Zoltan Varga, footballer. Born: 1 January, 1945, in Val, Hungary. Died: 9 April, 2010, in Budapest, Hungary, aged 65.
IN THE finest tradition of naturally gifted and technically outstanding footballers from his country, Zoltan Varga made an indelible impression on those who witnessed him perform at the peak of his abilities.
It says everything about the Hungarian inside-forward's talent that the mere six months of his nomadic career spent as an Aberdeen player were enough to persuade many supporters of the Pittodrie club to regard him as the finest player ever to wear the red shirt. Varga made only 31 appearances for the Dons in their otherwise largely unremarkable 1972-73 season, but the ten goals he scored and the manner in which he lit up grounds all over Scotland with his refined skills had punters and pundits alike drooling.
The North-east of Scotland was a brief but memorable stopover on Varga's remarkable footballing journey. Born in the tiny village of Val on the west bank of the River Danube, he was inspired as a child by the exploits of Hungary's brilliant team of the 1950s and would seek to emulate men such as Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti who were known as the "Magical Magyars".
Varga's prodigious talent as a schoolboy attracted the attention of Ferencvaros, and he made his debut for the famous Budapest club at the age of only 16. He soon became an integral part of the "Fradi" side, learning his trade well alongside revered striker Florian Albert.
Varga won his first major honour in 1963, the first of four Hungarian league titles he would help Ferencvaros collect. His greatest moment with the club that would always remain closest to his heart came in June 1965 when he was part of the side that lifted the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, precursor of the Uefa Cup. Underdogs in the final against Juventus, which was played in the Italian club's home stadium in Turin, Ferencvaros triumphed 1-0.
His success with Ferencvaros earned Varga an early introduction to the Hungarian international set-up. He was still only 19 when he was part of the squad that finished third in the 1964 European Championship finals in Spain. Varga excelled in the third and fourth place play-off match at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, which saw Hungary defeat Denmark 3-1 after extra time.
Later in 1964, Hungary exceeded that achievement by being crowned Olympic champions in Tokyo. Varga played in their opening 6-0 rout of Morocco – a game in which Ujpest Dozsa striker Ferenc Bene astonishingly scored all six goals – but had to be content with the role of substitute for the rest of the tournament, which culminated in a 3-0 final victory over Yugoslavia in Osaka.
Varga was also in the Hungarian squad for the 1966 World Cup finals in England but again did not feature in the starting line-up as they were eliminated by the Soviet Union in the quarter-finals.
As much of a free spirit off the field as he was on it, Varga detested Communist rule in Hungary and was one of several players to defect during the build-up to the 1968 Olympic football tournament in Mexico, effectively ending his international career. He made his way to West Germany, where he found willing employers in the shape of Hertha Berlin.
Varga helped Hertha to third-place finishes in the Bundesliga in both 1970 and 1971 before becoming implicated in one of the biggest match-fixing scandals in German football history. He was one of 52 players from six clubs who were fined or suspended for their involvement after Arminia Bielefeld offered bribes to opponents in a bid to avoid relegation.
At half-time of a match between Hertha Berlin and Bielefeld, it was alleged Varga had been overheard calling his wife from a press room telephone to ask if she had received a payment. The languid nature of Varga's performance was heavily criticised as Hertha lost the game 1-0. He was banned from German football for two years.
It was in the wake of the controversy that Varga found refuge in Aberdeen, whose manager Jimmy Bonthrone paid what proved to be a shrewd 40,000 to sign him in October 1972. Varga made his debut in a 2-2 draw against Falkirk at Pittodrie, instantly earning the admiration of the Aberdeen supporters. In his next home appearance, Varga's brilliance was not enough to prevent a 3-2 defeat to champions Celtic, but his two goals enthused fans of both teams, particularly a stunningly executed lob over visiting goalkeeper Evan Williams.
Varga also stood out at Hampden Park in Glasgow when Aberdeen faced Celtic in the League Cup semi-final, only for his team to let a 2-1 lead slip in the closing 15 minutes as Jock Stein's men won 3-2. Aberdeen finished fourth in the then First Division, with Varga making his final appearance for the club in a 2-1 win at Morton in April 1973.
Recouping the 40,000 they had paid for him, Aberdeen then sold Varga to Ajax. The Amsterdam club had just won the European Cup for the third successive year and identified Varga as a suitable replacement for the great Johann Cruyff, who had departed for Barcelona.
Varga was unable to live up to such high expectations, however, and after just one season with Ajax, he returned to West Germany, where he played for Borussia Dortmund and FC Augsburg before finishing his playing career in Belgium with Ghent.
After hanging up his boots in 1977, Varga moved into coaching with a succession of clubs, first in Germany and then back home in Hungary, including a brief spell in charge of Ferencvaros, which saw them face Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United in the 1996-97 season.
He remained a much-loved figure among the "Fradi" faithful and his sudden death in Budapest, when he collapsed while playing in an old boys match, was greeted with genuine sorrow.
Varga was hailed as a "defining figure of Hungarian football" by the country's prime minister Gordon Bajnai, and that sentiment could be just as aptly applied to his brief but memorable part in Aberdeen's history.