Ask anyone to name the best team not to have won the World Cup and most people will probably say the 1974 Holland team. However there is one team whose achievements are sadly overlooked a team containing players such as Fernc Puskas, Sandor Koscis, and Jozsef Bozsik who went on a 31 game unbeaten run due to not only having some of the best players in the world, but being tactically ahead of everyone else and forcing teams like England who saw itself as the home of football to reassess their own approach to playing the beautiful game.
The Magyars were surprisingly beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the final a team that they had thrashed 8-3 previously in the group qualifiers. To understand fully the quality of the team and the reason why the defeat to Germany was a shock you have to go back to the early 1950’s.
Like most Communist countries of that era sporting teams were affiliated with certain factions of the Government such as the Police, army, certain parts of heavy industry etc, and furthermore recognised sport as a tool for potential propaganda. Consequently when the Head Coach of the Hungarian national team Gusztav Sebes believed that the only real chance of success was to recruit players from one or two teams (which he believed helped contributed to Italy’s World Cup win in 1938), the army team Honved was to be used for this purpose with potential players given the choice of either serving their national service with the club or at a remote border it was hardly surprising that most players opted for the former.
Sebes therefore was now able to use Honved as a training camp for the National team were the players not only got used to playing with each other but familiarised themselves with the tactics and style of play that was required of them.
The first fruits of success for the Hungarian team came in the 1952 Olympics although a narrow 2-1 victory against Rumania who pulled a late goal in the preliminary round didn’t attract too much attention. Three changes were made against Italy in the First round with the Hungarian’s romping to a 3-0 victory but it was the thrashing handed out to Turkey (7-1), and Sweden (6-0) in the Semi-Final that made people sit up and take notice of an extremely talented team. In the final itself Yugoslavia were despatched 2-0 securing Gold for Hungary bringing much relief to Sebes as Jonathan Wilson of Behind the Curtain states that prior to the Final he had received a phone call from Rakosi, General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist party informing him that ‘defeat would not be tolerated.’
England 3 Hungary 6, Wembley Friendly
Despite the shock 1-0 defeat to the USA in the World Cup, three-year previous, England still believed that not only was it the home of football but still the team to beat. With Hungary’s three year unbeaten run and recent Olympic success, critics hailed the Magyar’s as the current world’s best. Consequently the English FA were keen to put this to the test and arranged a friendly at Wembley with the media billing it as the match of the century.
Sebes as part of his traits was particularly meticulous in his preparation for the match by obtaining English footballs and ensuring that his players played with the balls so that they could get used to the weight particularly as the football absorbed moisture and got heavier as the game went on. Furthermore due to the wide dimensions of the Wembley pitch, Sebes had one of the training pitches measured specifically to those measurements.
It took only ninety seconds for Bozsik to give Hungary the lead with Jackie Sewell equalising twelve minutes later. Hungary though continued to dominate and re-took the lead with Puskas scoring the third with a memorable goal as he dragged the ball back with his studs, and in one movement lashed the ball into the back of the net, leaving the England centre-half Billy Wright sprawling in his wake. Puskas scored another before the breaking and although Mortensen had pulled one back it was 4-2 to Hungary.
The second half continued with the Hungarian’s giving the English a footballing lesson. This was a surreal moment for the England players and supporters as they believed that English football was still streets ahead of any nation. Instead they had to suffer the indignity and reality that they were no longer the major force that they once were as Hungary ran out as 6-3 winners which could quite easily have been more to become the first team outside of the Home Nations to beat England at Wembley. Harry Johnston the England Centre back summed up the feelings of that match. ‘The tragedy was the utter helplessness… being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook.’
Hungary were more innovative as they were more fluid and had the ability to interchange for all positions with Sebes declaring it as ‘Socialist football.’ In contrast England were left floundering with the tried and trusted W formation looking tired and past its best. English football had become tired and complacent with no changes to the style of play since Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal of the 1930’s.
To show that the win was no fluke a second friendly was arranged in Budapest with England to suffer a worse defeat as they were thrashed 7-1. It meant a major re-think and tactical change for England if they were not to fall further behind other International teams.
The 1954 World Cup Finals
It was hardly a surprise that Hungary were favourites to be crowned World Champions in Switzerland. South Korea were hammered 9-0, with West Germany beaten 8-3. However there was an element of controversy as with the score 5-1, Puskas was caught from behind by West Germany’s Liebrich and not only was he forced to leave the pitch but missed the next two games as a result. With West Germany reaching the Final against Hungary it has been debated whether the German’s had deliberately set out to crock Puskas. In the immediate aftermath after the finals the Hungarian’s believed so but as time went on some believed that there was nothing malicious about the tackle.
The quarter-finals saw Hungary pitted against Brazil but also became known as the ‘battle of Berne,’ due to the violent tackles and petulance during and after the game. Three players were sent off although the violence didn’t end there as it was alleged that Puskas hit Pinheiro of Brazil with a bottle with reports later blaming a spectator for the assault. Nevertheless this didn’t stop the Brazilian team storming the Hungarian changing room with more mayhem and fighting breaking out, leading to a Hungarian player being knocked unconscious, and Sebes being struck by a broken bottle. The result incidentally finished 4-2 in Hungary’s favour leaving them to play current World Champions Uruguay in the Semi-final.
This was regarded as one of the best matches of all time as Hungary threw away a two goal lead with Uruguay forcing the game into extra time as Hohberg struck twice in the last fifteen minutes. Hungary though remained resilient as Kocsis struck twice to earn Hungary a place in the final against West Germany who had dismissed Austria 6-1.
Miracle of Berne
The omens on the eve of the final were not good. Firstly the Hungarian side’s sleep was disturbed by the Swiss brass band practising for the Swiss Championship, whilst their team bus was stopped by Police in entering the stadium forcing the players and officials to get past the large crowds just to enter the stadium. Then there was the weather with the heavy rain turning the pitch into a quagmire hindering the Hungarian’s passing game.
Incidentally the German team were supplied with the latest football boots by Adidas which had screw in studs meaning that they could be adapted for any type of weather unlike the Hungarian’s.
Only five of the players who had started for West Germany prior to the earlier game against Hungary were in the line up for the final. It was alleged later on that the West German coach Herberger believing that the team was too strong for Turkey in their final game and would do enough to beat the Turks rested key players giving him the opportunity to assess Hungary without giving anything away. This view was backed up by assistant manager Schon who himself went on to lead West Germany to victory in the 1974 World Cup.
Nevertheless it only took Hungary six minutes for Puskas to give them the lead with Czibor making it 2-0 Hungary, two minutes later. Morlock pulled one back for West Germany on the tenth minute, with Rahn equalizing for the Germans eight minutes later.
Hungary pushed forward in the second half with the German keeper Turek making a number of fine saves. However it was the Germans who scored the goal that was to decide the tie as Rahn put West Germany into the lead for the first time with six minutes left on the clock.
Two minutes later Puskas had equalized for Hungary only for the Welsh linesman Melvyn Griffiths to rule it offside. Even now it is a hotly disputed topic as to whether Puskas was offside who claimed it took the ‘linesman a minute to raise his flag,’ and ‘to lose a World Cup on such a decision isn’t right.’ The decision stood and it was West Germany who were crowned World Champions, and became known in Germany as ‘the victory that made a nation,’ mainly due to raising much-needed morale after the repercussion’s of the Second World War.
In Hungary though disappointment turned to anger as in Budapest people took to the streets and openly demonstrated against the regime with some believing that the seeds of the 56 uprising were sown.
The political turmoil of 1956 were over two hundred and fifty thousand Hungarian’s demonstrated against the state, as they demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops, free press and elections as well as the reinstatement of Nagy as Prime Minister escalated into violence causing more uncertainty.
Honved using a European Cup tie against Bilbao took their players on a European tour and accepted an invitation to play a series of friendlies in Brazil and Venezuela. The Hungarian FA and FIFA declared the tour illegal and with the prospect of suspension or even worse Kocsis, Czibor, and Puskas did not return taking up their careers in Spain with Puskas enjoying more success by joining Real Madrid and even representing Spain four times. Kocsis and Czibor both joined the Catalan giants Barcelona winning further honours during their time at the club.
Not surprisingly Hungary were never to reach such heights again although they did reach the quarter finals of the 1962 and 1966 World Cup. However no Hungarian team so far as ever come close to eclipsing the Magical Magyars.
Incidentally there is a great article in the Guardian about how Puskas played for South Liverpool. Link below.