How to lead the popularity list? Own a soccer ball!

[I take the liberty to copy the first two paragraphs of the book to illustrate my recollection to a story how a a class of boys in the elementary school answered unanimously for the question ’Who is your best friend?”]

It is not possible to play soccer if you don’t have a ball! But we had one! We played! I grew up in Budapest (well, in Pest and not in Buda, as my wife did; but I promised her not to make jokes anymore about the cultural differences in the two parts of the city) soon after the war. The elementary school had students (actually boys; no co-ed existed that time) from Angyalföld, (the now disappearing working class’ Land of Angels) and Újlipótváros (‘New Leopold Town’) particularly popular among middle-class intellectual citizens of Jewish origin. While there was an obvious social contrast in the background of our parents, (and I don’t speak here about the sad family stories hidden by their (well, our) parents from the New Leopold Town kids), the love of soccer bridged the gap. In the early nineteen-fifties Hungary had the worlds’  best soccer team led by Ferenc Puskás, whose left foot made him one of the greatest players of all time. This book is about ranking, and I think I share the opinion of many others, who believe that he was one of the two best-known Hungarians of the 20th century (Béla Bartók is arguably the other). The Hungarian team was unbeaten during thirty three games from 1950-1954 and the run ended in the 1954 World Cup final in a historical loss against West Germany (it was the first big postwar success of the new Germany). I will go back to this story later analyzing the sadness of being second best. So, soccer was extremely popular, almost all of us played almost every day for eight years.

But now we are in a classroom of forty boys. ”Who is your best friend?” – we had to write the answer for the question asked by our teacher. Thirty seven votes went to Péter Erdélyi. He had a wonderful sense of humor, but it was not the reason of his big win. His dad was a director of a state owned (what else?) company called ”Cultural articles” dealing with expensive soccer balls. Well, we lived in a poor country, so everything which manufactured was expensive. So, Péter was the only boy in the class who had a real soccer ball…

Please note, that a teacher asked us, and our answers were anonymous. We really were so thankful to have the chance to play with a real soccer ball, that we felt Péter was our best friend. No doubt he led the popularity list in the whole year.


5 thoughts on “How to lead the popularity list? Own a soccer ball!”

  1. I still remember the days in 1950s when your soccer team was the world champion! And I remember the good time when you played the soccer with a net:-)



  2. I too played soccer in the schoolyard every day growing up in Belgium. As Peter describes so well, it was a unifying experience because every boy played no matter his size or ability, and soccer is complex and subtle enough that you can always find the place on the field that best suits your skills. American kids by and large do not have that unifying experience because they specialize into distinct sports (and other activities) early reflecting their cultural background, physical skills, and economic status. As the popularity of soccer in the US keeps increasing, it is an interesting test case of whether Americans can get over their obsession with rankings, especially with the #1 ranking, as they are #1 in almost all other sports (American football, basketball, baseball, track, swimming, etc) but nowhere close in soccer, at least for the foreseeable future.


    1. Thanks Christian. Yes, the “unifying experience” was very important. Soccer is just not for American mind (well, not speaking about South-America. I am not sure how much time Brazilia needs to recover from the German 1:7 shock. Hungary never did it after losing in the final of the World Cup in 1954, as I will discuss in the section “The tragedy of being the SECOND best.”


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