« What a missed opportunity for our national team that Hungary cannot count on the replacement of Ferenc Puskas. »
– Gusztáv Sebes, Hungary coach
He refused to play for the German and Belgian national teams, he did not want to return to his homeland and he was not allowed to go to top teams such as AC Milan and Barcelona, but he remained active in the world of football until his eighties.
At the age of 12, István Sztáni joins the local football club where his father was a reputed goalkeeper, and much later also coach and administrator. « However, at the end of World War II, he was captured by the Americans and then by the Russians. Despite being only 7 years old, I will never forget the image when he returned home. We went to pick him up at the train station but he was barely recognizable, a broken man. » After a while, Sztani Sr. Restarted his professional and social activities and rejoined Ózd but he was adamant for his son not to start playing football. « My father never wanted me to play football. He insisted that I go to college and have a real job. » After a few years, Istvan nevertheless is granted the opportunity to join the youth of Ózd to make his debut in the first team at only 17. And with several titles as top scorer in the following seasons, he is also called up for the national youth teams.
When he goes on an international tour with the national youth selection of Hungary at the age of 19, Istvan does not realize that it would completely turn his life upside down. After arriving in England, the Hungarian Revolution breaks out in his homeland. Initially started as a peaceful student demonstration in support of the inhabitants of the Polish city of Poznan, the atmosphere quickly becomes grim and people turn against the government with anti-Russian slogans. After about ten days, the demonstrators force the pro-Russian government to resign, but the latter enlisted the help of the Soviet Union, which invaded the country violently in early November and brought it back under communist regime. Thousands of Hungarians die or are forced to leave their country.
The youth selection is now traveling to Austria for the next leg of their tour. Several players fear a return to the strict regime, and leave the squad to seek their luck at clubs in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. « Believe it or not, I really wanted to return to my country and family, but the managers came, kept coming, and surrounded us all, and after a while everyone had a team except me. And then came Adolf Patek, the famous Austrian coach who ran Frankfurt. He also persuaded two of my companions to sign a contract with me at Eintracht Frankfurt. I remember arriving in the German city of Basel on the evening of December 17, 1956. I knew no German and I only had my two compatriots, luckily one of whom spoke perfect German which made the integration a lot easier. »
His move to Frankfurt would do him no harm, because in Germany he quickly grew into a phenomenon, both as an ‘inside right’ and as a striker. The highlight obviously were the two goals in the championship final against arch-rival Kickers Offenbach. It is to this day the only championship title for Eintracht Frankfurt. And while the fans and teammates urged their chairman to extend the contract of ‘the king of Riederwald‘ (ed. the name of the Frankfurt stadium), he lingers too long. « My one-year contract expired just after the championship final. The president didn’t want to pay more at first and when he finally wanted to, I had already signed a pre-contract with Standard. »
That contract with Roger Petit was not an accident. The Secretary General of the Rouches had a strong network in Germany at that time and was looking to strengthen the team that won the championship for the first time in 1958 with some foreign talents. And since coach Géza Kalocsay was of Hungarian nationality, reinforcements were also searched for in his network, and this quickly led to Sztani and his compatriot Jozsef Tamasik. Both players were eventually recruited, but only Sztani would break through. « In Liège, Roger Petit showed that he really wanted me, and of course it was a bonus that a compatriot was a trainer. » , said “Pitcha” as he was called by his friends.
But there was a “but…” The regulations in Belgium were such that a professional foreign player was not allowed to play for the first team in an official game and had to sit out an entire season. It didn’t stop Sztani from signing a contract with Standard, and so it happened that a player who brought Frankfurt the title and could count on interest from several clubs, would only play friendlies during the first year. Friendlies against Barcelona, AC Milan, Frankfurt and Bologna, but still quite a coup from Roger Petit.
Around the Christmas period, the lack of competitive matches as well missing as missing his friends started to weigh on him and he asked, and received, permission to return to Germany to get married. And despite the fact that his planned return was postponed by a few months, he rejoined training from May 1960 and played a few more friendly games – and of course scored – including at Sclessin against Santos F.C. from Brazilian legend Pelé.
His great performances do not leave several clubs uninterested. « AC Milan and Barcelona wanted me there. The Spaniards saw in me the replacement for their legend Luis Suarez. » Also the Hungarian National Football Association continued to push him to join, seeing him as the ultimate replacement for Ferenc Puskas: « During the 1959 title match with Frankfurt, my father appeared with an embassy employee at the Olympic Stadium and handed over a message from my former coach at Ozd, Rudi Illovszky, who made me a very attractive financial offer that meant that I had to stop working after my active career, but I did not accept it.” A few years later, Dózsa Újpest would make a similar attempt with equal success.
And although he acquired the Belgian and German nationality, he refused to play for the respective national teams. « I just couldn’t imagine ever playing against the Hungarian national team. »
The 1960-1961 season with the Rouches was a direct hit and couldn’t have started in a better fashion. In his first competitive match with Standard, against Sint-Truiden, he scored twice. In total, he would go on to score in more than half of the games, before finishing with 20 goals in 30 games. With his companion Roger Claessen, who also scored 14, they handed over the second title in the history of the club to the crazy fans. The Rouches then had a strong group of players with, amongst others, Jean Nicolay in goal, Karel Mallants, Henri Thellin, Jef Vliers and Lucien Spronk as defensive belt, and with an internationally renowned midfield with Popeye Piters, Denis Houf, Léon Semmeling and Paul Bonga Bonga. And offensively they could count on Sztani, Claessen and Marcel Paeschen. The cooperation and understanding between the experienced Sztani and the young foal Roger Claessen was particularly strong and would bolster their careers and Standard’s hunt for silverware.
That talent also showed itself the following season (1961-1962). Although in the end Standard had to be satisfied with second place in the league – mainly thanks to an unleashed Roger Claessen (20 goals) – the Rouches advanced to the semi-finals of the European Champion Clubs’ Cup. In the quarter-finals, the mighty Glasgow Rangers were eliminated thanks to a 4:1 trashing at home. In the semifinals, the Rouches meet Real Madrid, which could count on legends such as Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento and Tejada. Although the team played well, they had to accept defeat through a wonderful performance by Sztani’s compatriot Ferenc Puskas.
Istvan Sztani also brings his good friend Janos Hanek to Standard that season, but Janos was unable to convince Roger Petit during a friendly match in 1961 against Barcelona (0:0). Standard gathered a lot of attacking talent with Léon Semmeling, Roger Claessen, Johnny Crossan and Denis Houf. And there was this ruling in Belgium that only two foreigners were allowed in a game, and with Sztani and Irishman Johnny Crossan, the Rouches already had two exceptional players.
However, the hunger of the Rouches has not been quenched, and the Liège players start the 1962-1963 season in what would become their third title season. This time the troops of Frenchman Gusti Jordan fought their way to the top with mainly a defensive performance. Although Sztani becomes top scorer with 10 goals, the Rouches conceded only 21 goals in a whole season.
In his last two seasons (1963-1964 and 1964-1965), Standard finishes in second place twice. The squad is further rejuvenated with the entry and breakthrough of Nico Dewalque and Louis Pilot. « Sztani was arguably the most technically gifted player Standard ever had. », said Dewalque when we asked him recently.
The introverted Sztani and his wife returned to the heimat after six years in Liège, and Istvan rejoins Eintracht Frankfurt. And when he thinks to end his career with the amateurs of Maccabi Frankfurt, he is contacted by Belgian outfit Ghent, where he would eventually be active for another four seasons, at the end as a player-coach. This combined role also brought him to Tournai in 1973-1974, where he concluded his active career with RUS Tournaisienne, with whom he won the promotion to national level.
Ex-Standard legend James Storme crossed paths with Istvan Sztani at the start of his career in Ghent. « The arrival of Sztani was a gift for us at Ghent,” says James. “Besides his obvious technical baggage, he also had a lot of charisma. He put his experience of Frankfurt and Standard at the disposal of our young group and talked to us a lot.. »
Then follows a long list of clubs where he becomes manager (Schweinfurt (1974-1975), VfB Stuttgart (1975-1976), FK Pirmasens (1976-1977), Bayern Hof (1977-1978), Arminia Hannover (1979), Würzburger F.V. (1980)).
© Marc Coudijzer – December 2021
Birth date: March 19th 1937, in Ózd (Hungary)
Nationality: Hungary (German by naturalisation)
Affiliated at Standard: 1 August 1959 – 5 August 1965
Trophies with Standard: 2x Belgian Championship (1961, 1963)
International games / goals: 0 / 0
1949 – 1954
1954 – 1956
1957 – 1959
1959 – 1965
1965 – 1968
1968 – 1969
1969 – 1973
1973 – 1974
Eintracht Frankfurt (GER)
TuS Maccabi Frankfurt (GER)
K.A.A. Gent (7)
R.U.S. Tournaisienne (26)
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup