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7/30 | Hungary 1954 – How the Golden Team missed the World Cup triumph

The legendary Hungarian team that never won anything significant is often lauded as one of the best football teams this world has ever seen. A troupe of well-paid stars in a time where football was seen as a mere hobby, these players had it all- money, fame and a part in one of the most famed, but ultimately unsuccessful teams in history. They had it all, except for international titles. The Hungarian Golden team between 1950 and 1955 lost one game, however, that game just happened to be the most important one of them all- the World Cup final in Bern 1954. So, where these Hungarian superstars, these continental heroes, really part of the best team ever? Or were they just glorified bottlers?

I would claim this to be as question seldom asked. The Hungarian legends, often called ‘The Mighty Magyars’ were in fact one of the most prolific sides the footballing world had seen at the time. They had a star-spangled group of individuals, a small detail that became their biggest weakness. Because this team, however fantastic they were, lost the most important game of their lives against a team that did not consist of individual stars, but of spirited players as part of a closely-knit group, led by one of the most underrated midfielders of all time- Fritz Walter. For we must recall that the ‘Mighty Magyars’ led the final after only 8 minutes with 2-0 but managed to lose 3-2 in the end against a hard-working unit that was made up of mere amateurs. It’s unmistakably the footballing version of the miracle in Salt Lake City where the American hockey team, made up of college amateurs, were guided to the Olympic gold against the Soviet Union, widely regarded as best ice hockey team ever. Were they just glorified bottlers then?

Au contraire. Having downplayed their importance, I’d now like to do the exact opposite. The reason to this is simple- I think I’m wrong by calling them ‘glorified bottlers’. Because we all know that football is more than just titles, titles are just mere physical units to showcase the success of an entity. Football is about so much more than just silverware – it’s about renewed hope, idolization and happiness, things that the Might Magyars contributed lots to in their glory years between 1950 and 1955.

It would be good to put their existence into perspective. 1950 was a dire time for many countries in central Europe. The second World War had ended with a bang, countries were left star-struck by the new force showcased by the Americans in Japan and fear had spread for the calamitous consequences of another war. Fear was, in itself, something several office-bearers and despots could use and feed on, since it is widely regarded as one of the most powerful feelings a human can have. Fear drives you into desperation, it drives you into voting for someone you would never ever had voted for in happier times and it drives people into war, paradoxically enough. 1950 was therefore a time when the world needed happiness and meaning more than anything else. Peace ruled throughout Europe, sure, but it was an uneasy peace, something that would later escalate into a cold war between the two most powerful parts of the world. Hungary was in the middle of all this, trapped between several despots and ruled by Stalin’s mighty, but unkind Soviet Union. Add to that, Hungary had just survived a very turbulent war on their behalf. Having been occupied since 1944, after having been a member of the Axis since declaring war on Soviet in 1941 after some ambiguous bombings. Many minorities had suffered under the new rule and the current state in Hungary was unstable.

Ferenc Puskas had been part of the national team since 1945 and was already a seasoned international goal scorer with several caps under his belt. The Hungarian superstar had just been elevated to star status under new coach Gusztav Sebes and was given a free role in Sebes’ sensational system that brought them to the absolute brink of legendary success. Puskas was rather quickly joined by childhood friend Jozsef Bozsik and a few other players that were just about to become a part of Hungarian history books for all eternity. However, Sebes’ team started off with some mediocre results and after a loss against Czehcoslovakia in Prague, he decided to change the system.

“Players… constantly changing position according to a pre-arranged plan”, Ferenc Puskas described this new system in his autobiography. This kind of mania meant that the Hungarians could play fluid football, with some fantastic passing and movement and the opponents could never scout them properly, because their movement was arranged pre-game. It’s a product of a hard-working mind and was applied to this squad of individuals who were about to become the idols of a generation, both in Hungary and in Europe.

With this system, they went on to win everything between 1950 and 1954, reaching the World Cup as first-seeded in a very complicated seeding system that I will not bother getting into. The World Cup 1954 was where it was all about to go down. The Hungarians had just won the Olympics in 1952, their only international title, and went into the tournament as clear favourites. Their group consisted of Turkey, Germany and South Korea, but they would only play Germany and South Korea, because of their seed.

They started off extremely well and beat Germany 8-3 in the group stage. They then went on to roll annihilate the South Koreans with 9-0, which made Puskas question the validity of the Korean participation in the tournament. Their front five scored and assisted each other and looked truly happy while in possession. Always with something in mind, always wary of their next move- the Hungarians then beat the Brazilians 4-2 in the Quarter Final and then scored 4 goals against Uruguay, a strong side at the time, in a game that was won 4-3 after extra time. They would face Germany in the final and were huge favourites, mainly because they had demolished the Germans with 8-3 in the group stage.

Hungary’s team is often called the Golden Squad due to the sheer mass of fine players it consisted of. We had goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, one of the absolute finest at the time. He was joined by a backline of three with Lantos, Lorant and Buzansky. Three players who knew each other from the Hungarian league and that had played together for years. They had two defensive midfielders in front of them in Jozsef Bozsik and Zakarias. These two rarely got forward, but merely supplied the five strikers with balls that had been picked up. At times, these two even dropped and formed a backline of five. In attack, Nandor Hidegkuti played as a trequartista, which had been a major part of the system change. Before 1949, the Hungarians had played with a traditional English number 9, a strong battering ram that could break down defences with his power. Hidegkuti was instead put as a trequartista and dropped into midfield. From there he could find the other mobile players and two of these consisted of the best players Hungary has ever seen.

Hideguti played behind Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis and they were joined by Lazslo Budai and Zoltan Czibor on the flanks. With this, the Hungarians had four strong strikers in front of a capable playmaker in Nandor Hidegkuti. The main man in this striking force was, of course, Ferenc Puskas. However, he wasn’t alone. Sandor Kocsis was also one of the best strikers in the world at that time and somehow has a better goal/game-ratio than Puskas, which is quite insane considering Puskas had 84 goals in 85 games. Kocsis had 75 goals in 68 games for the Mighty Magyars, which is astoundingly extraordinary.

This team was a product of the most golden generation any national team will probably ever have and when the World Cup final arrived, these players had played together and with each other for four years. They had perfected their connections and formed bonds on and off the pitch. Chemistry mixed with ludicrous individual talent was in the end what had taken Hungary to the final of the World Cup. Their opponents had fed on something else- a growing feeling of hope. Germany’s team was full of amateurs, mainly due to the fact that Germany didn’t have a professional league at the time. Players hadn’t played together before as most came from different clubs and they had struggled the years before, mainly due to the turbulent nature of the decade for Germany.

Germany was engulfed in a spiralling conflict with itself as it had to part with it’s Soviet-controlled eastern parts. This created insecurities regarding the future, both among players and spectators, and when the World Cup arrived, it seemed like a triumph in the football tournament was one of few things that could bring hope to the West German people. The Germans habited ruined cities that were slowly being rebuilt into cities they hadn’t seen before, the tingling sensation of hope must have been a drug for them, something they’d crawl over spikes and through fire for. When the World Cup arrived and they lost 8-3 to Hungary, things did look dire. But they picked up form. Sepp Herberger’s team beat Turkey twice, 4-1 and 7-2, to reach the Quarter Finals where they knocked out Jugoslavia by two goals to nil. Then they demolished a very good Austrian side with 6-1 in the semis to reach the final. Things maybe didn’t look to dire ofter all. Oh, wait. Hungary in the final. Oh well, they had a good run.

That final in Bern, often called the Miracle in Bern, was supposed to be Hungary’s show. Everybody wanted Hungary to win this game, for they had all the idols. Puskas, Czibor, Kocsis- these were all idols at that time, players that inspired younglings to go on towards greatness. Nobody wanted Germany to win, except the Germans themselves. In hindsight, it is very easy to sympathize with the Germans. This is most certainly to the cool nature of an underdog that seems to rule the common understanding of sports nowadays, but things weren’t the same back then. Germany were not supposed to win this, this game was Hungary’s. It’s their time, their triumph. But it rarely works that way, does it?

The game began in front of 60.000 spectators at Wankdorf Stadium in Bern, the Swiss national stadium. After only a five minutes, Ferenc Puskas scored. It was a show of brilliant poaching, the way he snatched that goal from an unlucky rebound. Then, they scored again through prolific striker Sandor Kocsis. 2-0 after only eight minutes and people were wondering if they were actually going to see a contest at all. But then, Germany managed to fight back. Nuremberg legend Max Morlock reduced the score to 1-2 after 10 minutes and then Helmut Rahn completed the sensational fight back after 18 minutes. The rest of the first half wasn’t as hectic, but with lots of chances, mainly for the Hungarians. The second half began and the Mighty Magyars took control right away and began to own the ball. Cahnces became a cheap line article, but goals were not as West German goalkeeper Toni Turek kept shut. Then, Germany fought back and gained a bit of possession. They created a good chance in the 71st minute when Helmut Rahn took a unbalanced shot at goal from the egde of the box. Later, Hans Schäfer managed to dispossess Jozsef Bozsik and crossed it into the area. It was cleared, but Helmut Rahn picked the ball up, hopped past a few defenders, found room to shoot and drove the ball into the net behind Grosics. 3-2! The Germans rejoiced, but it wasn’t over yet. Ferenc Puskas scored a header from close range after a cross from Toth, but it was ruled out for offside. The referee blew his fateful whistle and Germany had beaten the Mighty Magyars. The miracle had happened and the Hungarian’s legacy was forever tainted.

The title was lost and so was the winning streak of 29 games. However, the effect this team and it’s successes during four years had on the Hungarians must not be underestimated. The Hungarian non-triumph of 1954 must therefore be seen as a clear example of where football is more than titles. It inspires, gives us hope and happiness. The Hungarian team of the 1950s did that with grace, style and precision and it is for this reason I would label them as one of the best teams ever to grace a green football pitch.

Axel Falk

Axel Falk is a 21-year old multilingual football journalist from Sweden, specializing in German football -- of all kinds! He has featured regularly for the sites Get German Football News, Fresh off the Gegenpress, and is one of the main editors at SvenskaFans' German site, the biggest sports site in Sweden. Axel's well-traveled voice graces a number of podcasts in Swedish, as well as English, and has been cited by an array of sites in English, German and Swedish. He tweets at @Falkfurt.
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