Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021.
The early 1950s are remembered for two transcending moments in the course of football history.
Firstly, England – who had abandoned their self-inflicted policy of isolationism – had agreed to participate in the World Cup for the very first time in 1950.
Despite the high hopes and belief that were the still the best team in the world, the competition was an unmitigated disaster for them.
Having suffered an unexpected 0-1 defeat to the hands of the United States, many around the world saw this a symbolic victory.
To the English, however, it was nothing short of an aberration and they were on their way home after just a single match. It seemed the game they had given to the world was going against them, but with two-time World Cup winners, Italy, also in disarray at the time, the stage was set for a new football force to reawaken.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe was effectively divided in two.
Democratic states on the west with Communist ones to the east; separated by what became known as ‘the Eastern Blockade’ or ‘the Iron Curtain.’ And from that, returning to the fray and looking better than ever, came Hungary.
“The ball should be moved early, preferably on first contact. To run with it is often only to waste valuable attacking time.”
In the 1920s, the city of Budapest had embraced football and had reached the World Cup Final in 1938. With the majority of their homeland in rubble and ashes after World War II, few would have expected them to set the football world alight soon after such mass conflict.
Forged from the military side Honvéd, this created the backbone of the national team. ‘The Aranycsapat’ (‘The Golden Team’) was formed. Inevitably, the sides from Western Europe looked on at them with great suspicion. Not only were they a Communist country, but they were soldiers to boot.
They first began to make their mark on the global stage at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. The amateaur ethos of the games meant that teams from the west could not send their professional players. Nevertheless, Hungary’s run to the gold medal – culminating in a victory over Yugoslavia in the Final – had impressed many. Particularly for the refreshing and innovative brand of football they were playing.
It was one of sixteen gold medals the Hungarians won at the Olympics that summer; third only in the final table to the United States and the Soviet Union. An impressive feat for a country of just nine million. As they returned home as heroes, politicians were quick to pounce on their success.
By 1953, the Nep Stadium (‘The Peoples’ Stadium’) was officially opened to great fanfare and spectacle. A government-back initiative which was portrayed as an achievement of the people. Largely because many of the athletes from the previous year’s Olympic games helped with the construction of this new stadium.
National pride was at an all-time and there were notable strides being made on the club front too as Ferenc Puskas’s Hovénd side were making huge inroads on the domestic and European scene.
In November 1953, the British public took an profound interest when Hungary came to play at Wembley. England, who hadn’t lost a home international on the ground to a ‘foreign nation’ in 81 years looked as though their record was under severe threat.
As early as the first minute, England fell behind when Nándor Hideguti found the net. It got the ball rolling for a 6-3 win for the Hungarians. It was just the goals that drew talking points. It was the creativity and innovative manner in which Gusztáv Sebbes’ side had used the ball and controlled the game.
Many still believe that the way they played changed the way in which the game was to be played forever more. In 1967, Celtic would become the first ever non-Latin side to win the European Cup.
A side who also played with flourish and flair and in his now archived interviews, their manager, Jock Stein, regularly cited the Hungarian teams as inspiration for how his own teams played.
It could be argued that Hungary had created the Genesis of what was to become known as ‘total football’ and in 1954, six months after their exhibition at Wembley, they were off to the World Cup in Switzerland.
It had been sixteen long years since the tournament had been played in Europe. They had reached the Final of that one, but now they were looking to go one better.
Sepp Herbeger was in charge of the new West Germany side. The country was in tatters after the war in so many ways: physically, economically and emotionally. Football hadn’t even returned to action in the country until 1948; three years after peace and victory had been declared by the Allied Forces.
Despite some strong progress being made on the club scene by VFB Stuttgart, many felt that this new-look and reduced German national team had little hope of success when they set off for the World Cup in ’54.
Regardless of such speculation, West Germany and Hungary would meet at the Final in the city of Bern.
Although the Hungarians had gathered huge respect and admiration for their style of play, rumblings still went around that a team from behind the Iron Curtain, so to speak, may not be allowed to win. After all, as we’ve seen in the previous articles in this series, politics often held sway over the tournament.
On a rain-soaked and damaged pitch, Hungary’s ability to use their passing game was under threat.
That didn’t deter the players too much as they raced into a 2-0 lead after just eight minutes. West Germany would claw a goal back quickly through Max Morlock but the debate has rang out ever since that there was a foul on the Hungarian goalkeeper as the cross came in from the flanks.
By the 18th minute, it was 2-2 and despite dominating the rest of the game after this setback, Hungary would lose out to late winner, scored just six minutes from the end. They would become widely-regarded as ‘the greatest team to never win the World Cup’ for many years to come.
Some of their most faithful followers still hold a belief that they were, as alluded to earlier, simply not allowed to win it.
The Legacy of the ‘Arancyspacat.‘
For the West Germans, there was a sense of national euphoria that had not been seen the decade that led to the start of the war. It seemed as though they, as a new democratic state, were being welcomed back into the cultural mainstream and this success laid the foundations for great successes to come in the future.
Hungary, on the other hand, took their defeat with gracious sportsmanship and returned back to their country, once again, as heroes.
Domestically, problems lay in wait for them. In 1963, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising, the country came under severe and brutal repercussions from the Soviet forces. This forced a number of their best and most intelligent players to seek homage with clubs in the west. Mostly in Europe, but some also in the Americas.
The transfer of Puskas to Real Madrid is arguably the most well-known move during this period of exodus.
Alongside the irrepressible talents of Alfredo DiStefano, he would help guide the famous club from the Spanish capital to five European Cups in succession between 1956 and 1960. Their eye-catching playing style was closely observed and then emulated overtime.
Emulated in many places the world over.
As we come to the end of this particular series of articles based around the theme of the international game and its undertones of political influence, yes, it’s fair to suggest that to some people, football became much more than ‘just a game.’
We’ve seen, through a variety of source material, that the ‘Beautiful Game’ can be manipulated and tailored to suit ideologies and agendas. Important aspects of footballing history to know, but there’s something else that we should always bear in mind too.
The game of football is, above anything else, popular for the simple reason that it’s fun.
It bridges class divides and brings endless to joy millions across the globe. It allows people to display their talents and their on the field and their emotions and identity on the terraces. It creates aspiring role models and heroes – with a few villains thrown in too for good measure – and be you a fan of the game itself or not, there’s no denying the allure it has to so many people in this world of ours.