The story of football in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War often seemed to be following a pre-prepared script, but it was a script that, at the World Cup finals at least, the competing nations seemed unwilling to follow. In 1950, the tournament should have been a procession for the host nation, Brazil, but in the final minutes of the final match, Uruguay silenced the Maracana. And four years later, one of the greatest teams in the history of the game would come unstuck in similar circumstances. They were the “Golden Team” – the Hungarian team of Ferenc Puskas, Nándor Hidegkuti and József Bozsik. This Hungarian team was, tactically, one of the most important in the history of the game, and it only lost one match in four years. It just so happened, however, that the match that they did lose was the most important of all.
The building blocks of the team were laid by Gusztáv Sebes, a Communist party member that had played for the Hungarian club MTK during the 1920s and 1930s. Sebes, along with fellow party members Béla Mandik and Gábor Kompóti-Kléber, took control of the national team in 1948. They realised immediately that the political capital of a successful national team was potentially massive and, using the Austrian Wunderteam and the Italian team that had seemed likely to dominate world football prior to the 1949 Superga air disaster, started to build a team that would go on to revolutionise world football. One of the keys to the success of these teams was that they drew the majority of their best players from just a couple of clubs, and Sebes sought to emulate this. MTK was one of those selected, but the other most successful team of the era, Ferencvaros was overlooked in favour of Honved.
These building blocks alone, however, wouldn’t be enough to take Hungary to the top of world football. A creative spark of genius would also be required if they were to ascend to the heights that Sebes envisaged. Fortunately, Sebes had this at his disposal, in the form of the team’s inside-left and talisman, Ferenc Puskas, as well as himself. For Sebes, there can be little doubt, was a tactical genius. In the late 1940s, most teams still played to the rigid “WM” formation created in England by the Huddersfield Town and Arsenal coach Herbert Chapman as a response to changes in the offside law.
Sebes saw through this tactical straitjacket, realising that a more fluid positional system could tear through teams that were still playing to the old system. One deep-lying striker (in the case of the Hungarian team it was Hidegkuti) would play as would come to be known in a position akin to that of the modern playmaker. Opposing defences would leave him unmarked, allowing him to make unchallenged runs into dangerous positions, while the other players around him found their positions interchangeable. Sebes’ system would come to be regarded as the primary influence upon the 4-2-4 system that the Brazilians would adopt for the 1958 World Cup finals and upon the Dutch team that made two successive World Cup finals during the 1970s. In the early 1950s, it utterly flummoxed every team that came across it, and Hungary, in the space of just three or four years, became the most feared team in international football. For Sebes, who considered the interchangability of the players’ positions to be “socialist football”, it wasn’t only a vindication of a football system, but of also of a political system.
The seeds of what were to come were sewn at the 1952 Olympic Games, when Hungary swept their way to the final of the amateur competition and won the gold medal with a 2-0 win against Yugoslavia in Helsinki. They scored twenty goals in just three matches on their run to the final, which consisted of a 10-1 win against India, a 7-1 win against Turkey and a 3-1 win against West Germany, and the final saw goals from Puskas and Szebor win them the gold medal. It was in November of the following year, however, that they really caught the world’s imagination, with a crushing win against an England team that was still, increasingly inexplicably, regarded as the best in the world at Wembley.
English hopes that all of the talk about the brilliance of their visitors was overstated lasted all of forty-five seconds from the kick-off, before Hidegkuti gave Hungary the lead. The Hungarians went on to win 6-3 (a score which, considering that the shots on goal ratio for the match was 35-5 in favour of the Hungarian team, flattered the English), a result that buried the ill-deserved reputation of the English as the best in the world once and for all. A lack of coverage in the media had meant that England had rather got away with their poor performance at the 1950 World Cup, but 1953 was the boom year for television sales in Britain with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II during the summer and this match was shown on the television. The myth was blown in front of the nation. Indeed, on that particular grey, foggy afternoon, a visual metaphor seemed to become literal when Puskas dragged the ball back from England’s captain, Billy Wright, and scored, leaving Wright on the ground behind him. Both literally and metaphorically, England had been dumped on its backside, and the effect of this result (and a 7-1 defeat in a hastily and ill-advised rematch in Budapest four months later) would prove to be ruinous for the psyche of the English game for years to come.
This, however, was of no concern to Hungary, who now moved on to the 1954 World Cup finals, to be held in Switzerland. They started in typically free-scoring style, with a 9-0 win against South Korea in Zurich, and followed this up with an 8-3 win against West Germany in Basle. This in itself is a match that has come to enter the folklore of this Hungarian team. It has been posited on several occasions that the German team “threw” this match in playing a scratch team, but this is debatable, to say the least. Fritz Walter, for example, started for West Germany. The foul on Ferenc Puskas that led to him being at half-stength for the remainder of the tournament came from Werner Liebrich, and the Hungarians would subsequently claim that it was deliberate, but the truth of the matter is that much that is made of this group match is taken from a retrospective viewpoint. Not only is it unfair to the pride of the German team, but such a cynical assertion is also at odds with the amateur values that still permeated through German football at the time. Whatever the truth, however, the result remained the same. Puskas would miss the quarter and semi-finals, and his appearance in the final would be as contentious as anything that this match threw up.
The quarter-finals saw them take on Brazil in Bern, a match which would come to be known as “The Battle Of Bern”. Three players were sent off by English referee Arthur Ellis in a match that contained a then unheard of forty-two fouls, yet it didn’t have to be like this. Hungary and Brazil were considered the favourites and second favourites to win the trophy and much of the pre-match coverage referred to the match as “the unofficial final”. Most of the blame has been subsequently laid at the door of the Brazilian team, yet there was provocation by both sides and certainly both teams were fighting with each other, both on and off the pitch.
Meanwhile, Hungary raced into a two goal lead within seven minutes with goals from Hidegkuti and Kocsis, but a penalty from Djalma Santos after eighteen minutes brought Brazil back into the game. Mihaly Lantos scored a penalty for Hungary to extend the lead on the hour, only for Julinho Botelho to pull the score back to 3-2 five minutes later. Bozsik and Nilson Santos, however, were then sent off for fighting with twenty minutes to play, and ten minutes later Brazil’s Humberto Tozzi followed them after he kicked Hungary’s Gyula Lorant. With two minutes left to play, Kocsis added a fourth goal for Hungary, but the fighting continued in the dressing rooms after the match, in almost complete darkness after all of the lightbulbs were smashed. Even Gustav Sebes required three stitches after being struck with a broken bottle. Hungary then went on to reach the final with a 4-2 win after extra time against the holders, Uruguay.
The 1954 World Cup final has come to be known in Germany as “The Miracle Of Berne”, but the seeds of the Hungarians’ downfall were sewn in Ferenc Puskas’ insistence that he played although, having missed the Brazil and Uruguay matches, he was still clearly unfit. In an era before the introduction of substitutes, Hungary effectively played much of the match with ten men. Perhaps Sebes believed that this match would be as easy as their 8-3 win in the group stages. Perhaps the overwhelming personality of Puskas won the day. Whatever the reason, Hungary only had one opportunity to get it right, and they didn’t take it.
At first, though, it seemed as if the decision to play Puskas might not have been the mistake that it turned out to be then he gave Hungary the lead after six minutes, and two minutes later Zoltan Czibor doubled their lead. Again, they had raced into an early two goal lead. This time, however, they were pegged back quickly with German goals from Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn after ten and eighteen minutes. The imperiousness of the Hungarians, which had started to look shaky when being taken into extra time by Uruguay in the semi-finals, was again being called into question. As the match wore on, the decision to play Puskas, in spite of his goal, started to look more and more like a mistake. Hungary did most of the pressing for the third goal but were unable to find a way past the German goalkeeper Toni Torek, and with six minutes to play the Hungarians’ world fell in when Rahn burst into the penalty area and fired in a low shot that skidded past the Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics and back out from the stanchion at the back of the goal. There was still time for further controversy – Puskas had an equalising goal harshly ruled out for offside and Sandor Kocsis could have had a penalty when he was brought down in the penalty area – but at the full time whistle, Hungary had lost for the first time in four years, and they had lost when it really, really mattered. West Germany, to the disbelief of the football world, were the world champions.
Two years later, the Hungarian Uprising started while Honved were in Spain to play Atletico Bilbao in the European Cup. They had lost 3-2 in Spain and were set to return to Hungary for the second leg but, at the outbreak of trouble, decided to stay on in Spain, before playing the second leg of their tie in Brussels. They lost the match on aggregate, but the team (and, subsequently, the Hungarian national team) broke up as the players went their separate ways. Puskas, Czibor and Kocsis went into exile, and Puskas went on to score one hundred and fifty-seven goals in one hundred and eighty-two appearances for Real Madrid, as well as making four appearances for Spain. The Hungarian team would never reach anything like those heights again. They were knocked out in the first round of the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden and haven’t reached the finals at all since 1986.
Such are the paper-thin margins that can decide World Cups. The decision to play Ferenc Puskas in the 1954 World Cup final proved to be a fatal mistake that may just have cost them the biggest prize of all, but the tactical innovations that they introduced changed the way that the world thinks about football forever. Also, their demolition of England, beamed into the living rooms of the vanquished nation, was the final nail in the coffin of any serious discussion of England being anything special. It’s not unreasonable to argue that this had actually been the truth for years, if not decades before. Hungary, however, made it as plain as could be. Our debt to them is massive, and it is no disservice to the West German team that won the tournament to point this out. Indeed, it only further emphasises the significance of their achievement. Hungary’s tactical mistakes were not their concern, and the 1954 World Cup final is now widely regarded as the definitive moment in the rebirth of West Germany as a country and the West German football team. For Hungary, 1954 was as good as it ever got.