The name of Sándor Szűcs may not be as widely known as that of his former teammates Ferenc Puskás, József Bozsik, or even Ferenc Deák, however, the 19 times capped defender holds a unique, if not somewhat morbid place in Hungarian football history.
For the crime of falling in love with a married woman and attempting to escape the strict Communist regime of Mátyás Rákosi, Szűcs was sentenced to death and executed by the State on 4th June 1951, becoming the first – and only – footballer to suffer this fate.
Born in the town of Szolnok, around 100km from Budapest, Szűcs began his playing career with local side Szolnoki MÁV in 1939 at the age of 17, and just two years later made his International debut against Yugoslavia.
In 1944, and with 7 caps already to his name, Szűcs moved to capital side Újpest with whom he would go on to win three successive league titles from 1945 to 1947 and firmly establish himself as a mainstay of the Nemzeti Tizenegy.
However, a chance and ultimately fateful encounter in 1948 with up-and-coming jazz singer Erzsi Kovács would have career and life-changing implications.
Szűcs and Kovács fell madly in love with each other after their first meeting and began a passionate affair, despite both being married at the time. The authorities frowned upon such behaviour and, to avoid major scandal, Szűcs was dropped from the national team and strongly advised by the AVH (Államvédelmi Hatóság), the Hungarian Secret Police, to abandon the affair or face the consequences that even his ‘footballer’s legs could not help him escape’.
To make matters worse, Szűcs club side Újpest had recently come under the control of the police, technically making him a police officer, and also putting him under closer scrutiny from the authorities.
After questioning by the AVH, Szűcs and Kovács resolved that their futures remained together and away from Hungary. With known interest from Italian club Torino, the duo decided to enlist the help of a smuggler and take the dangerous path trod by many Hungarians before them, including the great László Kubala, and defect to the West to continue their lives together.
On 6th March 1951, Szűcs and Kovács began their last journey together along with the handler entrusted to smuggle them out of the country.
Shortly after passing through a checkpoint near the Austrian border, the trio was stopped by AVH soldiers at which point the smuggler revealed himself to be an AVH agent and handed the couple over to the authorities. As a serving police officer by virtue of his association to Újpest Dozsa, Szűcs had been advised by their smuggler to take his police-issued pistol with him for protection on the journey. Being caught with the weapon in his possession whilst trying to defect left him open to an anti-defection law that called for life imprisonment or the death penalty for members of any armed service caught defecting.
After their betrayal and capture, Sándor Szűcs and Erzsi Kovács were taken to the notorious Terror Háza (House of Terror), then headquarters of the AVH and now a popular tourist attraction at 60 Andrássy út in downtown Budapest, where they were tortured and interrogated before being charged for their attempted illegal border crossing and, in Szűcs case, high treason.
Szűcs was tried in front of a Military Court in May 1951 with only a court-appointed lawyer, whom he did not know, to defend his position in what was essentially a show trial. He was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death by hanging, an order seen as a deterrent to other sports stars or entertainers who might consider defecting.
Upon announcement of Szűcs conviction and sentence to death Kovács begged her lover to plead the court for mercy, Szűcs refused stating that he would rather die than live his life apart from Erzsi. Former teammates Puskás and Bozsik also attempted to bargain for Szűcs life but without success.
On 4 June 1951, Szűcs was executed by the Hungarian State.
Kovács was spared the death sentence for her part in the attempted defection and was sentenced to four years imprisonment instead. Upon her release, Erzsi resumed her singing career becoming one of Hungary’s most popular and successful recording artists until her death in 2014.
Szűcs was only 29 years old at the time of his execution and at the peak of his playing career. He was a three-time national champion with Újpest and member of the national team who would surely have found a place in the famous Aranycsapat had fate not stepped in and dealt him a wrong hand.
In 1989, after the fall of the Communist State in Hungary, Szűcs death sentence was revoked and declared a violation of the law. A stand at Újpest’s Szusza Ferenc Stadion has also been renamed in his memory.