It’s the 19th of June 1938. Trailing 3-1 to Italy in front of 45,000 people in the Stade Olympique, Paris, Hungary surge forwards as the clock reads 70 minutes, led by talismanic captain Gyorgi Sarosi in an attempt to fight their way back into the game. Having handily beaten the Dutch East Indies, Switzerland, and Sweden to reach this point, there is no doubt that the Magyars deserve to be here, and despite three early concessions to the Azzurri with only one in reply, the talent draped in red and green meant many in the stadium still had belief.
Despite the pressure of the occasion, Sarosi keeps a cool head, and slots home his sides’ second with 20 left to play. The striker represents the best footballer the nation had produced since Imre Schlosser, and his entire country’s World Cup hopes rest squarely on his shoulders, he and his men pushing further and further forwards as time ticked away, probing for the equalizer. In doing so, they leave themselves open at the back, something the Italians waste no time in punishing.
Capitalizing on their opponent’s desperation, the Azzurri pierced the ranks and set up Silvio Piola to net his second of the game, and all but seal the World Cup for Italy – their second in as many attempts. Defeated, but proud, the Hungarians returned home to celebration, by far their best performance on the world stage to date and an encouraging sign of things to come. They may have lost in 1938, but 1942 would be their year.
Except, as world events proved, it wouldn’t be. As Europe entered its darkest hour, football, as with most facets of pre-war society, was put on hold to focus on stopping the encroachment of Nazi occupation. Midway through the Second World War, Gyorgi Sarosi retired from international play, and coach Karoly Dietz left his post in the national team set up, meaning that the Hungarian team that emerged from the war looked vastly different from the one that entered it. Truthfully, the same could be said for the country it represented.
As victory across Europe was declared for the Allies, Hungary was released from Nazi rule and instead placed under effective Soviet control, becoming a one-party communist state and member of the Eastern Bloc. Realizing the propaganda potential within football and indeed the national team’s success, the new regime began to put a heavy focus on the side in its attempts to win over the populace at large, with one notable issue – results had become far from consistent. After some particularly notable losses to Austria, a draw with Albania and a shock defeat at the hands of Bulgaria, the position of deputy sports minister and thus the reigns of the national team were handed to a new man, one with big ideas on how to return the Magyars to their pre-war glory – Gustav Sebes.
A native of Budapest, Sebes, a former footballer with an international cap from 1936, was promoted from a position on a three-man selection committee for the start of 1949, with experience managing a number of smaller Budapest clubs after his retirement. Additionally, the four years he had spent as a trade union organizer in a Renault plant in Paris gave him the perfect, pro-worker image that the administration strived for, effectively passing the political ‘medical’ that was necessary for a position within the communist government. Now with complete control of all aspects of the national side, Sebes began to implement the grand ideas he had been prototyping on the local leagues of his city, with just one goal in mind. Winning the World Cup.
First was the issue of selection. Inspired by the very side that beat his nation at the 1938 World Cup, Sebes strived for a team drawn from just a few clubs rather than spread across the entire league, with a consistent core of talent that would provide the backbone for a team built around cohesion, rather than individual displays of skill. While a large amount of the nation’s best talent was already registered to Hungary’s then two biggest clubs, Ferencvaros and MTK, Sebes was able to use his governmental position, and the nationalization of football all across the Eastern Bloc, to his advantage, having Kispest AC taken over by the Ministry of Defense and allowing him to effectively force the best players into one squad, by conscripting them into the army and thus requiring them to play in the army team – now renamed to Budapest Honved.
Next, Sebes began to assemble his core, starting with two players already playing for Honved. Leading the line was Ferenc Puskas, a rising legend of the domestic league with 206 goals for club and country by the age of just 22, who had managed to skirt around minimum age requirements thanks to a pseudonym and had been scoring top division goals for Kispest since the age of 15. Despite his young age, Puskas was already a complete forward, capable of scoring outrageous goals by the bucketload, the season prior to Sebes’ arrival netting an astronomical 46 in 28.
A key part of Puskas’ goalscoring exploits was his teammate and childhood best friend – Jozsef Bozsik. Two years Puskas’ senior, Bozsik was a half-back by trade, but played with his entire focus going forwards, making up for his lack of pace with an otherworldly vision and able to find attackers from seemingly anywhere on the pitch. Playing almost as a prototype regista, Bozsik’s prowess as a deep-lying playmaker made him the architect of much of Honved’s attack, and given his lifelong bond with Puskas, the beneficiary of much of his creative work, Bozsik quickly became a vital and trusted inclusion in Sebes’ team.
Given that Hungary had refused to take part in qualifying for the 1950 World Cup, Sebes had plenty of friendly matches to add skilled players to his team, and try out new tactics against some of the east’s best sides. For his first victory against arch-rivals Austria, the new boss paired Puskas with Ferencvaros striker Sandor Kocsis, a similarly prolific attacker who used his towering frame to score headers by the boatload.
The next game against Italy saw the debut of Ferencvaros winger Laszlo Budai, and the game after that the first appearance of teammate and fellow winger Zoltan Czibor, two quick, skillful attackers capable of both assisting the strikers with crosses and cutting inside and scoring themselves. For Sebes there was just one piece of the attacking puzzle missing, a piece that played for MTK.
Nandor Hidegkuti had made his Hungary debut all the way back in 1945, but thanks to his comparatively modest form compared to Ferenc Puskas, had played very little since.
Whilst plying his trade for MTK, the club’s coach, Marton Bukovi, had begun to make use of his impressive passing and ball-control to fashion Hidegkuti into something new, a deep-lying center forward. Rather than an out and out striker, Hidegkuti would play just behind the forward line, and when rival defenders would attempt to mark, block, and curtail him, they would be drawn out of position, allowing the true strikers to capitalize.
With this sextet at his disposal, Sebes now had to configure his tactics to best suit the raw but undeniable talent at his fingertips. In an era dominated by the conventional WM formation, the Magyars needed something altogether new in order to make the most of the unique talents of Bozsik and Hidegkuti, who traditionally did not fit into such a rigid system, and to do so Sebes once more borrowed from Marton Bukovi. Adapting the 4-2-4 formation that Bukovi had instituted at MTK, Sebes drew the traditional center forward of the WM back into the midfield, and pulled back the wingers alongside, changing what was essentially a 3-2-2-3 formation into a 2-3-2-3. Instead of Hidegkuti leading the line alone, he sat behind Puskas and Kocsis, with Budai and Czibor alongside and operated as the focal point of the entire attack – essentially the prototypical false nine that would go on to be made famous byLionel Messi.
The results was a devastatingly effective innovation, where, in theory, any of the front five, supplied by Bozsik behind them, were capable of creating, assisting, and finishing attacks in equal measure.
The players were cast, and the script written, but before Hungary could truly become a footballing superpower, Sebes would first have to get them used to playing their parts. Kocsis, Czibor and Budai were all conscripted into Budapest Honved, alongside defender Gyula Lorant and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, with the secret police’s ownership of MTK making their players effectively untouchable. Nevertheless, Honved essentially became an extension of the national team set up, building cohesion and tactical awareness for the players, and giving Sebes a look at the effects of his tinkering at a far higher rate than a typical national team coach. The man was an auteur, and every aspect of his player’s career and training was his to control.
One thing Sebes had put a heavy focus one was fitness, instituting a strict regimen with regular practice sessions devoted to athleticism and stamina. As a consequence, each player was able to get around the pitch at any moment during a match, essentially able to cover one another in a fluid system where any member of the team could fulfill another’s role in a pinch. Noticing this quickly, Sebes encouraged this versatility, and before long only Grosics could be said to stick to one position for the entire match, itself a fluid one as he played more as a sweeper keeper than a traditional shot-stopper. The result of all this tinkering, figuring and innovation? The first prototype of Total Football, a system set to take the world by storm.
On the Fourth of June 1950, Hungary would beat Poland 5-2 in Warsaw, an exhibition game victory that, at the time, seemed little more than an impressive if run-of-the-mill result against a middling European side. Two years and eleven days later, a 5-1 victory against the same opponent would be their ninth game unbeaten, eight wins and a solitary draw proving that Hungary were the form team on the eastern side the continent, and evidently the strongest side in the Warsaw Pact. Sebes’ innovation had worked, with Hungary scoring prolifically game after game and adding a tenth match to their run with victory over Finland the next week, it seemed that no side east of the iron curtain could best them. Their true strength, however, was about to be tested, as the 15th July saw the kickoff of the football tournament of the 1952 Olympics – the first time the Magyars faced western opposition.
Arriving in Finland with a full-strength squad, Sebes and his magnificent six battled past Romania in the preliminary round only to be drawn against the boogeymen of 1938 – Italy. Proving just how far the team had come, Hungary breezed past the Azzurri by three goals to nil, and after beating Turkey 7-1 and Sweden 6-0, once more found themselves in a gold medal match at one of international football’s biggest tournaments. Facing a stubborn Yugoslavia in the final, it took over three quarters of the game, but just as Gyorgi Sarosi had done before him, Ferenc Puskas scored as the clock read seventy minutes, this time to put his side into the lead. Just 2 minutes from time, Zoltan Czibor scored the second, and the team returned to Budapest Olympic gold medalists – an enormous achievement.
Gustav Sebes, however, was unsatisfied with just the Olympics, he wanted the World Cup, and he knew that preparing with exhibition matches against comparatively weak Eastern Bloc teams was not going to cut it. With their unbeaten streak now sat at 15 matches, Sebes wanted to take his tactics on a tour of the west, and with friendlies against Italy, Sweden and Austria played throughout 1953, the Magyars entered their final game of the year against possibly their biggest opponents yet.
Hungary may have been unbeaten for 24 games in a row, but the Three Lions of England had yet to ever lose a game on home soil to a continental European side. Having seen the Magyars triumph at the Olympics, the English FA deemed them to be the best team in the world – outside of the British Isles – and in a moment of historical hubris, invited Sebes’ men to play at Wembley to close out 1953. Dubbed the ‘match of the century’ by the British press, 105,000 people turned out to see the friendly, a clash between Hungary’s revolutionary new style and England’s traditional use of the WM, selection committees and physical tactics.
The match was a disaster for England, a free-roaming Hidegkuti scoring a hat-trick – including a goal in the first minute – as Puskas scored two and Bozsik one, six goals against England’s three, one of which came from a penalty. The scoreline was bad, but the stats were damning, Hungary having had 35 shots on goal to England’s five and regularly pulling off double-digit passing sequences, the English defense completely unable to cope with Hidegkuti’s withdrawn position and Bozsik’s deep-lying creativity. The aftermath saw a complete overhaul of the Three Lion’s setup, an adoption of continental tactics and formations, and six members of the starting eleven never played for England again, the embarrassment of the fixture hanging over the team for decades to come. But for Hungary, this was Gustav Sebes’ magnum opus, the announcement that the Magyars were the best team in the world, and the perfect audition for the upcoming World Cup. 1954, it seemed, would be their year.
After beating Egypt, Austria and then slapping England even harder than they had before to warm up for the tournament, the 1954 World Cup kicked off in Switzerland on the 16th June, Hungary playing their first game, a 9-0 drubbing of South Korea, a day later. Puskas, Czibor and Hidegkuti all arrived at the tournament off the back of solid league campaigns, but no-one in the world was on hotter form than Sandor Kocsis, who had finished 1953/54 as the top scorer in Europe. After a hat-trick against South Korea, Kocsis scored four against West Germany as the Magyars ran riot, ending the match 8-3 victors and finishing the group stage with a +14-goal difference, Kocsis himself netting half of that total alone.
Drawn against Brazil for the quarter-finals, the Magyars looked absolutely unstoppable, and facing a South American side for the first time, expected their free-flowing style to grant them another easy victory. Brazil, renowned for their fast-paced, attractive, and physical football, did not plan on making it easy. After an ill-tempered start to the game, the match descended into farce after a penalty call for the Hungarians triggered a near-riot level pitch invasion from Brazilian officials, and a series of increasingly cynical and violent challenges plagued the game. Three players were sent off, including Jozsef Bozsik, who had a bare-knuckle brawl with Nilton Santos after a particularly harsh challenge, and a total of 42 free kicks were awarded. Despite the violence, battered and bruised, Hungary emerged from the melee 4-2 victors – before another fight broke out in the dressing rooms after the game.
Thanks to a Kocsis double in extra time, which put the striker on a then record 11 goals for the tournament, Hungary beat Uruguay in the next round to secure a place in the final, playing against a dark horse West Germany side that they had beaten 8-3 just two weeks prior. This was the moment, the culmination of 5 years of innovation, hard-work, and some of the best football the world had ever seen. Hungary were unbeaten for over four years, boasted six of the greatest footballers on the planet, and had a coach so dedicated to winning this very competition that he upended all accepted rules of the game and created a side from the ground up. Their opponents? Eleven amateurs with only a handful of friendly games under their belts. The football world geared up for what was surely going to be a massacre.
After a night of disturbed sleep and having played extra-time against Uruguay, Sebes deemed Laszlo Budai too tired to play the final, instead opting for understudy Mihaly Toth – a relatively unknown winger who played his club football for Ujpest. Despite only fielding five of the magnificent six, Sebes was still confident, and after a classic Bozsik through ball set up Puskas to score in just six minutes, it seemed as if this slight change had done little to upset the status quo. Capitalizing on a German miscommunication just two minutes later, Zoltan Czibor added a second into an empty net, the Magyars 2-0 up in the space of eight minutes.
The Germans, however, would soon find themselves venturing off script, a scruffy, close-range finish from Max Morlock on minute ten pegging the Hungarians back, before Helmut Rahn headed home a corner and tied the game back up, the lashing rain and sodden pitch seeming to suit the Germans style of play. Undeterred, Sebes encouraged his men forwards, Nandor Hidegkuti denied just minutes later by a fine stop from Toni Turek between the German sticks.
Despite wave after wave of coordinated, fluid attack from the Magyars, none of the five could seemingly find a way through Turek and his stubborn defense, a number of fingertip saves denying the Hungarians the lead. As the minutes ticked by, West Germany held strong, and despite the unrelenting pressure from their opponents, found their own way through just minutes from time. Helmut Rahn, finding himself in the box, feinted a pass, wrongfooted Grosics, and scored the goal that won West Germany the World Cup.
Despite everything, Sebes’ men had failed once more at the final hurdle, but in contrast to their previous attempt, were not met with celebration. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian people took to the streets, using the match as a pretext to voice their discontent at the oppressive and stifling regime, demonstrations that, two years later, would become a full-on revolution. In the wake of the uprising, Kocsis, Czibor and Puskas would flee the country, moving to Spain to play for FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Sebes was discharged from his post and replaced by, somewhat ironically, Marton Bukovi. For the 1958 World Cup, only four members of the team remained – Bozsik, Grosics, Budai and Hidegkuti, but the Magyars crashed out in the group stages. As their Golden Generation faded, it seemed that Hungary had well and truly missed their chance.
But, writing off the Mighty Magyars as just a missed chance is not telling the whole story. Unbeaten for four years, Olympic gold medalists and scorers of 27 goals at just a single World Cup, the Hungary team of 1954 may be the single greatest international football team ever assembled, not only renowned for their success but also for revolutionizing tactics for decades to come, playing Total Football over twenty years before Cruyff’s Holland, and utilizing a false nine nearly sixty years before Messi would make the term a commonplace phrase.
A tactical revolutionary of the scope of Herbert Chapman, Rinus Michels and Pep Guardiola, Gustav Sebes would stay active in the sport until his death in 1986, having witnessed the decline of his nation’s national team into obscurity. They may never have a World Cup to their name, but Hungary should be forever remembered as being the team that changed football – innovators, artists, and for nearly the entirety of the first half of the 1950s, invincibles.
Written by Daniel Castella