Some people believe the 1953 match at London’s Wembley Stadium when Hungary’s Magyars rolled up a 6-3 score – inflicting England with its first loss on home turf to a European team – remains the best soccer game ever played. Tom Fried was there, part of that fabled Hungarian squad. As a player? Or as the coach who devised the new formation – the centre forward playing in midfield – that baffled the Brits? Fried was neither – he was the team doctor who spent that game and thousands more on the bench.
When he died in Toronto on December 21 at age 81, soccer lost its medicine man of five decades – with the Magyars in their prime, then 40 years for Canada’s national team. He also organized sport medicine symposiums, and ran an after-hours medical practice in the basement of his Forest Hill home that drew some of the biggest names in soccer.
Fried was a long-standing chair of the medical committee of the Canadian Soccer Association as well as a member of the Federation of International Football Associations. On behalf of FIFA, he ran sports medicine courses around the world. “It’s a mark of distinction to have anything to do with FIFA,” said Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame historian Colin Jose. “You have to be the very best. Tom was a man everybody respected.”
When the hall of fame was created in 2000, Fried was among the first group of 22 inducted. He became a member of the Olympic Hall of Fame in 2005 and last fall was listed among the 50 Hungarian émigrés who made a difference to Canada, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. “He was such a familiar figure with his little medical bag at his side at Varsity Stadium and the CNE,” said Dick Howard, a former professional goalkeeper and a veteran coach and analyst in Canadian soccer. Players on Canada’s national team used to joke that Fried was so good at hitting the target with his cortisone needles, he was probably a great darts player.
He actually was a talented sharpshooter in his Budapest youth, good enough to make Hungary’s national team, but as a soccer player he was never great or even very good. Yet he was one of the sport’s biggest fans. Fried was following his father’s career path as a dental technician in Budapest when World War II broke out and he was rounded up and detained in a forced labour camp. As a Jew, he hadn’t been allowed to go to university; after the war ended, he grabbed the chance to enroll at Budapest’s University of Medicine for a certification in sports medicine.
Fried was named director of sports medicine for the government-run Honvéd sports club and its 4,000 athletes. That notably included the Honvéd soccer team, national champs many times over. Its players formed the nucleus of a national side that won Olympic gold in 1952 and, a year after shocking England at Wembley, reached the World Cup final in 1954. Fried travelled the world with the Honvéd team. They were in Spain when the news came that Soviet Union had sent in tanks to quell the Hungarian revolt. His wife Georgina and their infant daughter, Vera, took refuge in a basement to escape the shelling by Soviet artillery.
As the soccer team continued its European playing schedule, Fried organized a rescue operation from Vienna for his own and players’ family members. Georgina and the wife of the team’s supreme star, Ferenc Puskás, took flight from Budapest with their children at midnight. They walked for three hours before stealing across a border being watched by guards and searchlights. Later Fried enjoyed telling people he also got out the coach’s wife, but the wrong one – his first instead of his second.
In 1957, the family moved to Canada, first to Nova Scotia where Fried studied to re-qualify to practice medicine. The Italian soccer club Inter-Milan and IFK Goteborg in Sweden both tracked him down there and offered him jobs. But Fried’s wife had lost most of her family to the Holocaust and didn’t want to return to Europe, and he wanted to live in a country where he could practice medicine. He was hired for the new Downsview rehabilitation center in Toronto by the Workmen’s Compensation Board, and he stayed there until retiring as its medical director in 1990. “He loved it there,” said his younger daughter Shirley, who worked with him for two years as an occupational therapist. His other daughter, Vera, is a doctor with a family practice.
After the move to Toronto, Fried had been in Canada for close to two years and hadn’t been near a soccer field. Then he bumped into a former Honvéd player walking along Bloor St. Fried learned a group of his countrymen were playing every Saturday night. They were the Toronto Hungaria team and they wasted no time asking Fried to be their doctor. “As I sat on the bench at the first game, I felt at home again,” he later told people. He was soon a fixture on the soccer scene, and in 1967 became the doctor for Canada’s national team. A year later he took that job for the Toronto Falcons of the new North American Soccer League. The Falcons morphed into the Metros, which later merged to become the Metros-Croatia and as of 1979, when the team was purchased by Global Television, the Blizzard. Fried was on the bench, his medical bag by his side, for all of them. “He was considered a builder of soccer here,” said Vera.
In fact, he always told people the most thrilling match he ever witnessed was not the fabled 1953 encounter at Wembley Stadium, but one played in Vancouver in 1971 when Canada beat Mexico to qualify for the Munich Olympics.
He was also a doctor to cycling teams – another passion – and an enthusiastic spectator at track and gymnastics meets. “I think he liked the environment of athletes and competition,” said Vera.
After retiring from the Workmen’s Compensation Board, he began to see patients two afternoons a week at daughter Vera’s practice. “It drove our secretary crazy,” she said. “All his patients would arrive at 1 p.m. regardless of the time of their appointment. They’re Hungarians; they were socializing.”
Fried was an old-fashioned doctor who ministered in a comfortable cardigan, and he seemed to have all the time in the world for each patient. He worked up until a few days before he was hospitalized with a brain tumor on October16. Just a couple of weeks before he died, at home at the age of 81 on December 21, newspapers reported that the Magyars soccer legend Puskás had died at age 79 in Budapest. Fried’s family kept the news from him. “He would have been upset,” they said.
Catherine Dunphy of the Toronto Star, Thursday, March 8, 2007