Trip to Hungary Reminds Soccer Coach of Youth


The city is so crowded for the annual Spring Festival that residents approach weary-looking tourists to inquire whether they need rooms in their homes for the night.

Even spring has come to Budapest, although it is not likely to stay much longer than the tourists. Pretty girls in miniskirts walk arm in arm with their proud beaus; young couples, pushing babies in strollers, and joggers unselfishly make room for one another on the promenade alongside the Danube.

“As I’m sitting here, along with the river, some thoughts are floating by,” Bob Gansler says as he watches life’s parade from a park bench.

He is a Hungarian of German descent, but the story he tells over the next hour as he sits under the blue sky next to the not-so-blue Danube is one of post-World War II America.


Gansler was born a few miles west of this river almost 49 years ago, near the Yugoslavia border in the small farming village of Mucsi.

The village was Hungarian according to the map but German in every other way, including heritage, traditions and language. When he was 5 years old, his family moved to West Germany, remaining there for six years before emigrating to a city on the other side of the Atlantic with a large German population--Milwaukee.

He has returned to Budapest as coach of the U.S. soccer team, which plays Hungary tonight. The last time he was here was in 1979, when he was the assistant coach for a U.S. team that scored a stunning 2-0 victory over Hungary, traditionally among the best teams in Europe.

Much has changed since then as Hungary and its Eastern Bloc neighbors race toward democracy. In the square where only 34 years ago Russian tanks discouraged a revolution, campaign posters advertise next Sunday’s free elections.


There also is a graphic photo display of the bloody uprising in Beijing’s Tian An Men Square, a hardly subtle reminder that it is better for the people, rather than the People’s Army, to control a country’s destiny.

Attracting more attention, a Hungarian rock band plays ‘60s music. The vocalist speaks no English, but he can sing it, mimicking Chuck Berry and the Beatles in appropriately accented American or British.

“Hello, operator,” he wails, “get me Memphis, Tennessee.”

By the river, it is quiet. Politics, borders, trends and even people change. The Danube is constant.

“I have some small recollections of the town I was born in, my interaction with my grandfather. Not my father; he was off to war,” Gansler says. “You wonder what might have been had you stayed here.”

The Ganslers and the Bittners, his mother’s family, were among the thousands of Germans who came to this country in the mid-18th Century at the invitation of Maria Theresa, the empress of the Holy Roman Empire, the queen of Hungary and Bohemia, and the archduchess of Austria. Hoping to repopulate her empire after a series of costly wars with the Turks, she offered homesteads.

“Our community of about 3,000 or 3,500 people was entirely German,” Gansler says. “The school, the church, the businesses were all German. We even called our mayor by the German title, burghermeister.

As a young boy, Gansler did not know his father, a soldier in the Hungarian army who fought on the side of the Nazis in World War II. He was captured on the Eastern front by the Russians and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.


The most influential man in Gansler’s life was his maternal grandfather, Janczi, who before the war provided for the family by periodically traveling across Western Europe to the Netherlands and stowing away on a freighter headed for the United States.

His destination invariably was Milwaukee, which at the time was nearly as much German as American. Without speaking a word of English, he was able to work for the railroad as a repairman or night watchman until he had enough money to send home so his wife could buy another acre of farm land.

By the end of World War II, the Ganslers and Bittners were relatively prosperous. But that changed in 1946, when the triumphant Russians forced all Germans, even those whose families had not lived in Germany for more than two centuries, out of Hungary.

“They said, ‘Take whatever you can take on your back,’ and put us on the nearest freight train to Germany,” Gansler says. “It was no Holocaust, but we lost everything we had. It was part of the punishment for being German.

“Everything at that point was absolute chaos. It took us two weeks to make a trip that should have taken eight hours. Whenever the Russians needed an engine, they took the one off our train and brought it back a couple of days later.

“I was only 5, but I remember playing under the train. The mothers would come screaming in panic when the engine was being hooked up again.

“My grandfather told me about men making visits to the woods and having to chase the train in their underwear when they heard it leaving again. I don’t know about that. He was a story teller. He liked to embellish things.”

Not long after the refugees arrived in Ruckingen, West Germany, near Frankfurt, Gansler’s father was released from the prison camp and, through the Red Cross, reunited with his family.


Gansler was introduced to soccer as a schoolboy in Germany, developing a lifelong infatuation with the sport that enabled him to become the first coach in 40 years to take the United States to the World Cup.

What might have been had he stayed in Mucsi?

Nothing pertaining to soccer, he supposes.

“It was the kind of village where nobody had time for athletics,” he says. “You worked and you worked, you slept, and you worked again.

“My parents went four years full time to school, and, for an additional two years, they went two days a week. By the time you were 10 or 12, you were out in the field.

“Soccer didn’t come up until I started going to school in Germany. At every recess, every day after school, there was a soccer game.

“It always took me half an hour longer to get to school in the morning and half an hour longer to get home in the afternoon because I was kicking something along the way--rocks, tin cans, whatever else. It’s like inner city kids are in the U.S. with a basketball. That’s the way I grew up.”

The problem with all that kicking was that in postwar Germany hardly anyone had more than one pair of shoes.

“My grandfather tried to convince me to play soccer barefooted,” Gansler says. “He said, ‘If you get a hole in your foot, God will take care of it. If you get a hole in your shoes, it’ll cost me money.”

Gansler has fond memories of Germany but it was not home for his family.

“In Hungary, we were the Germans,” he says. “In Germany, we were the Hungarians. Basically, we were displaced persons.”

The International Catholic Welfare Organization came to their rescue, offering families free one-way trips to the United States, Canada or Australia. Gansler’s father, Adam, chose the United States, settling in Milwaukee because of the contacts Janczi Bittner had made there, and became a bricklayer.

There were no youth soccer leagues, but Gansler soon was introduced to the mysteries of baseball. Because he had a strong arm, he was dispatched to center field. But his first experience with a fly ball ended in embarrassment when he allowed it to drop in front of him.

“I treated it like a soccer ball,” he says.

By the time he finished high school, he had the game figured out to the extent that was he was offered a rookie league contract as a catcher by the Milwaukee Braves.

“I’m not very bright, but I looked at Class D, C, B, AA and AAA and decided I’d better go to college,” he says.

But while attending Marquette University, he continued to play soccer for one of the nation’s best amateur teams, the Milwaukee Bavarians.

“The key reason I stayed with the sport was because the Bavarian Soccer Club was more than just a place to play the game,” he says. “It was an extended family sort of thing. Germans are very club-oriented. The friends I made there then are my friends now.

“Every first Friday of the month when I’m home, we have a sing-along. We pretend we still know the old songs. No, that’s wrong. We do know the old songs. We pretend we can sing them.”

He and his wife and four children belong to one other club in Milwaukee, made up of natives of Mucsi and their descendants.

“Seventy-five percent of that little village is now in Milwaukee,” he says. “After being spread all over the world, they just found each other.”