It would be impossible to write a collection of articles on the subject of football in the 1950s without paying homage to the Mighty Magyars. One of the greatest teams to have ever graced the game, for the best part of six years Gusztáv Sebes’ Hungary thrilled audiences across Europe with their innovative and unique style, going down in history as one of the finest sporting collectives there has ever been.
The post-war era had begun with a coalition government in Hungary comprised of Communists, Social Democrats and Smallholder’s (conservatives), but by 1948 the country’s Communist Party had edged out its rivals and seized power. A police state was created as the new leaders looked to cement their position; high-profile opponents to the regime being incarcerated or, at worst, executed.
Football, of course, was not immune to these seismic social reforms. The administration of the sport was placed under government control and clubs in domestic leagues were formally associated with various institutions of the state. Although war and the Final Solution had decimated the Hungarian population, the game did show signs of recovery under the disciplined guidance of the Communist Party, greater levels of organisation from the top down seeing gradual improvements.
Keen to reflect the regime’s ideological principles through the medium of football, the ruling party looked to transform the national team into a flagship for Communist ideals and a positive advertisement for the fledgling regime. Sebes, a man deeply committed to both football and socialism, was seen as the perfect candidate to lead the side and best use the wealth of resources the government was willing to allocate to the game.
Sebes quickly established a nationwide scouting network, ensuring that no stone was left unturned when it came to assembling the best possible squad. Continually experimenting with tactics and personnel, a series of friendlies were arranged ahead of the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, the team being fine-tuned and prepared well away from any prying eyes.
When Sebes’ Hungary were unveiled to the rest of the world in the summer of 1952 they stunned observers with their incredibly intricate and yet individualistic style. Playing with a system not dissimilar to what we would recognise as 4-2-4, Hungary’s attack was built around the talents of Nándor Hidegkuti, Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Péter Palotás.
As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting the Pyramid, although it was Hidegkuti who eventually became famous in the withdrawn striker role, in 1952 it was Palotás who filled that position, Hidegkuti being used exclusively as a wide player. It was a system of great fluidity and expressionism, values which didn’t exactly fit with the ideals of the Communist Party but acted as a highly effective global advert for the regime nonetheless.
Having destroyed Italy (3-0), Turkey (7-1) and Sweden (6-0) along the way, Hungary prepared to face Yugoslavia in the Olympic final. A cagier affair than their earlier games, Sebes’ side struggled to break down their talented opposition, only making the breakthrough after 70 minutes when Puskás fired the team ahead. Left winger Zoltán Czibor added a second two minutes from time to seal the result, a victory which secured Hungary’s first ever major title. It had been the Olympics of Emil Zátopek, of Bobby Mathias and, most importantly, of the Mighty Magyars.
The ‘Match of the Century’
Just over a year later, on 25th November 1953, Hungary lined up against England at Wembley in what would arguably become the defining match in the histories of both countries. Ranked number one in the world and unbeaten in 24 games, the Hungarians had, in the words of David Goldblatt, arrived in London “with regicide on their minds”.
At the time English football still generally regarded itself as being the very best – that despite declining to participate in international tournaments until 1950 – and there is little doubt that Sebes’ team were relishing the chance to knock England from their self-appointed perch. It was a chance that they took with emphatic style.
In the days and weeks leading up to the match Sebes had insisted that his team train with British footballs on pitches exactly the same size as Wembley, also going to London in person to watch a game at the national stadium in order to gauge the properties of the turf. Meticulous in his preparations, the coach left as little as possible to chance as Hungary looked to blow England away with their beautiful football.
And blow England away they did. In the months leading up to the game Sebes had moved Hidegkuti off the right flank and deployed him as the withdrawn striker in place of Palotás, the MTK star taking on the mantle of being the team’s key playmaker. It was in that position that he started the game at Wembley and summarily went about removing what remained of England’s footballing empire.
Within the first minute Hungary had passed their way through England, Hidegkuti receiving the ball 20 yards from goal and firing an exocet beyond Gil Merrick. The tone had been set. England equalised against the run of play after quarter of an hour, but just seven minutes later the visitors restored their lead, Hidegkuti pouncing after the ball had bounced loose of a goalmouth scramble.
The next few minutes saw Puskás put the result beyond doubt, the masterful forward dancing through the English defence to make it 3-1 and then adding a fourth before the half-hour mark with a squirming shot from the edge of the area. England rallied briefly before half-time with a Stan Mortensen goal, but the Hungarians ran riot after the break, Hidegkuti completing his hat-trick as the game finished 6-3 to Sebes’ Mighty Magyars.
The zenith of Hungarian football had brought about the nadir of the English game, and its impacts would echo through the ages.
1954 World Cup
The following summer Hungary arrived in Switzerland for the 1954 World Cup as favourites. After comfortably negotiating a group including West Germany, Turkey and South Korea, the Magyars proceeded to beat both Brazil and Uruguay by 4-2 score lines, a re-match with group opponents West Germany awaiting them in the final.
Having beaten the Germans 8-3 in the group with Kocsis scoring four, Hungary were the overwhelming favourites for the showpiece in Bern. Indeed, a 2-0 lead inside the first eight minutes through Puskás and Czibor looked unassailable, but West Germany came back to win 3-2 as Sebes’ team threw away the biggest game in which they ever played. Along with the Dutch team of 1974 and the Brazilians of ’82, the Hungarians of ’54 must be considered one of the finest teams never to have won the World Cup. That they came so close to doing so makes that fact all the harder to stomach.
By 1955 the Mighty Magyars had entered something of a decline, the World Cup defeat seemingly shattering the confidence this wonderfully gifted group of players had possessed for so long. Sebes was sacked by the Ministry of Sport in the summer of 1956, the decline being compounded by the Hungarian revolution that October, the Soviets crushing the uprising and the team being broken up as a result.
It was an unhappy and sudden end to Hungary’s golden era, but their stylistic influence on football lived on in the Total Football of Ajax and the Netherlands, not to mention echoing in the approach of the current Barcelona team. Slick passing football and formational flexibility, the legacy of Gusztáv Sebes and his Mighty Magyars will never be forgotten.