Zoltán Tóth is a former Újpest and Hungarian national team goalkeeper who left Hungary under communism to start a new life in America. He went on to become a legend in the world of the Major Indoor Soccer League. I remember sitting up with my father at some ridiculous times of the morning to watch “Zollie the goalie” and managed to track him down to his current home where he provided me with one of the best interviews I have had the pleasure to conduct. I hope you enjoy reading it as much I enjoyed listening to the great man’s words.
As your father was an international goalkeeper, was it a natural progression for you?
My dad was one of the magical Hungarian soccer players from the past, who played before WWII and after. If it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t of played soccer, or I may never have succeeded to reach the high goals that I set myself those days. He was the first generation of goalie in our family, I just thank to him for all of the hard work and training we did together. My mum was a goalkeeper also for Csepel's hand ball team. My son Chris is the third generation and he is proud to wear 31 on his jersey. He represented the US in Brazil this year in beach soccer as the national USA team goalkeeper.
What was it like playing in Hungary during the late 70's?
I always dreamt about playing for Újpest. The best team I had ever seen on TV and live. I was finishing at technical school ( UMSK ) so after school I was practicing with Újpest juniors III, then II then junior I. I Idolized the goalkeepers, like Szentmihalyi, Borbely, Szigeti, and Rothermel. I had to train very hard, and live up to my dreams to get a place in the team one day. These keepers were the best to follow. I knew if I was lucky enough and healthy enough that one day my time will come to play. I became the best goalkeeper and won international tournaments in Switzerland and Italy. Later I was selected to the national C team to play in North Korea. I had some problem there and got a suspension. I had covered the picture of Kim Il Sung that was in my room, and that was a crime in North Korea.
Újpest was a top team in Europe during your time there, was that something you was aware of at the time?
Újpest was a great team, it was a government backed club, with central management of internal affairs. They collected the most talented players at that time, like Törőcsik, Fekete and Sarlos, most of who were from BVSC. I grew up in Újpest on the top soccer field "kopogo" , which was a clay training field. No goalkeeper raised in Újpest from Junior teams had ever played for the first team so the odds were against me. We won all the junior championships to the reserve team level with me in goal, thanks to our magnificent coach Janos Schumann and the players around me. Why Újpest never reached a European final is a mystery, we went out of UEFA cup in 1977 with me in goal against Athletico Bilbao of Spain, even though in overtime we scored a goal which could of won the game, but the referee disallowed it for a reason only he knows.
Which other players stood out for you at Újpest?
Every single player. All of us stood out. We respected the most, Sandor Zambo, and Laszlo Fazekas.
Was it an easy decision to defect from Hungary and what where the factors that made you do it?
The hardest decision I ever had to make was in 1978 when I decided I will leave. I had a horrible collision in the Újpest vs Raba Eto game. I wanted to prove I was good but I had torn my right thigh muscle in the collision with Otto Szabo in the first half of the game what ended 2-2. I'd just been selected to the national team as 3rd choice goalkeeper behind Gujdar and Meszaros to go to Argentina for the 78 world cup. Újpest won the 1977-78 Hungarian NB I championship, however I was playing with a bleeding muscle. I was Forced to play until I had to stop. Up to when the national team left for the world, I was running around in the Puskás Stadium with a hope to make it but unfortunately calcium deposit crystals formed around the main bone and locked my muscles so that they would not function. Injections did not help me at all. I was facing early retirement from the sport. Újpest saw this and surprised me with an invitation to go and do national service in the army, and I had to serve a year, injured, without money and support. The army stopped my reconstruction surgery in a sport hospital, stating that a service man can be operated on in the army hospital only, not a civil hospital. I saw a lot of fans and people back then. They turned on me. I made a commitment to myself to come back one more time and find a way to really succeed.
In 1979, I worked my way back into the Újpest starting line-up, and earned the number 1 spot in the National Team for the European Cup and Olympics. I was a champion again with Ujpest and in May of 1979 finally finished my national service. We drew with Russia in Tbilisi with a questionable goal 5 minutes from the end which told me these referees were full of shit. With the Olympic team we beat Romania in Miskolc, where my mother is from. I'll be always proud about beating Romania's national soccer team 3-0, knocking them out. We did not make serious money at that time and when I had to ask my mother for her retirement money and was forced to buy a game, I said that's it, I knew we wouldn’t be successful in the future internationally, and financially. There was no way around it, I had to leave. We looked like a puppet show in the stadium.
How did you end up in America?
We played with Újpest at a tournament in Cadiz, Spain and I saw that as my chance. After practice everyone went shopping in the city. I said goodbye to everyone then went back to the hotel get my belongings and leave. Through Madrid I flew to New York two weeks later. I had to hide from the Hungarian KGB and could not trust anyone. Later I got asylum to stay permanently.
How did you end up playing indoor soccer?
I was ranked on a FIFA football scale, and had a good record in the outdoor gam. The Hungarian Soccer Federation suspended me 2 years. This meant I could not play or earn any money which was pretty hard as an immigrant, so I had no choice, I had to work for a year and missed out on playing. I trained hard, believing I will play the game again. I had to go to court to fight the decision of FIFA and the MLSZ to reduce my suspension to 1 year, and I won. My dream in 1980 became real when 1980-81 we won the championship in St. Louis. This was a huge emotion was for me. Security closed down the Kennedy Airport terminal, for our fans to celebrate our return to New York. My dream come through and I was a Champion again, I was a recognized, respected, and well paid professional soccer player again. No muppet games, I was playing to win and for money. I was happy again.
Just how big was indoor soccer in America?
The Major Indoor Soccer League was the fastest growing sport in the USA at that time. Full houses meant 15-20,000 fans at every game. We set all of the records by winning, by number of fans, by consecutive wins and all-star game attendance. I played the 1983 MISL All-Star game for the first time in Kansas City. I was selected 6 more times after. In Cleveland where most of the Hungarian immigrants were, we won the highest scoring game, beating the eastern conference selected team. New York CBS and ESPN televised our games, and almost moved in to the Madison Square Garden, for a season in 1982. San Diego Sockers ,where I ended up playing rocked the Sports Arena. We won 10 championships almost in a row. Cities like Wichita, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland, Tacoma, L.A. were all sold out. We were the team with the most wins in professional soccer history in USA.
What are your proudest football achievements?
My proudest achievements are,
1974 UMSZKI - Telecommunication and Computer Technician
1975 Bellinzona - Best Goalkeeper
1976 Via Reggio - Best Goalkeeper
1975 National C Selection Team of Hungary
1974-77 - Junior champion with Újpest
1977 Kando Kalman computer and telecommunications indoor soccer champions
1977 Dimploma in Telecommunication and Computers
1977-78 Újpest National Champion
1978-79 Újpest National Champion
1979 Selected to play for Hungary at the European Championships
1979 Selected to play for Hungary at the Olympics
1980-81 MISL Champion with New York
1981-82 MISL Champion with New York
1983 MISL All-Star Kansas City
1984 MISL All-Star St. Louis
1985 MISL All Star Cleveland
1984-85, 85-86, 87-88, 88-89, 89-90 MISL Champion with San Diego
1983 Best Goalkeeper in MISL
1988 Best Goalkeeper in MISL
1991 Swiss international champion with St. Louis
2010 inducted to hall of fame in San Diego
2010 San Diego Sockers retired my number 1 jersey
2010-present my son, Chris Tóth took over in goal, and is unbeaten in 2 consecutive years.
Did you ever consider a return to Hungary?
In my dreams I am home in Hungary, with my parents. Return? I was thinking about it, but something said to me, stay free and enjoy the rest of my life here in beautiful San Diego, California.
What have you been doing since retiring from playing?
I am coaching. I have raised talented goalkeepers in this area. Today I coach a local Indian tribe named Temecula and Murrieta. I also coach the San Diego Socker’s goalies.
The digital revolution gave me a carrier in the industry. As an engineer, I worked for PCPI which is a laser printer company here in Rancho Bernardo. We were responsible for 2 billion dollars of products, and our customers were companies like Panasonic, Xerox, Minolta, Fujitsu and we designed Apple's last laser printer, the Laser Writer II. I attended many computer shows and visited the Hungarian IFABO many times. Also I brought Black Gold to Hungary in the 90’s saving gasoline and old engines from wear and tear. Today I am the head of Simplex Security in the US and partner of Hungarian Simplex kft.
Do you follow Hungarian football still, if so , any particular team?
Újpest of course. My son was visiting Újpest FC last year and worked with Andras Palinkas at goalkeeper practice. I would like to see Újpest win another championship. I cheer for the Hungarian National Team and I really like the efforts of Sandor Egervari's team during the last European Cup qualifiers. They needed a little more luck. It Would be nice to see Hungarian National Team at the Brazil 2014 World Cup.
Hungarianfootball.com would like to thank Zoltán for taking the time to talk to us.