fighting For Acceptance (Part One)

His remarkable sporting career started in legendary fashion and his life ended in disaster. Endre Kabos experienced both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, reflective of a period in Hungarian history fraught with conflict. Kabos was a Hungarian Olympic Champion fencer, he was also Jewish. This mattered a great deal during his rise to prominence during the interwar period. The prime of his fencing career coincided with the most virulent strain of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe. Hungary was not immune, if anything the country had helped raise the infection rate by being one of the first Eastern European nations to pass discriminatory anti-Jewish laws in 1920.

The majority of Hungarian Jews ended up in the crosshairs of history and met a terrible fate during the Holocaust. Those who did not die in concentration or forced labor camps found themselves almost completely marginalized. Unless someone had luck, money or skill, in some cases they needed all three, their lives would be left on the cutting room floor. it was hard not to avoid a tragic fate. Kabos’ life offers a striking example of how fate and luck played a role in who lived and who died. Not even one of the greatest sportsmen in Hungary could avoid being blown away by the winds of an all consuming war.

A Master At Work - Endre Kabos (on the right) fencing

A Master At Work – Endre Kabos (on the right) fencing

The Art Of Dueling – Swords of Honor
Good fortune is one, but not the only way to explain Endre Kabos’ meteoric rise to the top of the fencing world, specifically in the sabre event, a competition that Hungarians dominated at the Olympic level for forty years. Kabos was one in a long line of Hungarian saber wielding masters that managed to take home every gold medal in the Olympics during a forty year period that stretched from 1924 to 1964. Kabos story is particularly fascinating because early in life he did not seem slated for a career in fencing. Fortune smiled on him more than once during his formative years. Kabos got a late start in the sport, more by luck than anything else. The late start is the stuff legends are made of.

As the story goes, the teenaged Kabos received a fencing outfit for his birthday from a close friend of his family. When some of his friends came across the apparel, they teased him mercilessly for being the owner of such a ridiculous costume. Kabos did not take the hazing lightly, it is said that he joined a fencing club the next day. This, coupled with preternatural ability, started his rise to fame as a fencer. A second stroke of luck soon followed due to what turned out to be an even more improbable occurrence. The story that follows has been confirmed by several historians of the sport. It involves Kabos’ father, a portly middle-aged man who got himself in a duel after an argument. Unfortunately for the elder Kabos, the man he had fallen out with was a master duelist who not only liked to disarm his opponents, but then follow it up by killing them. This did not bode well for the father.

He sought immediate assistance from master fencing coach, Italo Santelli, an Italian who had moved to Budapest many years before. Santelli had trained many Hungarian Olympic and World Champions in the saber class. He remained a legendary figure in the sport, with a reputation that preceded him. Santelli was more responsible than any single person for the superior skill level shown by an entire generation of Hungarian fencers with the saber at international competitions. His knowledge and ability to transfer that knowledge to his students was said to be unmatched. Unfortunately, for the elder Kabos his duel was to occur the day after he first engaged Santelli.

Sabering the Moment - Italo Santelli

Sabering the Moment – Italo Santelli

Settling Scores – A Near Deadly Affair
The master teacher was honest with his newest student. He could hardly teach the father more than one or two moves in just a couple of hours. Nonetheless, Santelli offered some sage advice. He knew the master duelist and his fencing tactics well. Santelli believed there might be an opportunity at the beginning of the duel for the elder Kabos to strike while his opponent went to disarm him. Santelli thought it was a long shot, but worth a try. Santelli also cleverly surmised that the master duelist would be overconfident. How could he not be? His opponent was an overweight novice with a lack of experience in such deadly affairs. Little did Santelli know at the time of this first meeting, that he was cultivating a relationship with the Kabos family that provide him with one of his star pupils.

On the day of the duel, Santelli was shocked to see the father come striding in to see him. He had not only survived, but using Santelli’s tactical advice, managed to slice the hand of the master duelist entirely off. That had settled the issue once and for all time. He was enthralled with Santelli to the point that he asked the master to train his son, Endre, in wielding the saber. Santelli’s influence on the younger Kabos was profound. By the late 1920’s Endre Kabos was fulfilling his promise when he won his first major competition, the 1928 Slovakian Championships. In the years that would follow, he would become one of the greatest Hungarian fencers in history.

Fighting For Honor & Acceptance - Endre Kabos

Fighting For Honor & Acceptance – Endre Kabos

Gaining Acceptance – A Fight To The Finish
What would drive Endre Kabos to greatness? It would be a combination of Santelli’s coaching, natural talent and good luck. There was also another unquantifiable quality, one that should not be underestimated. A select group of Hungarian Jews, of which Endre Kabos was one, saw fencing as an opportunity to gain acceptance and prove themselves to the nation. Following Hungary’s loss in World War I, a red (communist) revolution and a nasty counter-revolution, Jews had been under attack in Hungary. Anti-semitism was no longer veiled. Whether because of or despite this, men such as Endre Kabos set out to prove themselves to their compatriots as well as sporting officials who treated them as second class citizens. This likely spurred Kabos on to greater sporting achievements, both at home and abroad in the years to come.

Click here for: A Sublime Brush With Fate – Endre Kabos: The Fall Of A Master Fencer (Part Two)

A Train Wreck Of A Man – Sinister Speculations: Szilvestre Matuschka (Part One)

The aftermath of World War I brought many things to Hungary and most of them were not good. Economic depression, governmental dissolution, communism, fascism, revolution and counter-revolution were among the more notable ills that the war brought home to Hungarians. The legacy of the war was felt most acutely in the postwar Treaty of Trianon where the Kingdom of Hungary lost two-thirds of its population and territory. Tens of thousands of ethnic Hungarian refugees fleeing the partitioned lands arrived in Budapest, many of whom spent months or even years living in railroad boxcars. There were other more hidden maladies that the war brought which would take many years to manifest themselves. Soldiers who had managed to survive the maelstrom of conflict, now tried to somehow readjust to civilian society while suffering from what is today known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Many Hungarian combat veterans had been witness to unspeakable events. Others had experienced the effects of industrialized weaponry and saw the mass violence it caused for the first time in their lives. Fortunately, most were able to compartmentalize their battlefield experiences. There were a few eerie outliers from those who learned some very bad lessons during the war. Lessons they applied many years later to create mayhem. No one can say exactly how much the war affected such men, but it must have served to further destabilize their fragile psyches. For one man, the experience would have profound implications that are as good an explanation as any for the mass murder he committed in Hungary on one horrific night on the outskirts of Budapest during the autumn of 1931.

Szilveszter Matuska

Szilveszter Matuska

A Mad Spirit – Hypnotically Haunting
The other day I asked my Hungarian wife if she had ever heard of Szilvestre Matuschka. She replied in a matter of fact manner, “Of course.” When I mentioned that he was a famously bizarre serial killer, she looked at me a bit puzzled. A man who blows up a viaduct in order to cause a train wreck is not the usual definition of a serial killer. When my wife reminded me that the Police Museum in Budapest had exhibit materials about Matuschka I was a bit surprised. I remembered many things from our visit to the museum a couple of years ago, but Matuschka was not one of them. Today Matuschka would be labelled a mass murderer, a terrorist or a mentally deranged deviant and serial killer. He was also many other things, a successful businessman, mechanical engineer, an Austro-Hungarian officer, a loving husband and devoted father. He lived a normal, upwardly mobile life until one day he succumbed to the silent demons that had insidiously stalked him for years. It was then that Matuschka became something unimaginable to everyone but himself.

Szilvestre Matuschka was born in Csantaver (present day Cantavir), a town now located in northern Serbia, but at the time of his birth part of the Hungarian Kingdom. Matschuka’s father died while he was a child, but his mother soon remarried. His upbringing seems to have been relatively normal. Matuschka’s stepfather insisted that he take up the same trade as his birth father, manufacturing slippers, but the teenager wanted to join the priesthood. He would eventually focus on becoming a teacher. It was also during his teenage years that Matuschka had an experience that he later said haunted him throughout his life. Supposedly, at the age of fourteen he underwent hypnosis at a carnival. During the session, a demonic spirit by the name of “Leo” was inserted into his mind. The spirit could make him do unimaginable things. Matsuchka also claimed that this was when he started becoming obsessed with train wrecks. Of course, no one learned any of this until after he committed mass murder thirty years later.

The Golden Age - Szabadka (Subotica) in 1914 before World War I

The Golden Age – Szabadka (Subotica) in 1914 before World War I

A Change In Plans– From Battlefront to Homefront
Nine months before the First World War broke out, Matuschka joined the Hungarian military, enlisting in a regiment formed in the nearby city of Szabadka (Subotica, Serbia). This gave him a head start on a military career. The training and education would come in useful after war broke out. Matuschka, like tens of thousands of other Hungarian soldiers, was wounded in combat in the early months of fighting. This proved strangely advantageous as he soon found himself teaching at an officer’s school. He was also trained to lead a machine gun squadron in battle on the Eastern Front. Though Matuschka avoided getting wounded again, the question arises of how combat might have affected his mental stability.

World War I was the first time that Matuschka saw firsthand the effects of industrialized weaponry. He would have witnessed up close and personal its use on the battlefield. Whether this fascinated Matuschka, we have no way of knowing, but the effects must have been considerable. He would have gained valuable knowledge of how munitions and explosive devices were utilized. By war’s end, Matuschka was a decorated veteran, gaining two medals for his exploits at the front. As with so many, the First World War was a formative experience in Matuschka’s life. Unlike his fellow soldiers, he go on to commit acts of mass murder during peacetime.

One of the more interesting aspects of Matuschka’s life is how he seemingly slipped back into civil society without any discernable problems. While many soldiers suffered from debilitating mental and physical issues, Matuschka set about building himself a career. First, he returned to his old job of teaching, then transitioned into agriculture and commercial services by selling goods imported from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1922, business interests brought Matuschka and his wife to Budapest with their newborn daughter Gabriella. During this time, Matuschka was involved in a range of enterprises, everything from running a spice shop to managing housing units to the natural resource trade. Then only four years after moving to Budapest, he uprooted his family once again when he started speculating in Viennese property.

Proving ground - Austro-Hungarian soldiers at the battlefront during World War I

Proving ground – Austro-Hungarian soldiers at the battlefront during World War I (Credit: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

Wild Fantasies – Waking Up To A Nightmare
The fact that Matuschka moved so often in his postwar life – at least five times in the first six years of the 1920’s – raises questions on whether he had reason to be on the run so much. Perhaps he was trying to run away from the demons that plagued him, perhaps not. One thing is for certain, Matuschka could not run escape from his mental problems. Soon they would overwhelm him to the point that he felt compelled to act out his wildest fantasies. For society, Matuschka’s fantasies turned out to be a terrible nightmare.

Click here for: Unnatural Disasters – Szilveszter Matuschka: On The Brink of Insanity (Part Two)

Coming Of Age – Attila Balazs: Getting Older, Getting Better

When the average men’s professional tennis fan imagines the life of a touring pro, they likely conjure up images of glamorous locales such as Monte Carlo, Nice, Dubai and Shanghai among many other famous cities. Courtesy cars, comped five-star hotel rooms, an entourage filled with mysterious acolytes and residences in tropical tax havens also come to mind. The reality is much different. For those outside of the top 100, earning a living as a tour pro means playing in obscure cities from Scheveningen to Samarkand, planning much of your own travel, flights in coach class and calling hotels your home in distant cities. Between hours and hours of practice, staying fit and finding someone to string racquets, there is not much time to see the world. Money is also a considerable worry. Imagine trying to manage your career and finances while traveling from one country to the next, never knowing how much you will get paid or when.

Lower ranking tour pros are often reduced to the status of modern nomads, roaming around the globe searching for the oasis of victory. Anyone who sticks around the career field of men’s professional tennis long enough has certainly earned every bit of their paychecks. The prize money is often meager when compared to expenses. This is the reality of being a professional tennis player who cannot make it all the way to the top. There is not much glory in the minor leagues, but there is a considerable amount of competitiveness, passion and fortitude. All these traits might best describe Hungary’s newest top 100 player, Attila Balazs. Many other terms could also be used to describe Balazs’ career, which up until the past nine months has been less than stellar.

Coming of Age - Attila Balazs at Umag in 2019

Coming of Age – Attila Balazs at Umag in 2019

Homeland Security – The Rise & Fall Of A Journeyman
“Journeyman” “Dirt baller” and “Clay court specialist.” Each of these terms could pply to the professional tennis career of Balazs, a man who toiled in obscurity for most of his 14 years on tour. Balazs is a seasoned veteran of the tour’s minor leagues. The kind of events where last chancers and no hopers often reside in the same draw as up and comers. Balazs has been part of this scene for years, playing tournaments at the lowest level in such far-flung locales as Iran and Thailand, Brazil and Israel, Kazakhstan and Uzebekistan. He eked out a journeyman’s existence by periodically dominating futures (lowest level of the pro tour) in his homeland and surrounding nations. Balazs excelled in the lower ranks, winning 29 futures events.

It was the challenger tournaments that often proved more difficult for Balazs. He only found success at the next level in fits and starts. He did win a challenger early in his career at Palermo in 2010, but it would be another decade before he would win another one. As for the mainline ATP Tour, Balazs experienced a meteoric start followed by a vanishing act. In 2012, he qualified for his first tour level event in Bucharest and made the semifinals. Along the way he defeated four top 100 players. An excellent start to what looked like a promising career on the clay court circuit.

Unfortunately, it was a false promise as Balazs finished the year ranked outside of the top 200. It would be another five years before he would break that threshold. Balazs earned a high in the rankings of #159 in October 2010. Part of the problem were injuries and along with a couple of long sabbaticals from the game. Balazs did not play a single match from August 2014 through August 2016. He was off the tour for another prolonged period between July 2018 and March 2019. Then with his tank running on empty and retirement looking increasingly likely, Balazs started an unexpected and delightful rise to prominence.

False Summit - Attila Balazs at the Bucharest ATP event in 2012

False Summit – Attila Balazs at the Bucharest ATP event in 2012

The Comeback – A Wild Ride In Umag
Balazs reappeared on tour in the spring of 2019 ranked #260 and immediately proceeded to start winning matches at Challenger events. He also managed a quarterfinal finish in the Budapest ATP Tour tournament. These initial results foreshadowed greater achievements to come. In June, the Magyar right hander with his two-fisted backhand made two consecutive finals at Challengers in Bratislava and Prostejov. Then Balazs nearly managed to qualify for Wimbledon, which would have been his first Grand Slam main draw ever. All this was a precursor to a wild ride in Umag, a tour level event played in the Croatian coastal resort town nestled on the shores of the Adriatic. After qualifying, Balazs stared down seven match points against Croatian Viktor Galovic in a first round encounter before ultimately triumphing.

In his next match, Balazs once again was on the brink of a loss before pulling through in a third set tiebreaker against Filip Krajinovic. His next match was more of the same as he came from a set down before winning once again, this time against Italian Stefano Travaglia. By the time the semis rolled around, Balazs was flush with confidence from that series of masterful escapes. He proceeded to easily dispatch Laszlo Djere in straight sets. This put him through to his first tour level final. Balazs took a commanding lead against Serbian Dusan Lajovic. He served for the first set, only to prove unable to seal the deal. He ended up losing in straight sets. The result at Umag pushed Balazs’ ranking to an all-time high of #141. Nobody knew that the best was yet to come.

The Consummate Pro - Attila Balazs

The Consummate Pro – Attila Balazs

An Improbable Rise – Emerging Trends
As 2020 began, Balazs had an unprecedented opportunity to move closer to the top 100. He did not have to defend a single ranking point until March. He started the new year by winning a challenger title on hard courts, a career first, in Bangkok. He then headed down to South America. The last time he played on the continent in 2017, Balazs lost in the first round of three consecutive challenger events. This time he would be attempting to play tour level tournaments. Balazs made it past the first round in Cordoba, but in Rio De Janeiro he was trounced in the final round of qualifying. All hope was not lost though. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. That was certainly the case when Balazs was the beneficiary of a withdrawal and became what is known in tennis parlance as the lucky loser. This happens when a player gains entry to the main draw despite a loss in qualifying.

Balazs, who by this time was ranked #106, surged through the draw by winning three matches and nearly overcoming the man who had also beaten him in qualifying, Italian Gianluca Mager, in a tense three setter. The upshot of this past week is that Balazs now finds himself ranked at a career high of #78. Considering that this time last year he was ranked 180 spots lower, this new career high is quite a cause for celebration. His initial entry into the top 100 is a smashing personal success. Add in the fact that the 31 year old Balazs is playing at peak level, despite or perhaps because of his age and a new Hungarian tennis star has suddenly emerged from the ranks of journeyman pros. This has been the most improbable rise in the history of Hungarian professional tennis. Balazs was on the edge of tennis oblivion this time last year. Now he is primed and ready to ascend even higher in the rankings. Whatever happens, no fan of Hungarian tennis fan will forget Attila Balazs, a player who had finally come of age.

The Spirit & Sadness Of Victory -Laslo Djere: Triumphing In Tragic Circumstances

Tennis is a lonely sport. When a player steps onto the court they are all by themselves. Even the best professional players, who have coaches, trainers and sports psychologists, can only glance helplessly at their entourages once a match begins. Verbal and moral support is kept at a distance. A player is left to rely solely on their wits and skills. They become a lone battler whose only solace is that they are opposed by another lone battler. For those on the pro tennis tour this loneliness often extends beyond the court. Many of those ranked outside the top 100 spend much of their time traveling to tournaments alone, dining alone, living in hotels alone and spending their time in foreign countries alone. Home is a succession of cities they never really get to see. There is little glamor to be found in this life of loneliness. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I once again came across the name of Laslo Djere (Laszlo Gyore). This time, I was astonished to discover that he was the fifth seed at an ATP tournament in Marrakech, Morocco.

Prior to March, Djere had been a young up and coming player slowly on the rise. Then all the sudden he was a seeded player at a tour event. Discovering this, led me to do some research on his meteoric rise. Djere’s ascent in the ranking was due to some fantastic results during the first three months of 2019 which lifted him all the way to #32 in the world. This made him the top ethnic Hungarian tennis player in the world, as he soared past Marton Fuscovics. Unlike Fucsovics, who has been making Hungarian tennis history during the past year, Djere is relatively unknown among those who follow Hungarian tennis. That is because he grew up outside of Hungary in the predominantly ethnic Hungarian town of Senta, located in the northern part of Serbia. This has made Djere something of outlier in his homeland just as he is in Hungary. It is an interesting situation since he is a minority in a nation that is dominated by Serbs. And yet this is not the most remarkable aspect of his tennis career and recent rise. That is because Djere has managed to climb up the tennis rankings in the loneliest possible circumstances. Tragically, neither of Djere’s parents are still alive to see their son’s rapid ascent in the world of men’s professional tennis.

The loneliness of life on the men’s professional tennis tour has been compounded for Laslo Djere. His father died of cancer seven years ago long before his son became a pro. Then only two months ago, the same disease took the life of Djere’s mother. To lose one parent as a young adult is a grievous blow, to lose them both is a tragedy. One can only imagine the grief Djere suffered at the beginning of this year. The loss for him and his sister of that familial support system which is so critical to the security and stability of a family is difficult to comprehend. The fact that a grieving Djere faced this difficult life situation with resolve and courage shows the quality of his character. That he produced the greatest results of his career is even more remarkable. He did this half a world away from his homeland, at two consecutive events in Brazil, turning the first part of 2019 from a personal tragedy to professional triumph. Unfortunately, these victories can mitigate, but never heal his grief.

The Spirit Endures - Laslo Djere

The Spirit Endures – Laslo Djere (Credit: si.robi)

Tempering Optimism  – A Boost of Confidence
In September 2017, Djere first entered the top 100. Then his movement up the rankings stalled. For a year and a half, his ranking hovered between #85 and #110. His results were good enough to maintain a decent ranking. Conversely, they did little to raise hopes of renewed promise. The beginning of Djere’s 2019 tennis campaign was lackluster to say the least. In January and early February, he lost four consecutive matches, including one where he was forced to retire. This was understandable. Djere had his mind on much more important things back home. When he did reengage mentally with the tour, there was nothing that portended favorable results. The best hope was for Djere to get back on his favorite surface, red clay. A swing through South America in February offered him just that opportunity. He showed up in the seaside, carnival loving city of Rio de Janeiro for the first of two tournaments in Brazil. Any optimism Djere might have had was likely tempered when he glanced at the draw.

This was because he had drawn the top seed, Dominic Thiem from Austria. Thiem is a formidable foe for any player on the pro tour, especially on red clay. In 2018, Thiem made his first Grand Slam final on red clay at the French Open. To say Djere was an underdog would be an understatement. No one would have known that by the final score. Djere laid a drubbing on Thiem, beating him easily in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3. It was his first victory over a top ten player and served as a huge confidence boost for the coming rounds. He went on to win his next four matches and the tournament without the loss of a single set. Djere’s performance was extraordinary, both because it was unexpected and utterly dominant. The triumph came with a heavy heart. A hint of sadness seeped through during the trophy presentation when Djere dedicated the victory to his parents who had sacrificed so much for him to succeed. It was obvious that even though his parents were not with him physically, they would always be with him spiritually.

The Heart Of A Champion- Laslo Djere in Rio

The Heart Of A Champion- Laslo Djere in Rio (Credit: Laslo Djure Instagram)

Family Honor  – A Vast Potential
It is not uncommon for a player who manages an astonishing performance one week to suffer a letdown the next. It would not have been surprising to see Djere lose early in Sao Paulo after his title winning run in Rio. Unlike the week before, he was tested early and often. In each of his first three matches, Djere was taken to a third set before he prevailed. He made it all the way to the semifinals. It was a fine showing coming on the heels of a magnificent one. After the two tournaments in Brazil, Djere’s ranking jumped 62 spots, from #94 to #32 in the world. With these successes he kickstarted his career and began to realize his vast potential. Whether he is well on his way to greater things only time will tell. More important than any tournament victories or rise in the ranking is the fact that Djere continues to honor his parent’s faith in his ability. That is because he triumphs over tragedy every time he steps on the court.

The Stuff Of Dreams, Legends & Nightmares – Steaua Vs. Dinamo: A Romanian Eternal Derby (Part Two)

The Eternal Derby sounds both heavenly and down to earth. A mortal competition with the possibility of producing a moment that lasts forever. Strangely enough, something like this occurred at an Eternal Derby (also known as the Romanian Derby) match between Steaua Bucharest and Dinamo Bucharest in 1988. It turned out to be one of the more bizarre matches in the history of Eastern European football. A match that was by turns fantastical, depraved and totally ridiculous. It would offer proof of the old cliché that “the truth is stranger than fiction”. If a novel had been written with a plot based upon what happened at the match no one would have bothered to believe or read it. Officially, the match was played to decide the Romanian Cup champion. That result is still in doubt today because the match was never completed.

Unclaimed - The Romanian Cup Trophy

Unclaimed – The Romanian Cup Trophy

Occupying The Pitch – A Fight Beyond The Finish
The Romanian Army was flexing its muscle, not on the field of battle, but instead on the field of football. The Army sponsored Steaua Bucharest football team had come to dominate the Romanian national league during the latter half of the 1980’s. Their rise had come at the expense of Dinamo Bucharest, which enjoyed the Securitate’s (Romanian Secret Police) backing. The rivalry between the two sides was fierce. The stakes could not have been higher. For years, the Army felt that their power had been trumped by the Securitate. The Army had regained its footing, quite literally, by occupying top place on the pitch. In 1989, Dinamo had an excellent opportunity to steal a march on Steaua. The teams were almost evenly matched. The deciding factor in the final might well come down to a lucky bounce or chance mishap. What happened turned out to be just as unlikely as it was unbelievable.

This version of the Eternal Derby was hard fought and tense. Steaua looked to be on their way to another title after they scored the first and only goal of the first half. It came in the 27th minute when their star striker Gheorghe Hagi put them on the board. Dinamo was not able to breakthrough until late in the match. They tied the game with a goal in the 87th minute. It now looked like the match would be decided in extra time. The final seconds were ticking away in the 90th minute when Steaua striker Gavrilo Balint struck a perfect header. His shot was beyond the goalkeeper’s grasp, giving Steaua what looked to be the winning goal. Steaua’s celebration was abruptly terminated by a referee’s call that Balint had been offside. Steaua’s players were stunned and furious. There is a great amount of confusion over what happened next. Multiple witnesses report that Valentin Ceaucescu – the club’s general manager and the son of the Romanian Nicolae – signaled from his place in the stands for Steaua’s players to leave the field. To this day, Valentin denies that he gave any such signal. Whether he did so or not is beside the point because Steaua’s players did leave the field and refused to return.

The Moment of Decision - Controversy defeats all comers in the 1988 Romanian Cup Final

The Moment of Decision – Controversy defeats all comers in the 1988 Romanian Cup Final

A Flash From The Pants – Stop Them & Drop Them
If this turn of events was not sufficiently bizarre, Dinamo’s Ioan Andone dropped his shorts and proceeded to give a full frontal flash to Valentin, grabbing a certain organ then swinging it in one of the lewdest and crudest gestures ever seen on a football pitch. Andone’s act of frustration would net him a year-long suspension. At the same time, his action symbolized the lunacy of Romanian football, where politics and power trumped performance on the field. When Steaua failed to come back out and finish the match, the game was awarded to Dinamo. To the victor went the spoils, but only for one day. Less than twenty-four hours later, the government decided to change the result, likely at the behest of Valentin who persuaded his father to ensure Steaua’s ultimate success. This was not to be the final result.

Eighteen months after that contested Cup final, Nicolae Ceaucescu was overthrown. He and his wife Elena were lined up and shot after a hastily arranged show trial. Valentin might have joined his parents in front of a firing squad, but he was saved by one of Steaua’s players who hid him in their apartment. His managerial acumen, workaholic tendencies and preferential treatment towards the players had made him a beloved general manager and probably ended up saving his life. As for the winner of the 1988 Romanian Cup, Steaua returned the Cup to Dinamo, but refused to accept it. No winner has ever been declared. A blank space is all that can be found in the record books.

Then & Now - Valentin Ceaucescu

Then & Now – Valentin Ceaucescu

Bottoms Up – A Humbling Fall
Despite a nation beset by a tumultuous transition to democratic capitalism filled with chaos and corruption, Romanian football soared to its greatest heights internationally in the early 1990’s. The greatest player of that generation, Gheorghe Haji, an ethnic Macedonian, became known as the Maradona of the Carpathians. Haji had been one of Steaua’s key players in the late 1980’s. He was the first Romanian player to be seen cruising around Bucharest in a Mercedes. At one point, the enterprising Valentin attempted to trade Haji to the Italian club Juventus in return for funding that would result in Fiat building a car plant in Bucharest. Nicolae put a stop to this deal because it smacked of free market capitalism. Haji went on to spearhead the Romanian team in their upset of Argentina in the second round of the World Cup in 1994. Haji and Romanian soccer had come a long way to escape from the long, dark shadow of the fallen Ceaucescu regime.

Unlike Haji, Valentin Ceaucescu’s career headed in a very different direction after the fall of communism in Romania. He was arrested, but eventually released. Fortunately, Valentin had spent his earlier years focused on education rather than politics. This came in handy as he was able to transition into the life of a nuclear physics researcher at an institute in Bucharest. He now lives quite modestly off a pension he earned through his work. This is a far cry from the heady days when Valentin was managing one of the most powerful football clubs in Europe. The club ascended to the greatest of heights under his management before falling back to earth. His involvement with Steaua was the stuff of dreams, legends and nightmares. Never more so than in the 1988 Romanian Cup final against Dinamo. A match that redefined the meaning of Eternal Derby.

Click here for: A Proxy Power Struggle – The Rise Of Romanian Football: Valentin Ceaucescu’s Brilliant Coup (Part One)

A Proxy Power Struggle – The Rise Of Romanian Football: Valentin Ceaucescu’s Brilliant Coup (Part One)

Romania is not a country that immediately comes to mind when discussing European countries which from time to time have managed to meet with greater than expected success on the football pitch. Judging by the more recent results of the national team it is little wonder that few remember the glory days of Romanian football in the 1980’s and 90’s. Since that time, Romania has largely failed to impress on world football’s biggest stages. That has been especially true of late. Though they qualified for the 2016 European Championships, the Romanians subsequently finished last in their group, losing in ignominious fashion to that footballing featherweight, Albania, in their final match. They then failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. This underwhelming performance resulted in the firing of the head coach. Another attempt is now underway to resurrect the national team’s lost glory.  Currently, Romania is ranked 35th in the latest FIFA World Rankings. That low ranking is a far cry from the halcyon days of Romanian football that began in the mid-1980s and peaked in the early 1990’s when they reached a ranking of fifth in the world and made the quarterfinals of the 1994 World Cup.

In an ironic twist of fate, this period of football glory took place while at the same time the country was suffering grave damage due first to the megalomaniacal excesses of the Ceaucescu regime and then the whirlwind of tumult which followed the nation’s transition to democratic capitalism. The brilliance of Romanian football during this era is most famously represented by Steaua Bucharest’s victorious run to the European Cup Championship in 1986. Conversely, one of Romanian football’s lowest points would take place only a couple of years later, when an even more improbable turn of events occurred. This happened in what is known as the Eternal Derby, annual matches between Steaua and Dinamo. The 1988 battle of Bucharest heavyweights is now counted among the most infamous in footballing history. That match is worth recalling because it symbolizes just how bizarre Romanian football had become. In that respect, it was not much different from the national political scene.

European Cup Champions 1986 - Steaua Bucharest

European Cup Champions 1986 – Steaua Bucharest

Rise Of A Footballing Dynamo – Kicking Butt
Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of modern Eastern European history knows the name of Nicolae Ceaucescu, the dictatorial leader of Romania from 1965- 1989, Ceaucescu’s communist regime put an indelibly hideous imprint on the country. Centralization and industrialization occurred at breakneck speed, while the security police arrested tens of thousands and spied on millions more. It is believed that by the 1980’s one in three Romanians was an informer for the secret police. This was a society where paranoia ruled. At its head was Ceaucescu, the prototype of a venal dictator, out of touch with those he ruled and just as out of touch with reality. He spent wildly on megalomaniacal monstrosities while his own citizens went half-starved and suffered through winters where the heat was turned off rather than up. Romania was an unfathomable dystopia for those who lived there in the 1980’s.

With such a monumental level of dysfunction, it is hard to believe that this same system could produce the greatest footballing teams in the nation’s history. One of which rose to a level of European preeminence that had never been attained by a football club in Romania or Eastern Europe for that matter. During the 1980’s the name Ceaucescu was not so much feared, as beloved in some Romanian footballing circles. That was if you happened to be a fan of Steaua Bucharest, the traditional club of the army. While Nicolae cared little for the game, his son Valentin was obsessed with it. Valentin was a nuclear physicist by education, but a football administrator extraordinaire. In 1983 Valentin Ceaucescu was appointed general manager of Steaua, thus inaugurating the team’s meteoric rise to the top of Romanian football. At that time, the national league was dominated by Dinamo Bucharest, which won three consecutive league titles from 1982 through 1984. Dinamo was sponsored by the powerful Securitate, the nation’s all powerful internal security service. The dominance of Dinamo was said by many to be symbolic of their grip on the nation. The army’s power paled in comparison or so it was thought.

In The Name Of The Father - Valentin Ceaucescu With His Mom And Dad

In The Name Of The Father – Valentin Ceaucescu With His Mom And Dad

Foot Soldiers – A Pitched Battle In Bucharest
The Securitate ensured that Dynamo had access to the best resources and top players throughout the country. This began to change when Valentin Ceaucescu took the helm at Steaua. The club had not won a league championship since 1977, but with Valentin playing the role of patron in chief that was about to change. Steaua was backed by the army, the only institution in Romania which could hope to compete with the Securitate for power and prestige. Valentin’s managerial style was more that of a company executive than a communist apparatchik. He worked day and night to bring the best footballers to the Steaua side. His efforts paid immediate, as well as lasting dividends. Steaua won five consecutive league championships beginning with the 1984-85 season. This period included a remarkable 104 game winning streak by Steaua. Their success was not limited to the Romanian national league either.

In 1986, Steaua made an unprecedented run to the European Cup championship, defeating Barcelona on penalty kicks in the final played before 70,000 Spaniards in Seville. This was a monumental upset. Steaua was the first Eastern European side to excel at the highest level of club competition. Steaua’s success came at the expense of Dynamo, which chafed at the rise of its bitter rival. The Securitate attempted to harass Steaua’s players and even went so far as to place Valentin under surveillance. Such measures did little to change the outcome of matches. The Securitate and Army had long been rivals off the field, but the rancor soon rose to a fever pitch on it as well. Their football matches became a proxy for the power struggle between the security services and armed forces. The rivalry reached a new level of rancor when the two teams faced off in the 1988 league final. An epic match ensued, memorable for all the wrong reasons. A match that few who were in the stadium that day would ever forget.

Click here for: The Stuff Of Dreams, Legends & Nightmares – Steaua Vs. Dinamo: A Romanian Eternal Derby (Part Two)