Seldom has there been one match that has come to define the fortunes of two football nations as appropiately as the afternoon in November 1953 when the Hungarians landed in London. The shock and horror with which the result that afternoon was greeted, however, also indicated the begnning of another trait in the history of the English national team, a brief period of turbulence followed by relative inactivity and plenty more of the same, underwhelming football and – with one, brief, glittering exception – a familiar feeling of relative under-achievement. In short, the twenty-fifth of November 1953 was the English national football team was found out, by a mass audience, for the first time.
For those who paid close enough attention, the signs of decline had been clear for several years. In 1949, the Republic of Ireland became the first non-Home Nation to beat England away from home, when they won by two goals to nil at Goodison Park. A year later, a considerably more seismic shock should have hit the Football Association when the United States of America beat England by a single goal during the World Cup finals in Belo Horizonte. A complete lack of television coverage and minimal newpaper coverage, however, meant that the myth of innate English superiority was allowed to further fester.
On the other side of Europe, however, a sporting revolution had begun several years earlier. It may be convenient to paint the Hungarian football revolution of the years immediately following the end of the Second World War as being a triumph of the application of the Communist sporting ethos to the nation. After all, the Communist Party had taken control of the country after winning a controversial general election in 1948 and established it as a one-party state. The truth, of course, is considerably more complex than that. Hungary certainly did have its domestic football revolutionised during this period – MTK, previously the club of Budapest’s Jewish community, had lost much of its support during the war and was repackaged as the club of the secret police. Another club, Kispest, became the club of the army and was renamed as Honved. As in other Communist countries over the coming decades, the country’s best players were funneled to the club’s with the most most important ministries behind them.
Whilst a high concentration of players at these two clubs led to a degree of familiarity that was most likely beneficial to the national team, there was more to the team’s subsequent success than merely this. There was, of course, a grouping of hugely talented players, such as Ferenc Puskas, Nándor Hidegkuti and Sándor Kocsis, but there was also an outstanding coach, Gusztáv Sebes, who introduced a new system of play for the team featuring a deep-lying centre forward and a goalkeeper who played as much like a sweeper as the conventional goalkeeper of the time, and even newer, lighter-weight equipment, including shorter shorts and boots which resembled sportswear rather than something more appropriate for coal mining or steelworking.
If England had been sending out warning signals of their decline over the course of the previous few years, so had Hungary been issuing warnings of their ascent. The most notable of these came at the 1952 Olympic Games, when Hungary beat Italy by three goals to nil, Turkey by seven goals to one, and Sweden by six goals to nil before beating Yugoslavia at the final in Helsinki to claim the gold medal. Yet right up to kick-off at Wembley on that afternoon in November 1953, a familiar English arrogance was on display. “Look at that little fat chap. We’ll murder this lot,” was the reaction of one unnamed England player upon spying Puskas. In the stands, however, there was considerably greater trepidation from BBC Television commentator, whose reaction to Puskas juggling the ball on the centre spot as his team awaited the kick-off was to say, “Now there’s an exhibition of ball control, just look at that, from the inside left Puskas. Well, if we see a great deal of that, I think we’re going to have an awful lot of trouble holding these unbeaten Hungarians” with a tremor of foreboding in his voice.
It took eighty seconds for Hungary to thoroughly justify any fears that Wolstenholme and others might have had. Hungary attacked straight from the kick-off, forcing the ball into the corner of the pitch before conceding a foul throw. They won the ball straight back from the throw, however, and Hidegkuti thrashed the ball into the top corner of the goal to give the visitors the lead. It was immediately evident that England’s tactical rigidity would most likely prove to be their undoing. Sebes had noted before the match that “The English play against the European teams in much the same way as they did twenty years ag0,” and the gap between the fludiity of the Hungarian team and England’s starched performance would be too great a gap for the home side to make up.
There was a brief moment of self-belief for England when a pass from Stan Mortensen released Jackie Sewell to bring England level with fifteen minutes to play, but five minutes later the Hungarians led again with a second goal from Hidegkuti, and a further four minutes after this came the moment that would, for many, come to define almost the entire future of the England team, as Puskas dumped the England captain Billy Wright on his backside on the edge of the six yard box before driving the ball past the England goalkeeper Gil Merrick at his near post. Yet clips of this goal don’t really show its broader importance. Rewind the tape of the match ten seconds further than most television producers do when showing this goal, and you see that it was Puskas himself, on the edge of the centre circle inside his own half, who started the move, drifting foward into an attacking position as the England midfield and defence, tied in the most literal of senses to the tactical straitjacket into which they had been placed.
At three-one and with barely a quarter of the match having been played, this match was already well on the way to being over already, and any remaining doubts over this ended a further three minutes later, when Puskas deflected a long-range free-kick in with scarcely an England defender in sight. Such was the Hungarian dominance in the first half that a second English goal, from Stan Mortensen seven minutes from the half-time whistle, felt a little like a travesty. Still, though a shell-shocked England team arrived back in the dressing room at half-time down by four goals to two and the prospect of a heavy defeat looking very much on the cards.
Three goals in twelve minutes at the start of the second half ended the scoring. József Bozsik added the Hungarians’ fifth after fifty minutes after the English defence had yet again lost possession trying the play the ball out of defence barely ten seconds after Kocsis had hit the post, and three minutes later Hidegkuti claimed his hat-trick with a sixth goal. Four minutes later, England scored what was already clearly a consolation goal when George Robb was fouled by inside the penalty area Grosics and Alf Ramsey scored the resulting penalty kick. Fortunately for England, however, from here on the Hungarian team took its foot off the pedal a little, preferring to keep possession and hold on to win the match by six goals to three. They finished the match having had an astonishing thirty-five shots at the England goal.
Few lessons seemed to have been learned by the Football Association in the years immediately after this match. A return match hastily – some might say foolishly – arranged for the following year in Budapest, and this time Hungary won by seven goals to one. England were comfortably beaten by Uruguay in the quarter-finals of the World Cup that year in Switzerland and it would not be until the appointment of Alf Ramsey as the team’s manager in 1963 that the almost bizarrely old-fashioned system of the team being picked by a board of FA selectors would finally come to an end. Three years after Ramsey’s appointment, England would come to win the World Cup, just abour deservedly, on home soil, but the tactical innovation brought in by Ramsey during this period would soon slide to a halt again, and as the years wore on that 1966 World Cup win would come to place an albatross of expectation around the team’s neck that would be considerably more a hindrance than it could ever be a help.
The 1954 World Cup finals should have been the crowning glory of the Hungarian team that vanquished the English so memorably that day, but it was not quite to be. Having steamrollered their way to the final, an injury to Puskas – a hairline fracture of the ankle incurred during a group match win against West Germany – led to a selection headache for Sebes, and his decision to play his captain even though he was not fully fit brought about considerable disharmony amongst other players. Even so, two goals in the opening eight minutes of the match – one scored by Puskas – should have been enough for Hungary. With their star player clearly struggling against his injury – and, of course, with no substitutions being allowed at this time – however, West Germany came back to win by three goals to two. It was Hungary’s first defeat since 1950, in the most important match of all.
Two years later, the team broke up following the attempted Hungarian uprising of 1956, with Puskas, Kocsis and Czibor all emigrating to Spain. England never seemed to fully grasp the lessons of that day, but Hungary, who handed out the lessons with such efficiency, verve and style, didn’t have the playing resources to be able to rebuild. The days of Hungary’s Golden Team were never to return. But whilst England were the subjects of the schooling of November 1953, the whole international football world was to become its students. Sebes’ tactical fluidity would change the face of the global game, and his insistence that all players could play in all positions would lead to the Dutch Total Football revolution of the early 1970s and the concept of having the nucleus of a team coming from a small number of clubs may not have been completely new – consider, for example, the Italian team of the late 1940s based around Il Grande Torino team which perished in a plane crash in 1949 – it would grow to be a recurring theme amongst international teams in future tournaments. It may have been England that learned the least on that foggy, grey afternoon in North London sixty years ago today, but the rest of the world took a lot from it.
The goals from this match and the full match itself are available below:
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