“He was the best player I ever saw” – this was the statement that aroused my intrigue to its zenith as it came from one of the few men that I respected when it came to football.
He is a diehard Scotland and Aberdeen fan and has watched more games than I have had hot dinners, and still to this day will make the long journey to Pittodrie from his home in Shetland at any given opportunity, so you can imagine I was expecting the name of Willie Miller or Gordon Strachan or maybe even Stevie Archibald to trickle of his tongue but I was to be proved to wrong when he answered “a man called Zoltan Varga”.
I found myself asking who?
It was from here that my journey to learn about one of the best players to grace the Red of Aberdeen began.
Much of the mystery that surrounded Varga had even left the man who held him in such high regard knowing very little about him – with the only information he could remember of the player he had seen at Pittodrie all those years ago was, his name, where he was from and the sad fact that he had died not long ago “I’m sure he was a Hungarian, he was in some sort of trouble on the continent and ended up playing for Aberdeen god knows how we ended up with him. He died not too long ago I was at the game we had the minute’s silence.”
As you can imagine as a self-confessed football addict I was perplexed at never having heard of this small Hungarian master who seemed to be all but forgotten by everyone bar those who had seen his mastery of the beautiful game.
I trawled through good old Google and a few books to find out about the eventful life of Zoltan Varga.
The Hungarian was an Olympic goal medallist no less winning with the Hungarian team in the 1964 Tokyo Games in a team which were dubbed the “Magic Magyars” a nickname that they had been dubbed as they put England to the sword in 1953 – they were one of the most feared teams in the world in the 50’s and early 60’s – it was from this Olympic side Varga was to catch the eye of the wider world.
At club level Varga played most of his career in Hungary with the dominant Ferencvarosi side of the 60’s which won all before them and within it Varga was a stand out as he scored 53 goals in 135 games – an unbelievable record for a man who played in midfield in an era where getting the ball was not mandatory.
Sadly, for Varga living in the Communist state was starting to become a problem and in 1969 it was not as simple as requesting a transfer, as to leave the country he would have to defect and leave beloved Ferencvarosi and Hungary to head to the West of Europe and in doing so effectively ended his blossoming international career at the age of 24 with only 12 caps and two goals to his name.
Zoltan Varga would never play another international game.
His first steps into Western Europe were in Belgium and Standard Liege but due to defecting from Hungary there were numerous problems and he was moved onto Hertha Berlin and it was here where Varga was to find his feet.
But his successful three year spell in West Germany was to end in controversial circumstances as the club and Varga were embroiled in a match fixing scandal and he was banned from German football for two years, so with his livelihood at stake and name in tatters Varga found himself out in the cold and somehow heading to the North of Scotland and Pittodrie.
Strangely despite his anger at being sold to the Scottish club the move ended up being a match made in heaven as the Hungarian was unrivalled when he showed up in Scotland with his mix of work ethic and skill. He blew the Pittodrie faithful away as he showed a repertoire of skill and a range of passing that had never been seen in the red of Aberdeen before and wouldn’t be seen again until the likes of Strachan and Archibald graced the Pittodrie turf.
The tricky midfielder’s record at Aberdeen was an impressive one as he scored 10 goals in 26 games, in doing so he became the main cog in the Dons side as he set up as many as he scored.
But with all of the impressive performances mounting it wasn’t long before Varga captured the eye of the European elite as Aberdeen fans turned out in their droves to watch the gifted Hungarian.
In his single season at Aberdeen he showed the skill and hard work that has seen him compared to his fellow countryman the great Ferenc Puskas and it was enough to earn him a move to the biggest club in European football at the time and possibly the world as European Champions and exponents of Total Football Ajax thought Varga would be the ideal man to replace none other than Johan Cruyff who was heading to Spain to continue his love affair with Barcelona.
He stuck around for the year in Amsterdam where injuries took their toll and he was never able to replicate the form he had shown at Aberdeen. He moved back to Germany and had a successful spell with Borussia Dortmund before moving on to Augsburg and finally ended up back in Belgium with Gent where he was to retire.
Management beckoned and he moved back to his native Hungary, but his defectiion limited his chances as he was blackballed in Hungary and found his reputation in the rest of Europe tainted by the match fixing scandal which had followed him from his spell at Hertha Berlin – sadly job opportunities were hard to come by for the Wee Hungarian.
But he did eventually get his chance after the fall of the Berlin wall when Hungary forgave him for his past ‘sins’, but Varga never had the same success in management as he had as a player and his only high point was when he was eventually reunited with his beloved Ferencvarosi managing them for the 1996-97 season.
He ended up having a few more ventures into management but none were successful and he ended up seeing out his life in his hometown of Budapest where he was to sadly pass away as he suffered a heart attack during an Old boy’s charity football game in 2010.
Sadly, it was only really in death that Varga got the recognition his talent deserved in his homeland as the Hungarian Prime Minster stated that one of the Hungary’s greatest players had passed away aged just 65.
It was a sad end to an eventful life but for those who had seen Zoltan Varga in his pomp he left them with memories which will live long after his death and after managing to find footage of him playing for Aberdeen and Hertha Berlin, in my opinion he looked like some player and he may have even been the best to wear the Red of Aberdeen.