You need to go back three decades to the last time a Hungarian footballer was in demand across the continent and able to command a major transfer fee. That player was Lajos Détári, a nimble and skilful attacking-midfielder who made his name with communist-era Honved before heading west and experiencing capitalism at its worst in Greece.
Détári broke through into the first-team of Hungary’s army club in the early 1980s and developed into the sort of technically adroit player who would have looked at home in his nation’s great teams of the 1950s and 60s. From his advanced midfield position he was a regular scorer, especially from set-pieces, and topped the league’s scoring charts in 1985, 1986 and 1987.
The timing of his career was fortuitous; Hungary had previously taken a hard line towards any of their footballers transferring west and the ones who did make it were invariably defectors. But with the country’s economy in a mess, bringing in foreign currency became a priority and exporting footballers was a good way to help achieve this.
So Détári signed for Eintracht Frankfurt in 1987 for a record fee of £1.4m and enjoyed a sterling first season in the Bundesliga, scoring 11 times and netting a fabulous free-kick winner in the DfB-Pokal Final against Bochum.
Clubs further afield took notice although Détári’s next move was to prove controversial and chaotic. Athens giants Olympiacos had recently come under the control of banker and publishing magnate George Koskotas and he had ambitious plans for his new ‘play thing’. The best Greek talent was snapped up during the summer of 1988 and now he wanted a big name foreign midfield star.
Bids to sign Olaf Thon and Aleksandr Zavarov came to nothing, but a deal was done instead to acquire Détári for an eye-watering fee of £4.7m. To put this into context, the transfer was the third most expensive in history at that point and more than three times the England record of the time.
30,000 thrilled Olympiacos fans turned out to welcome him and new coach Jacek Gmoch spoke about how thrilled he was to have such a great player on board. The honeymoon barely lasted beyond the ceremony itself: the newcomer injured a knee during a pre-season game and was packed off to Sweden for an operation. This meant a delay until October for his debut and by October the situation at the club would be drastically different.
By then the controversial owner Koskotas had fled the country to evade charges of multi-million dollar embezzlement and irregular currency dealing – just a year after fleeing the USA to Greece to avoid similar charges. With proceeds from his embezzlement he had bought Olympiacos and had redirected $13m of customer deposits to finance his player spending spree.
Suddenly Détári became a liability rather than an asset with Eintracht Frankfurt looking unlikely to receive any more than the £1.5m first instalment paid when the deal was signed. At least he was ready for action and he eased some of the pressure on him with a run of fine performances and regular goals – particularly from free-kicks. Despite their uncertain future off the field, on it Olympiacos only narrowly missed out on becoming Greek champions.
More settled now, the playmaker agreed to stay on for a second season following a request from the new chairman Argis Saliarelis. Every effort to accommodate their exotic Hungarian star was made which brought conflict with supporters. Over the head of coach Miltos Papapostolou, the Hungarian Imre Komora was appointed as his assistant. Komora also happened to be the father-in-law of Détári and the star’s personal manager.
Papapostolou issued a him-or-me ultimatum and was promptly sacked and replaced by Komora. Fans demanded that both him and his son-in-law be kicked out of the club. An uneasy piece was brokered.
For all the chaos that enveloped his two-year stay in Greece, Lajos Détári was at least a success on the pitch when playing and free of injury. He scored 33 goals in 55 games for the club and although a league title evaded him, Olympiacos did win the 1990 Greek Cup with his contribution significant.
His next stop would be Italy with Bologna paying £3m for his services, significantly less than Olympiacos had spent but money that enabled the Greeks at least to finally pay off the remainder of the outstanding fee from his Frankfurt transfer. By then all parties were glad to put this hugely divisive deal behind them.