Should the FFA Cup award the Attila Abonyi Medal?
By Joe Gorman
Since the FFA Cup was launched in March, everyone has been waiting for a fairytale. “The FFA Cup will be a huge opportunity for the local teams to play against A-League clubs,” said Paul Reid, a member of Rockdale Ilinden Football Club and a veteran of the English FA Cup. “They no doubt will go into the competition with an attitude of ‘on our day we can achieve the impossible’.”
The draw is structured to allow at least one semi-professional or amateur side to reach the semi-finals. The idea is that new stories of amateur teams defeating state league sides, former National Soccer League teams beating A-League clubs, and bush teams knocking out city clubs will strengthen the game as a whole.
Of course, these stories will add to a history already rich with memories and rivalries. Here, new stories may help us reconnect with old ones. The Australia Cup, held from 1962 to 1968, is the elephant in the room. FFA missed an opportunity to name the new knockout Cup after the old one, but the shape of the trophy, according to FFA chief executive David Gallop, “has an interesting connection to the old Australia Cup”.
Meetings have been convened at FFA Headquarters, names have been put forward, and soon we will be asked to vote in an internet poll for the name of the FFA Cup final’s man of the match medal. It is an important opportunity to recognise a player who has contributed significantly to Australian football. Since 1990, the player of the season in the domestic competition has been awarded the Johnny Warren Medal, and the man of the match in the grand final has been awarded the Joe Marston Medal. The John Kosmina Medal is awarded to the player of the grand final in the state-based National Premier Leagues.
In choosing a name, FFA has many options. Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Craig Johnston, Brett Emerton – these are all names that will bring the FFA Cup the prestige and recognition it craves. Look a little further back, however, and one name stands out.
Attila Abonyi arrived in Australia as a 10-year-old in 1957, fleeing Hungary with his parents after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Uprising. He joined many thousands of Magyars who arrived in Australia, first fleeing fascism and then communism. Les Murray, Frank Lowy, Marcel Nagy, Andrew Dettre, Andrew Lederer and Alex Pongrass are just a few of the Hungarian emigres who are steeped in Australian football folklore.
The Hungarians, as political scientist James Jupp notes in his doorstop book The Australian People: an Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and their Origins, were largely political refugees, not economic migrants. The “fifty-sixers” as they came to be known, were “over-represented” by well-educated migrants, while “peasants were largely absent from this group.” The way Les Murray tells it in his biography By The Balls: Memoirs of a Football Tragic, “it was their football, their business acumen, and their sense of bohemia.”
But Abonyi was just a child when he arrived in Melbourne, and he was thrust into local football in St Kilda. Of course, the sport being what it was back then, it wasn’t long before the young Abonyi joined one of the clubs that had been formed to spread the Magyar name – Melbourne Hungaria. “St Kilda didn’t have a senior side,” Abonyi explains from his home in Coffs Harbour. “1960 is when Melbourne Hungaria actually got promoted to the Victorian State League. The fact that they had to have a senior side and St Kilda didn’t, we thought maybe with a bit of luck we’d make it eventually.”
Coming through the ranks of Melbourne Hungaria, by 1962, Abonyi made his senior debut as a 15 year old in the old Victorian State League. “I was nervous, I was excited, I was happy, but more nervous than anything else,” says Abonyi with his trademark twang. “It was a big thing, you know?”
That same year, the Australia Cup was established, with SSC Yugal from Sydney defeating St George-Budapest to become the inaugural champions. Budapest were a sister club to Melbourne Hungaria, having been formed in 1957 by Sydney members of the diaspora.
With Sydney at the centre of Australian football, it was unsurprising that Melbourne Hungaria would live in St George-Budapest’s shadow. But while St George won state and National Soccer League titles, they never lifted the Australia Cup. Melbourne Hungaria did, during one dream season in 1967. Atti Abonyi, then just 21, would play a starring role in the final.
By 1963, Australia had been readmitted to Fifa and was experiencing a boom period. “The air was infused with the spirit of triumph which encouraged innovative and sometimes extravagant thinking, a kind of dreaming aloud,” wrote football historian Trevor Thompson of the early 1960s. However, by 1967 crowds were declining, particularly in Sydney, and incidents of violence didn’t help the perception of the sport. New ways of reinvigorating football were floated, including a national league. In 1967 a report recommended a 12 team competition, but the biggest state, New South Wales, rejected the model. The Australia Cup would remain the pinnacle of Australian football.
1967 was also a significant year for the Australian national team, who were sent to Vietnam for a friendship tournament in November. The prime minister, Harold Holt, along with the Australian Soccer Federation, decided to send the team on a propaganda mission to support and entertain the troops. The initial squad selection announced in late September highlighted the problem of not having a national league. Ridiculously, 27 players were selected from 18 different clubs - from Coalstars in Brisbane to Cottesloe in Perth to Croatia in Melbourne. In a squad that former national team manager Jim Bayutti said “smacked of politics”, every state was represented as state selectors wielded their influence. Melbourne Hungaria had just one representative: Attila Abonyi.
Around the same time, the Australia Cup was reaching its latter stages. The final was to be held at Olympic Park in Melbourne, but Sydney teams APIA Leichhardt and St George-Budapest were firm favourites for the Cup. After their dominant season in the New South Wales State League, they had finished first and second respectively before St George-Budapest defeated APIA in the grand final.
Despite the fact that Sydney was the strongest state, Melbourne teams were well represented. The final 16 included the Melbourne-based Hungaria, Juventus, Croatia and Footscray JUST. The other sides were a potpourri of Italian, Hungarian, Greek, Croatian and ‘Australian’ teams from around the country – Launceston United, Hellas Adelaide, Juventus Adelaide, Azzurri Perth, Juventus Canberra, Lake Macquarie, South Sydney Croatia, Newcastle Austral, Pan Hellenic from Sydney and Latrobe from Brisbane.
Melbourne Hungaria were certainly not as small as Launceston or Lake Macquarie, but they were still a humble club. “The set up was terrible back in those days,” Abonyi says. “There was no floodlights, no nuthin’! Just a soccer pitch, the dressing room was tiny as can be, two showers, half a dozen balls.” Abonyi cackles down the telephone line. “You think now, Christ, how on earth”
Indeed, prior to 1967, Melbourne Hungaria had never won anything of note. 1967 remains the apogee of their 30-year history, a fleeting moment where Hungaria were both state and national champions.
In early September, Hungaria wrapped up their first ever State League title with a 1-0 win over Hakoah Melbourne at Middle Park. Abonyi was their top goalscorer that season – “31 goals in 29 games” – he says proudly. Fittingly, he scored the winner that day against Hakoah.
As the State Leagues concluded, attention moved to the Australia Cup. In October, Hungaria defeated Launceston 2-1 in an astonishing match in which Launceston took an unlikely lead after 10 minutes. Hungaria then proceeded to hit the crossbar a couple of times, the post three times and the side netting on half a dozen occasions, before they scored two goals in the final five minutes. Abonyi scored the first to bring his team level before Frank McCann got the winner. The Age said they were “lucky” to win.
Abonyi would score another as Hungaria swept aside Croatia Melbourne in the next round, and history beckoned. Never before had the winners of the New South Wales and Victorian State Leagues met in the Australia Cup final, but on the other side of the draw, APIA Leichhardt had breezed past Juventus Canberra and Lake Macquarie, winning 5-0 and 7-1 respectively. A dream Cup final loomed.
APIA Leichhardt were home to John Watkiss, Johnny Warren’s best mate as a kid and one of Australia’s most versatile players. He had scored four goals against Lake Macquarie and two against Juventus. A clash between APIA and Hungaria would bring together him and Abonyi, at that point two of the most dangerous finishers in the country.
APIA Leichhardt defeated Sydney rivals Pan Hellenic 3-2 to qualify for the final, while Melbourne Hungaria beat Juventus Melbourne 2-0. One goal up after 60 minutes, Hungaria held their lead until the final two minutes, when Abonyi popped up with a goal to put his team into the finals. The Australia Cup champion would be rewarded with the famous trophy, £5,000 prize money and most importantly, a place in the record books.
“The year before  was the first time we qualified for the Australia Cup,” says Abonyi. “We got into the semi-final against APIA up in Sydney, and they hammered us 3-0.
“They belted us, it could have been more. You can imagine when ‘67 came around, we were still well and truly underdogs. The odds would’ve been 10-1. They were such a great side.”
Soccer World, a Sydney based newspaper, sent Lou Gautier and Andrew Dettre to cover the final. “It's impossible to see APIA losing on Sunday,” Gautier wrote, and even the paper’s Melbourne correspondent, Bob Low, had to agree. “Melbourne are a team of triers”, said Low, “their defence is shaky.” John Watkiss, rather than Abonyi, was named as the man to watch.
Held at Olympic Park, the Australia Cup final of 1967 remains one of the greatest finals in Australian football history. Vincent Basile’s match report for the Age describes “a superb match of fast, entertaining soccer … Play swung from end to end and teams matched goal for goal to keep the result in doubt until the final whistle.”
Abonyi scored the first on 19 minutes. APIA equalised. Abonyi scored again on 53 minutes, but again it was cancelled out by the opposition. On 74 minutes Hungaria’s other striker, Frank Stoffels, put his side ahead, but Watkiss made it 3-3 with a 30-yard piledriver with just a few minutes remaining. Five minutes into extra time, Abonyi – who had so often been Hungaria’s saviour – completed his hat-trick to win the Australia Cup for his boyhood club.
For someone with a razor sharp memory, the Cup final remains a blind spot for Abonyi. I ask him to recount his goals. “Nah!” he cackles with that dry, infectious laugh. “I often think about that, shit, it must be 40 years, 45 years ago. I often say to people who ask me ‘you know I can’t remember any of the three goals in that final’. I know it sounds silly, but I can’t visualise it.”
No matter. The history books show that just over a decade after arriving as a refugee, Abonyi had led his team, and more importantly his community, to the top of Australian football. Unsurprisingly, he was named man of the match.
Ethnic based clubs like Melbourne Hungaria cultivated a pride in cultural heritage among newly arrived migrants, but they also played a crucial role in helping their players and their supporters become Australians. “Contrary to the myth”, Les Murray wrote of St George-Budapest, “such ghettos are generally temporary and are rarely forces of permanent social division. They are merely agents of transition, easing the pains of migration and facilitating assimilation.”
Abonyi agrees. “Back in those days it was a way out,” he says. “My parents didn’t have a word of English, you know what I mean? But the fact there was a Hungarian soccer club, they could go along and watch every game and mingle with Hungarians. [Melbourne Hungaria] was a social event more than a football club.”
Just a few days after the final, the Australian team left for Vietnam for the friendship tournament. Watkiss had been hurt in the cup final against Melbourne Hungaria. “Him and I collided late in the second half, and I actually caught his right knee” says Abonyi. “It really affected him, and when we came back to Sydney of course he was in the Australian team as well. He did travel to Vietnam in the hope he’d recover. But he never did! John couldn’t train!”
With Watkiss injured, Abonyi started every game. In the first match against New Zealand, he bagged a hat trick in a 5-3 win. In a 5-1 win over Singapore a few days later, he scored his third hat-trick in a fortnight. He scored yet again in the 3-2 win in the final over South Korea, and as Australia took home their first ever piece of silverware, Abonyi finished as the tournament’s top goalscorer.
Shortly after the final, it was revealed by the coach, 'Uncle' Joe Vlasits, revealed Abonyi wasn’t his first choice striker. John Watkiss was. “The absence of Watkiss was bad enough,” said Vlasits. “I can tell you now that had he been fit, I would have used him as an inside forward in the first match, instead of Abonyi.”
Abonyi remembers it well. “To be quite fair, had he [Watkiss] been fit, I’m sure he would have played and I would have been sitting on the bench. We often used to laugh about that years down the track, you know. ‘You bloody bastard you did that deliberately!’ Funny how things turn out, hey?” Abonyi laughs again at his good fortune.
Upon their return to Australia hundreds of adoring fans gave the Socceroos a warm midnight welcome at Sydney Airport. “I was lucky with all those goals,” Abonyi told the press. “But seriously, it was a pleasure with such partners.”
National team selection, however, would take Abonyi away from his beloved Melbourne Hungaria. In Vietnam he roomed with Johnny Warren, who was captain of St George-Budapest. Warren put him in contact with the appropriate people at St George, but Melbourne Hungaria dug their heels in.
“A thousand times no,” Hungaria president Andy Kun told the press. “Abonyi is not for sale.” But just weeks after their Australia Cup win, Abonyi's mind was made up, and he told reporters that he wanted to move to Sydney with his new wife. When asked if he would move to APIA Leichhardt, which was the rumour, Abonyi responded: “Of course not. I was born in Hungary and it’s only natural I want to play for St George-Budapest. Everybody knows – even if we in Melbourne hate to admit it – that Sydney is the centre of Australian soccer. It’s as simple as that.”
In Sydney, Abonyi starred in a St George-Budapest side featuring several Socceroos, and was part of the squad that traveled to the 1974 World Cup. In 1975, he became the first Australian to score for Manchester United in a guest appearance against a Queensland XI at Lang Park. From the battlefields of Vietnam to the World Cup in Germany to scoring for Manchester United, few Australian strikers have achieved as much as the man they called ‘Atti’. “1967… it was probably my best year,” he says.
The Australia Cup was abandoned in 1968. Dettre had forewarned the death of the Cup a year earlier in an editorial for Soccer World. “It is worth noting in passing that so far every year the rules and regulations of the Australia Cup have been altered,” wrote Dettre. “This unfortunate trend must be stopped if we hope to build the series into a truly significant, Australia-wide competition.” A lesson, perhaps, that FFA might remember.
Melbourne Hungaria folded not long after. There are few remnants of that remarkable season in 1967. In the Melbourne Museum, however, there is a booklet titled Melbourne SC: The First Twenty Five Years. On the cover is the old green, red and white badge – the national colours of Hungary – and an artwork of their favourite son, Attila Abonyi, holding the Australia Cup.
Atti now lives on the North Coast of New South Wales, away from the game. He still works a day job, just as he did throughout his playing career. He earns an honest living, and lives the quiet life. Like so many before and after him, politics drove him out of the game.
A more fitting name for the FFA Cup player of the match winners medal would be hard to find. Atti’s hat-trick in the 1967 Australia Cup remains one of, if not the greatest performance by an Australian in a grand final. His is a very Australian story, but it is also a quintessential Cup story, full of the David and Goliath romance.
The importance we place on its preservation, and the role we grant stories like these in a new era, is a chance to define who we are and what we are proud of as a football nation. The Attila Abonyi Medal. It’s got a nice ring to it.