It’s March 1957, and Ferenc Puskas, the iconic on-pitch leader of the Hungarian golden generation, cuts a lonely figure, banned from playing professional football. Just four months previously, he had fled the political turmoil of his home nation, rebelling against the Stalinist regime of the Soviet Union. His non-compliance with life behind the Iron Curtain siphoned the crepuscular rays that blinked from the lingering gleam emanating from the magical Magyars of the 1950s.
The nationwide Hungarian Uprising that started in 1956 beckoned the darkest episode of the country’s antiquity. It forced the collapse of the communist government, but within days the USSR had crushed the rebellion. Some 2,500 Hungarian died in the anarchy, and nearly 200,000 had escaped the tempest-swept policies of the Soviet Union.
Hungary’s national football team also fell victim to dismemberment. Budapest Honvéd, home to most of the national side, were playing a European Cup tie against Athletic Bilbao when the revolt broke out in October. Instead of returning home, as Soviet tanks rolled through the capital city, the squad stayed abroad.
Others, like Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis and Puskas, chose to defect. The former two would star for teams like Barcelona, while the latter would go on to lead Real Madrid to European glory on three occasions. It observed the end of one of the greatest football teams ever assembled, leaving many to wonder what might have been.
The birth of the Magical Magyars
Although Mátyás Rákosi’s Stalinist regime brought secret police, show trials, murder and the end of free speech, it also helped create the conditions for one of the greatest teams in football history to prosper.
In the eastern bloc countries, behind the Iron Curtain, there was a certain romanticism braided into the football scene. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia both had their periods of domination in the sport, and Hungary was no different. Moulded under the perspicacious brain of Gusztáv Sebes, the Hungarians had their own period of success, and just like their neighbouring countries, their excellence was camouflaged from the west.
The son of a cobbler, Sebes enjoyed an unspectacular playing and coaching career before the Second World War, but, significantly, was a dedicated figure in the perennial Communist Trade Union. By way of taking advantage of his powerful friend János Kádár, a former Communist Party Leader and member of the Hungarian politburo (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party), Sebes was able to hoist himself into second-in-command at the Ministry of Sport, chair of the Olympic committee, and the head of a three-man coaching committee that ran the Hungarian national football team.
Importantly, these roles, helped by the accentuation of sport in a totalitarian regime, brought about a drive for national sporting brilliance. By letter of the Soviet law, no footballer from the top two Hungarian tiers would be permitted to move abroad to ply their trade. The interests of the national side would take precedence over club football, which would be further embedded into the culture of Sebes’ reign when he upheld the notion that picking players from the same clubs would boost the squad’s chemistry and, therefore, improve their chances of silverware.
Gyula Lóránt, Jenó Buzánszky and László Budai are just some of the outliers in the national setup. These players were plucked from various clubs and backgrounds to bring a fusion of talent to the fore, but Sebes’ sole plan was to embezzle inspiration from Vittorio Pozzo of Italy and Hugo Meisl of Austria, with their national team selection method of using just a couple of clubs as the basis for success. While Italian squads revolved around the prosperity of Juventus and Torino, Austria’s Wunderteam was developed through the assets of Rapid and Vienna.
Fortuitously, Hungary’s military was keen to have their own football team, handing Sebes the ability to bring conscription into the argument for football superiority. Players were given the ultimatum of serving Honvéd in the strive for World Cup glory, or grabbing a rifle and putting on their uniform to march towards the frontline.
When the secret police took over MTK Budapest, the result was the second of Sebes’ domestic hotbeds for international superstars. In the fullness of time, Hungary had built a football team other nations could envy, but first, they would have to bridle a fly in the ointment in the shape of Czechoslovakia.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Hungary’s Golden Team. Sebes’ first game in charge was a crushing 5-2 defeat to the Central European country in Prague. The performance functioned as a touchstone to reality for the Magyars, who knew their rubric needed adapting if they were to lay even a finger on football history.
What emerged was one of the earliest precursors to Total Football.
Piecing together a revolutionary way to play the beautiful game
In the 1940s and the 1950s, the way to play was by utilising the W-M formation. Sebes, however, believed it was outdated, and converted his philosophy of attacking football into a 4-2-4 formation, whereby, if the Hungarians were in attack, everybody was expected to support the hunt for a goal.
Nándor Hidegkuti became one of the first iterations of a deep-lying forward, which in his own words, became a role that caused “Maximum confusion” in the opposition. Because there were so many players already in attack for the defence to combat, Hidegkuti was rarely marked and rarely challenged when in possession.
The fluidity in Hungary’s blistering attacks befuddled backlines, and while the trend of the time was to number players based on their positions (9 for the striker, 8 for the midfielder, 4 for the defender, and so on and so forth), Sebes tore up the rulebook.
Hidegkuti (9) essentially played as a free-roaming attacking midfielder, while Kocsis (8) and Puskás (10) played as strikers. Much to the disillusionment of the England team and their confidence that the Eastern Bloc country was a walkover opposition, they were punished for their ethos of man-marking, which relied on players in the team marking the opposition based on the numbers on the backs of their shirts. Whereas this was common practice in the western world, Hungary’s interchanging forwards meant that the Three Lions were torn apart (But we will go into this later in the article with more detail).
As aforementioned, Sebes’ most revolutionary idea was that every player should be able to play in all positions. This, above anything else the Communist Trade Unionist introduced to the beautiful game, was the substratum for the Magyars’ seemingly world-beating team.
In an interview produced for a documentary years later, Jenő Buzánszky said:
“When we attacked, everyone attacked. The midfielders moved forward behind the attackers, and the defenders followed up behind the midfield. It was seamless. If the opposition cleared the ball, there were no empty spaces, and so we were able to quickly win the ball back, and start another attack.”
The new philosophy was an instant hit, a blockbuster move that led the way for Hungary’s football revival after the team had lost the World Cup in a 4-2 defeat to Italy in 1938 before the Second World War hampered their evolution.
1952 Summer Olympics
By the time the Helsinki games of 1952 were upon him, Sebes knew his squad better than the back of his hand. He had his starting eleven established: Gyula Grosics between the sticks; a back three of Buzánszky, Lóránt and Mihály Lantos; József Zakariás operating alongside Bozsik in midfield; Budai on the right flank, Czibor on the left; and Hidegkuti playing as a deep-lying forward behind the primary goal scorers Puskás and Kocsis.
Five, six, or maybe even seven, of the side, could lay claim to the fact they may well have been the best players in the world in their positions. The Magyars kickstarted their magic by sweeping all nations put before them, firstly in Finland, then battering Sweden 6-0 in the semi-final, before a 2-0 win over Eastern Bloc neighbours Yugoslavia handed them gold medals.
Ahead of the tournament, Sebes had already embellished his side as a darkhorse, telling FIFA: “There were some great sides around at the time – the Soviet Union, Austria, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Italy – but I felt we had the players and tactics to compete with anyone.”
Of course, he was right, and the Magyars were triumphant. The train journey home, shared with the rest of the Hungarian Olympic Squad, along with the various swimmers, fencers, and wrestlers who had also won gold (With Hungary coming third in the medals table behind the US and Soviet Union), the team was stopped at stations by crowds as it approached Budapest. In the capital city itself, it was estimated that almost half a million people lined the streets to welcome their heroes home.
“On the train home, once we left Prague, the train kept stopping at every station to allow crowds to greet us. The scenes at Keleti station when we arrived in Budapest were unbelievable. There were so many people crammed into the surrounding streets to celebrate! We were ecstatic. That was our first great victory and our hearts were still so young.”
Despite the gold medals, however, it was not the most important thing the team brought back from Finland – they also returned with the promise of a date with destiny. The FA president of the time, Stanley Rous, had been impressed by Hungary’s performance in the Olympics so invited the Magyars to London for a friendly.
Although, this would soon turn out to be more than just a friendly. Instead, it was dubbed ‘Match of the Century’, and it was a chance for Sebes and his revolutionary football team to make a mark on the birthplace of the beautiful game, England remained relatively tunnel-visioned to the rest of the world, believing full well that their version of the sport they supposedly invented was the best edition of it.
Sebes had something to say about it, and so the England team became oblivious to the mauling they were about to experience at the hands of one of the iron curtain’s greatest inventions.
The Match of the Century
Organising a fixture between either side of the Iron Curtain in the 50s was about as difficult as grasping a shadow, but on one autumnal afternoon, in late November 1953, Puskás led his side out to the chorus of 100,000+ English fans at Wembley Stadium. The 90 minutes that followed taught the Three Lions a lesson about the future of football.
At the time of the game, the Magyars were the number one ranked team in the world, Olympic gold medalists, and embarking on a 24-game unbeaten streak that dated back to May 1950. Meanwhile, the inventors of football, England, had never lost on home soil to a country outside of the United Kingdom, with their only foreign defeat coming against the Republic of Ireland in 1949.
The Three Lions had created a culture and climate of complacency among their squad under Walter Winterbottom, despite their manager lacking administrative experience. They naively assumed that, as the originators of the sport, they were, in fact, the most technically-gifted players, and that nothing could stop them. Before their game against Hungary, rumour has it that they also referred to Puskás as ‘the short fat man’ – oh, how this bit them from behind.
Within one minute, the Hungarians were one goal to the good. It was immediately apparent that the man-marking we mentioned earlier was the instigator of England’s downfall, as Puskás and Hidegkuti drew the English defenders out of position, while the latter was the first goalscorer of the game, crashing a shot beyond the goalkeeper Gil Merrick from afar.
England were still able to create chances in their counterattacks, though, and Jackie Sewell levelled the game after 15 minutes. By the half-hour mark, however, the Three Lions sunk to a 4-1 deficit after Puskás’ famous drag-back goal was sandwiched between another Hidegkuti goal and Puskás’ second. It finished 6-3. “Football from another planet,” reckoned the England defender Syd Owen. “Carthorses against racehorses,” said Tom Finney.
It became the match that turned Hungary from underdogs to expected World Cup winners, as they would go on to continue their blazing form against Austria, followed by a final World Cup warmup game against England (Yep, the Three Lions really thought their defeat on home soil was just a glitch in the system), which ended 7-1 in Budapest, an even more emphatic display than their Wembley wonders.
So, when all was said and done, and Hungary limbered up for a tournament the world, except the Magyars, expected to lose, all eyes were on Sebes and his dynasty. As we already established, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but all of a sudden, it felt like the Hungarian national team had risen from the ashes of a second world war to become the team to beat in the Switzerland World Cup of 1954.