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Hungary – The Greatest Team Not to have the Won the World Cup

There are few teams in the history of football that deserve more than they got but the 1954 Hungary squad is one exception. Quite simply put, Hungary should have been the World Champions that year which could have fundamentally shifted the forward trajectory of Hungarian football for years to come. Instead Hungarian football slipped slowly into the abyss with only a few glimmers of light shining through over the past 67 years. A win for Hungary in that final would have inspired a generation and those after them to talk more about how good a team that was and how the Magical Maygars transformed football in the 1950’s.

It all began in 1949 with the appointment of a revolutionary coach called Gusztav Sebes. As a country under communist rule, Hungary’s Deputy Sports Minister Gusztáv Sebes was tasked with creating their national team in an endeavour to further sporting excellence. Inspired by the Austrian Wunderteam and the Italian team that won two World Cups in the 1930s, Sebes set about transforming Hungary into one of the most dominant and feared national teams ever to grace the world of football. Adapting a 4-2-4 formation perfected by MTK head coach Marton Bukovi which pioneered the crucial deep lying centre-forward position, Sebes would create a side capable of playing fast flowing football that embodied pace, movement and unrelenting brilliance. He ensured that each member of the team was able to understand the individual style and strengths of each of his teammates and that every member of the squad was comfortable playing in multiple if not every position. Total Football was born.

Sebes vision – Hungary formation 1953

What helped Sebes to be successful with this approach was that his team was primarily made up of players from the state sponsored Army team Honved so they were already familiar with one another. Added into this, that Honved team not only had some of the fittest players at the time (army run after all) but also some of the most gifted including Gyula Grosics, Sándor Kocsis, Zoltán Czibor, József Bozsik and of course Ferenc Puskás. Adding in Gyula Lóránt at centre back and Nándor Hidegkuti in that newly created deep lying centre forward role, Sebes built one the the very first team of superstars. Under his tutelage, Hungary recorded 42 victories, 7 draws, and just one defeat, scoring 215 goals along the way in the six year period between 1950 and 1956.

Among those victories, Hungary became the Olympic champions in 1952, winning all five games and scoring 20 goals in total. That was truly when the world woke up to the Magical Magyars. It left many wondering how Sebes formation worked so well and more importantly how Péter Palotás had been used as a withdrawn centre forward. Sebes tactic was essentially to use the traditional striker as a more deep lying playmaker, as well as dropping the two wingers back into midfield to create a team capable of performing a quick turnover. The tactic also helped to draw opposition defenders out of position which in turn opened gaps for others to run into.

The gold medal in Helsinki earned Hungary a glamour friendly against England the following year at Wembley. Sebes, always meticulous in his planning arranged for a friendly with Sweden in advance of that game as they played in a similar style to England. The belief in the England camp however was that they were far more tactical and technically superior than Hungary and were confident that their record of having never lost on home soil to a team from outside the British Isles would stay intact. They were wrong. Sebes produced a surprise in that game by switching out Palotás for Nándor Hidegkuti and its proved to be a masterstroke as Hidegkuti scored a hat-trick as Hungary humiliated England beating them 6-3 on the day. Having failed to learn their lesson, England sought revenge the following year only to be on the end of a 7-1 defeat this time in Budapest.

England captain Billy Wright and Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas exchange flags before their 1953 clash

Next up for Hungary was the 1954 World Cup which they went into as clear favourites having won an impressive 27 straight consecutive games. Hungary issued a statement of intent early on in that World Cup thumping South Korea 9-0 in their opening match before dispatching West Germany 8-3 in their next group match. The trio of Kocsis, Puskas and Hidegkuti were unplayable, scoring 12 of the 17 goals between them. In the quarter finals, Hungary faced the 1950 losing finalists Brazil in what is now widely referred to as the “Battle of Berne”. Under driving rain and with a point to prove, Brazil sought to agitate and kick their opponents which resulted in tempers on both sides rising to boiling point. Hungary eventually won the game 4-2 but not before having József Bozsik sent off along with Brazil’s Nilton Santos for fighting.

The semi final against defending champions Uruguay, who had never lost a World Cup match in their history, was a calmer affair but was not without drama. Missing Puskas, Hungary worked tirelessly to edge out a 2-0 lead which pushed Uruguay to step up a gear. They replied by pulling one back early in the second half before snatching an equalizer 4 minutes from time to send the game into extra time. Despite Uruguay being as technical gifted as their counterparts, they could never match Hungary’s fitness and it was the Maygars who sealed the victory with two goals from Kocsis that set up a final against West Germany.

In the “Miracle of Bern”, better known as the 1954 World Cup Final, Hungary were widely considered favourites having already beaten West Germany convincingly in the group stages and on a 31 game winning streak. However with Puskas still suffering from an ankle injury but wanting to play, Sebes knew he would have to make a tough decision with his team selection. He chose to play Puskas and the “Galloping General” repaid that faith scoring after only 6 minutes. Czibor made it 2-0 shortly after before West Germany pulled it back even with two goals just before half time. In the second half, Hungary were the more aggressive but couldn’t find a way past the german goalkeeper. Six minutes from the end, Hungary were shattered when Helmut Rahn scored a third goal. However Hungary rallied and two minutes before the end, Puskas put the ball into the back of the net, but it was bizarrely ruled off side and West Germany won the game. The controversy with this game however was in the refereeing by Englishman William Ling who gave several key decisions throughout the match in West Germany’s favour. There were also rumours that the German’s had been given performance enhancing drugs in the lead up to the match which allowed them to keep up with the ultra fit Hungarians. Regardless, Hungary lost that game and it is now considered as one of the greatest upsets in football history.

Hungary’s defeat in the 1954 World Cup final was especially hard to take due to the multiple refereeing decisions that went against them that day with some suggesting the game was rigged.

After that defeat, Hungary continued to dominate international football playing 19 games, winning 16 and drawing 3 up until February 1956 when bizarrely Sebes was sacked and replaced by Marton Bukovi which also coincided with the Hungarian revolution of the same year. That was the catalyst that broke up the Magical Maygars. A majority of the players playing for Honved away to Atletico Bilbao in the 1956 European Cup when the revolution broke out back home in Budapest. Unable to go home, a majority of the players sought out new clubs with Puskas joining Real Madrid and Kocsis and Czibor moving to Barcelona.

The significance of this team on football history cannot be understated. The tactics created by Bukovi and adapted by Sebes opened the game up to a new way of thinking, that tactics could be adaptable and could influence games. The ideology attached to those tactics created the Total Football philosophy which would be embraced by Holland in the 1970’s and probably plays into the ideologies being created by our modern day coaches like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. And the positions themselves, with the freedom to move from your deigned role or remove the shackles spawned various iterations that are widely accepted today – the attacking playmaker, the false nine, the sweeper keeper. For that contribution to football, Hungary deserves more than they got. Olympic gold is nice but for a team that dominated and revolutionized international football it’s simply not enough. The 1954 World Cup should have had Hungary’s name carved onto it but instead this great team will be forever noted in the history books as World Cup runners up.

Article by Martin Cowgill.

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