Football mourns Károly Palotai
Former Olympic champion footballer and one of the sport's all-time greatest referees, Károly Palotai, passed away last Saturday after a serious illness.
Palotai was born in Békéscsaba on 11th September 1935 and started his fledgling football career at Békéscsaba Építők in 1950 before moving to Győr in December 1954 where he started as a withdrawn striker in the reserves and graduated to the first team six months later. Károly left Hungary in 1956 with his brother János - already a Hungarian international - and Antal Pálfy, the three of them joining German club Freiburg before Károly returned home to Hungary in 1958.
The biggest success of his playing career would follow in 1964 when he was part of Hungary's squad which won Olympic gold in football for the second time, Palotai playing six of the seven tournament matches but missing out on the final against Czechoslovakia due to injury, a situation which meant he would only receive his gold medal years later.
Palotai was also successful at club level, playing 13 matches as Győr won the autumn 1963 league championship when each team only played each other once. The following year he was named in 'Labdarúgás' magazine's team of the year and a third-placed league finish was achieved in 1967 in the middle of a period when he helped Győr to four consecutive Hungarian Cup finals from 1964 to 1968, three of which provided him with winners' medals. Palotai missed the first final, a 1-0 loss against Honvéd but played the full 90 minutes as Győr defeated Diógyőr 4-0 the next season. The 1966 edition featured a two-legged final, Palotai and his teammates drawing 1-1 with Ferencváros before prevailing 3-2 in the Népstadion to retain the trophy, a feat they repeated in 1967 when, without Palotai, they defeated Salgótarjáni BTC in the more traditional one-off match format.
By then, success on the domestic front meant European campaigns the following season and Palotai's Győr took to the new challenge like a duck to water, their fantastic 1964/65 European Cup run taking them past East Germany club Chemie Leipzig (2-0,4-2), Bulgaria's Lokomotive Sofia (5-3, 3-4) and DWS Amsterdam of the Netherlands (1-0, 1-1) on their way to the semi-final stage where only a Eusebio-inpsired Benfica could stop them, a 5-0 aggregate defeat coming after a single-goal loss in the first leg in the Népstadion when Palotai even had to deputise in goal after goalkeeper László Tóth was taken off injured.
It is almost unbelievable that Palotai was never capped at senior international level, although he did play 10 times for Hungary B between 1960 and 1964, scoring once, as well as scoring three times in 30 appearances for Hungary's Olympic team between 1963 and 1964. His career as a player came to an end on 3rd May 1967 when he made his final league appearance for ETO in a 2-2 draw with MTK.
Soon though, a fabulous new chapter would begin; his career as a referee in which he offiated at the 1974, 1978 and 1982 FIFA World Cups, the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games and the 1980 European Championship. Indeed, between 1975 and 1981 only once, in 1980, did he not receive an appointment to referee one of the major European club competition finals and in 1976 and 1981 he took charge of European club football's biggest fixture, the European Champions Club finals between Bayern Munich and St Etienne, and Liverpool and Real Madrid respectively. Perhaps the most famous match he oversaw was the goalless draw between Argentina and Brazil in the 1978 World Cup which he managed to bring to a conclusion with dismissing anyone despite the brutal nature of an extremely competitive game.
Palotai also contributed to the sport in administrative roles, in 1990 being elected the president of the Győr-Moson-Sopron county football association, a role he fulfilled until 1998. As a UEFA referee observer between 1985 and 2005, Palotai travelled to many European stadia to supervise matches, and in addition to this role, he was also a member of the FIFA Referees' Committee between 1990 and 1994 and of the Hungarian Olympic Committee between 1983 and 1985. He worked on MLSZ's Executive Committee and was vice president of the MLSZ's Referees' Committee, while in 2012 he was bestowed with the honour of being an honorary citizen of the city of Győr. The year of 2014 saw him presented with the Primo Primissimi Prize and UEFA's Diamond Order of Merit and the following year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from MLSZ.