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Over the years, especially since the Second World War, international football has seen a number of teams rise to prominence, and then be swept away by the next wave. These teams haven’t necessarily won everything, scooping the board of honours over a given period. More accurately, they have been the teams that have been widely acknowledged as the game’s leaders. The players at the forefront of the game’s development, setting new paradigms and patterns that others have copied or adapted.
Some ended their time in the sun with a hatful of trophies; others entered the field and left again, empty-handed. On occasions, there’s a game when the handing-on of the torch can be identified. In the World Cup of 1974, for example, Johan Cruyff’s ‘Oranje’ destroyed a street-fighter of a Brazil team that would have embarrassed Pelé and the ‘Joga Bonito’ Samba Boys of four years earlier. It was a game when the Dutch ‘Totaal Voetbal’ won the day and cherished the stewardship of ‘the beautiful game’ for a few years. In other times though, the change is seamless, but no less apparent for that.
In the fifties and sixties, two magnificent teams rose above the rest to dominate football for a generation. In the early part of the fifties, it was Hungary and the Magnificent Magyar team of Puskás, Hidegkuti and the cherry-shirted magicians playing under Gusztáv Sebes. The team that went from May 1950 to February 1956, winning 43 games, drawing a mere half-dozen, and losing just one – that one game being the World Cup Final of 1954 – and it denied the Hungarians the crown that would have rubber-stamped their dominance.
As that team declined though, in stepped the Seleção of Brazil, redefining how the game should be played and beating out the rhythm that would charm the global football family until its crowning glory in 1970. Pelé, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Gérson and their collected team-mates painted a different picture, defining football in the bright yellow of their Canarinho shirts. World Cup winners in 1958, 1962 and 1970, their bid for full-time ownership of the Jules Rimet trophy was only put on temporary hold by Sir Alf Ramsey’s ‘wingless wonders’ in 1966, but the Samba rhythm rose again in 1970 when they completed the hat-trick of world titles.
It’s always a good debating point to consider who was the best in their prime. Which team over the last sixty or seventy years would have won out in an all-time competition. Would the team of Puskás be blown away by the Danish Dynamite side that flared so magnificently, but also disappeared so quickly? What about the great Spanish team? With Iniesta and Xavi tapping out the tiki-taka meter in the Roja midfield, would their mood music drown out the Samba rhythm of Pelé’s great Brazil side; which tune would they be dancing to when the final whistle was blown? Consider also the bright ‘Oranje’ flame of Holland’s football with Cruyff bearing the torch and pitting their wits against the French teams of Platini or Zidane? It’s the sort of debate that keeps football fans’ romance of the game in fine fettle, particularly because – as with all of the best questions – it’s one that one can never be fully and completely answered.
In 1966, however, there was a brief moment when two teams met and almost addressed that very issue. Neither were at their prime though, so nothing is definitive. One was a team of heirs to a past glorious era, whilst the other limped into the contest, battered and bruised, and denuded of their best player. It happened in the 1966 World Cup tournament, when Hungary met Brazil on 15th July at Goodison Park. It was also widely regarded as one of the best matches of that, or any other World Cup Finals of the past fifty years or so.
For the Hungarians, the great team of the early to mid-fifties was now but a golden dream, if one that was slightly tarnished by defeat in the 1954 World Cup Final. Sándor Kocsis, Nándor Hidegkuti and the imperious, unparalleled Ferenc Puskás were gone, and a new generation donned the famous red shirts to pick up the heavy baton of legacy. Although the team that visited England in 1966 had none of those great names among them, there were certainly a few bright lights that could still bring a gleam to the eye, and the team was still enjoying much success, even if that may have dipped under the radar of the average British fan.
Skipper Ferenc Sipos was now 33, but with 71 caps behind him, he carried a wealth of experience. He was still the engineer in midfield and, in his third World Cup Finals, had the game knowledge to go with his admirable ability to direct and control a game. Perhaps the stars of the squad though were a brace of young tyros. Ferenc Bene was just 21 years of age, but already had 17 caps to his name. The Újpesti Dózsa forward was fast and direct, with an eye for the spectacular goal. The season before the World Cup, Bene and his Újpesti Dózsa teammates had visited Goodison in a European club fixture. His skills had teased and tormented the Everton defence then. It was to be a prelude to his performance against the Seleção the following year.
The other star would confirm his rise to international prominence in this tournament. Flórián Albert was with the famous Ferencvárosi club and at 24 years of age had already accumulated more than a half century of international caps, having made his debut seven years previously as a precociously gifted teenager. Nicknamed ‘The Emperor’ well before a similar sobriquet was given to Franz Beckenbauer, he was considered to be one of the most elegant of players. Now the flower of his talent was in full bloom.
In the years running up to the tournament, this new crop of Magyar talent had ripened, showing that there was still gold-dust Hungarian football. During the I962 World Cup in Chile, Albert won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer. The team had won the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. This time, Bene was top scorer with five goals. In the same year, they had also finished in third place in the European Championships, after missing out on a place in the final only thanks to an extra-time goal by Spain’s Amancio Amaro. In 1967, Albert would be awarded the Ballon d’Or and lauded as the best player on the planet, beating Bobby Charlton into second place by over two dozen votes. His exploits in England in 1966 would play a huge part in swaying votes in his favour. He would star in the match against Brazil.
Putting aside any ‘home team’ fervour, most pundits expected Brazil to win out in the finals. Having successfully defended their title in Chile in 1962, they had already debunked that old chestnut that a team couldn’t win the trophy outside of its own hemisphere. They had ably demonstrated that during their ‘coming out’ party in Sweden four years earlier. Travelling to the ‘home of football’ to defend the title held no fears.
By now, the boy genius that was Pelé in Stockholm, had now matured into the greatest player of his era. Throw in the other outstanding talents of Garrincha, Denilson, and the as yet untapped talents of Tostão and Gérson awaiting their chance to shine, and a hat-trick of world crowns seemed a likely outcome.
Ahead of their meeting, the two teams experienced different games in the opening phase of the group. On 12th July at Goodison Park, Brazil faced a Bulgarian side that may well have come to a similar conclusion as that mentioned in the paragraph above. Whatever the cause, there seemed an acceptance that they could not overcome their opponents in terms of football. Instead, they launched a level of muscular aggression particularly targeting Brazil’s number ten.
The game started in the grand manner with Pelé scoring from a free-kick inside fifteen minutes, making him the first player to score in three World Cup final tournaments. It was a goal that only ignited the aggression in the Bulgarians, and although there was plenty of robust challenges to go around the rest of the Brazilian team, Pelé was selected for particular attention. Disappointingly, the Brazilian players were offered little protection by German referee Kurt Tschenscher. A second goal by Garrincha settled the issue in favour of Brazil, but the Bulgarians succeeded in kicking the world’s best player out of the next game three days later, when the Seleção would face Hungary. The East Europeans’ coach Rudolf Vytlacil apparently felt little remorse. “I think every team will take care of him in the same manner,” as if declaring it as some kind of tactical innovation.
Despite their impressive run in tournaments heading up to the World Cup, Hungary’s opening game saw them tumble to a defeat against Portugal. A first minute goal by José Augusto put them behind, and it took an hour before Bene could draw things level with an equaliser. The parity lasted just over half-a-dozen minutes however, before Augusto added a second, with Torres netting a third in the last minute. The result meant that to have any meaningful aspiration of progressing from the group, Hungary would need to beat Brazil. The scene was set for an enthralling encounter.
For the Seleção, both Pelé and Denilson were unavailable following the roughhouse opening game against Bulgaria. Into their places stepped Tostão and Gérson; two players who would play major parts in restoring Brazil’s place at the top of the world game four years later in Mexico.
For the Hungarians too, there were changes from the defeat to Portugal. Gelei replaced Szentimihalvi in goal, with Szepesi in for Sovari in defence and Nagy replacing Mathesz further forward. If Brazil were expecting another East European kickabout though, they were to be pleasantly surprised. The Hungarians, heirs of Ferenc Puskás, were of an entirely different stripe to the Bulgarians they had encountered in the first game. Comfortable in their abilities and with a successful record to bolster confidence, they would pit skill against skill and ability against ability, eschewing any temptation to kick at shins rather than leather. Although Brazil were without their greatest player, the team facing the cherry-shirted Hungarians was still worthy of being called the best in the world, and the worth of victory in the game should not therefore be lightly diminished.
The game started in bright fashion, with Lima firing in a shot from some 30 yards that was gratefully tipped over the bar by Gelei. It set the tone for a match of pulsating attack and counter-attack. The first goal arrived not long afterwards. Bene, all lithe movement and pace, receiving a pass from skipper Ferenc Sipos, cut in from the left, dummied across a defender and fired past Gilmar on his near post to put the Hungarians ahead.
Brazil were stung into action and Gérson, exhibiting the range of ability he had been displaying for his club in domestic football, began to demonstrate that whilst his skills were different that of the absent Pelé, he too could influence the outcome of a game. Beginning to establish a pattern in midfield, the Botafogo playmaker swept a ball across the field from left to right. Sensing trouble, Gyula Rakosi, threw himself forward to intercept with a diving header. The ball was struck with such accuracy though, that it eluded the diving forehead. An outstretched hand didn’t fail however, and Brazil were awarded a free-kick midway into the Hungarian half. A hand of apology by Rakosi cut no ice with the referee, and Brazil would deliver punishment of their own.
The free-kick was hammered in hard and low. Sandor Matrai managed to partially block the ball, but it ran free to Tostão, who fired powerfully past a helpless Gelei. With less than fifteen minutes on the clock, the scores were level. It was game on.
For the next fifty minutes or so, the teams exchanged attacking endeavours. Gérson prompted and probed and Garrincha looked dangerous. For the Hungarians though, it was Albert. Dropping deeper at times to engage with his midfield, he swept past opponents with an elegant ease that disguised a searing change of pace. He was a player to the manner born when pitted against opponents who saw such value in the virtue of open play.
Brazil were still world champions though, and although their lustre was inevitably dimmed somewhat without their pearl, they still carried much threat of their own. A thrust down the Brazilian left saw a scrambled cross fumbled by Gelei, but with a yellow short closing in to finish the job, the ball was whisked away by Sipos covering for his errant goalkeeper. At the break the scores were still level.
Early after the restart, it Hungary who came closest. A superb ball by Albert inside the Brazilian left-back set the raid under way, and as the ball was drawn back across the penalty area, Farkas fired wide. Gilmar protested to his defenders, but Albert’s astute pass had opened up the Brazilian backline with nonchalant ease. The Brazilian goalkeeper wouldn’t escape next time. Another raid down the right just past the hour mark, this time by the irrepressible Bene, saw a second chance fall to Farkos. This time, a spectacular running volley brooked no argument from the goalkeeper. It was one of the goals of the tournament, and Hungary were back in front.
Now there was only 25 minutes or so to play, and Brazil began to accelerate their efforts feeling that the game had slipped away from them. Pressing forwards only invited the Hungarian counter-attacks, led in the most by Albert revelling in the space. He had, by now, emerged as the deciding factor in the outcome of the game. One scything run saw him pick up the ball inside his own half. Accelerating between two defenders, he left them floundering in his wake as he approached the Brazil penalty area.
Drawing defenders towards him, he cleverly laid the ball to his right where Bene had moved into the space vacated by the disorder in the Seleção back line. Controlling the ball, the wide man stepped past one challenge, before being brought down in the area. England’s Ken Dagnall, refereeing, had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. There were few arguments, and none about how the penalty was dispatched coolly by Kalman Meszöly with Gilmar merely a spectator.
Hungary celebrated as if they knew it was the winner, but Brazil were anything but a spent force. A free-kick by Garrincha was clipped into the far post. Closing in, Alcindo swept the ball towards goal, but Gelei parried it away for a corner. Pressure mounted, but the red-shirted defenders held out, confidence growing with each passing minute and every cross that their goalkeeper gathered. At the other end, Albert threatened to end any doubts. Running onto a through ball, he skipped around a despairing Gilmar, but forced wide by the goalkeeper’s dive, his shot from a tight angle clipped the post and ran away behind. Following up, hoping for a tap in, Farkas ended up in the net. The ball, however, did not.
Then came the final whistle. Hungarians celebrated, Brazilians looked to the floor, heads bowed. Leaving the field, the triumphant players in cherry red waved to the applauding crowd who had been royally entertained. A good portion of those accolades though were also for the Brazilians who had seen two goals disallowed – correctly – and had contributed in full measure to a game that would live long in the memory of all who had been privileged to watch it live in the stadium, or at home on television.
Brazil now needed to win their final game against Portugal. Otto Gloria’s team had followed up their victory over Hungary with another win, repeating their goal haul but this time without conceding, they were on the crest of a wave and in Eusebio they also had a rising superstar forward.
Nevertheless, despite Gloria being Brazilian, the Portuguese apparently decided to adopt Vytlacil’s tactics with regard to the returning Pelé. Portugal’s João Morais fouled him heavily, and when he attempted to regain his feet to carry on, he kicked him again, but more heavily this time. The ‘tactic’ appeared to work. Morais escaped without even a caution and the world’s greatest player was eventually forced to leave the field, sad-faced, wrapped in a blanket. It’s one of those iconic pictures. Brazil were beaten 3-1 and exited the tournament. Pelé declared that he would not play international football again. Fortunately, it was a decision that he did not stick to.
Hungary went on to beat Bulgaria 3-1 in their final game. It left the tactics of Vytlacil and his team at the foot of the table. It seemed to be justified, although Portugal triumphing at the top was less palatable after their passable impersonation of Bulgaria when faced with Brazil. The goals and charms of Eusebio could not fully hide the way Morais had taken Pelé out of the game.
Finishing second in the group meant a quarter-final tie for Hungary against the Soviet Union. It’s a fixture that was still redolent with political tension and patriotic anger with the crushing of the Hungarian resistance that had driven so many of the country’s footballing stars to quit their homeland, still fresh in the mind of the Magyars. Scores to settle and thoughts of tanks rolling through Budapest were quelled though as what appeared to be a spent and weary Hungarian side tumbled out at the last eight stage of the 1966 World Cup.
The meeting at Goodison Park on 15th July 1966 didn’t settle any issues, about which country had produced the best footballers, or who was the greatest international team of all time. In a World Cup group, however, where the hatchet ruled the heart in other games, it was a chance to savour what the beautiful game could deliver. A Brazil without their best player played against a team whose forerunners would surely have outshone the Hungarian players on the pitch on that day. It mattered little. The point is that it was game worthy of either country at their best, with all stars shining brightly, and that is no small thing.