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When Hungary looked as though they were about to rule the football world, the country had a revolution and the team dubbed the best on the planet all but broke up.
In September 1956, Hungary won 1-0 in Moscow in a friendly, an impressive result in front of 102,000 people against a Soviet Union team that included the great Lev Yashin. The Soviets were not happy and in the days that followed, tension between Hungarians and their overlords began to rise. Indeed, the victory in the Lenin Stadium was, to some extent, seen as a symbol of defiance.
When the unrest reached boiling point, Hungary’s golden team had the heart ripped out of it. Goalkeeper Gyula Grosics fled the country with his family, only to return, but others, such as Ferenc Puskás, Zòltan Czibor and Sàndor Kocsis, all departed, Puskas eventually joining Real Madrid, after an enforced absence, and Czibor and Kocsis signing for Barcelona.
Meanwhile, what was left of Hungarian football had to try and qualify for the next World Cup in Sweden. In 1954, of course, they were considered to be the best team, tragically succumbing to West Germany in Berne.
By the time Hungary embarked on their qualification programme in June 1957, their team looked somewhat different to their previous game in Vienna against Austria, just a couple of weeks before the uprising. They lost 2-1 to Norway, but it was the only setback as they won through to Sweden. But despite being in a group that included hosts Sweden, Wales and Mexico, Hungary failed to get past the group stage in Scandinavia.
Something was stirring, though that would take Hungary beyond being just reasonable as an international force. They may not have been the artists of old, but Hungary, with a socialist model that saw the benefits of muscular and virile sportsmen representing the nation, became one of the handful of eastern bloc countries presenting a formidable face to the west. Budapest bid to host the 1960 Olympics, and in the game in Italy, they were seventh in the medals table with 21. Poland and Czechoslavakia were also among the leading medal winners and in forthcoming games’ the communist nations would sweep-up medals withg alarming regulatory across most disciplines.
Hungary won the bronze in the 1960 Olympic football tournament, losing 2-0 to Denmark in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, there were signs of a new batch of Magyars emerging who could look the golden team in the eye. Flórián Albert of Ferencvaros was the shining light who was seen as a worthy successor to Puskas and his team-mates. Albert, the son of a blacksmith, was just 18, but within two years, he was listed among the candidates for the Ballon D’or, along with three other Hungarians – Újpesti Dózsa Jànos Göröcs and Ernö Solymosi and Lajos Tichy of Honved. Tichy was a prolific scorer who had the dubious nickname of “the nation’s bomber”, long before Gerd Müller was given the same title for Germany.
Hungary reached the 1962 World Cup in Chile and in the group stage, beat old rivals England 2-1, Tichy and Albert scoring the goals. They won the group but were knocked out in the last eight by an impressive Czech team. Two years later, Hungary qualified for the final stages of the European Nations Cup, but were beaten by Spain. By now, they had in their ranks Ferenc Bene, a 19-year-old winger from Újpesti Dózsa. Bene was soon recognised as a hot talent, but there was no way anyone outside Hungary was going to gain access to him.
Hungarian teams were faring well in European competition, which underlined the strength in depth in the domestic game at the time. Between 1962 and 1968, a Hungarian team reached, at least, the quarter-finals of the three European competitions – European Cup, European Cup-Winners’ Cup (ECWC) and Inter Cities Fairs’ Cup. MTK contested the final of the ECWC in 1964, Ferencvaros won the Fairs’ Cup a year later and in 1968, Fradi were beaten by Leeds in the final. Hungarian teams were considered tough, especially on their own ground.
In 1964, Hungary won the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics, beating Czechoslavakia 2-1 in the final. Bene was the competition’s top scorer with 12 goals. It was clear there was still good momentum in Hungarian football.
Their form in European competitions and their Olympic squad – there was a blurring of the lines between amateur and professional status given that eastern bloc footballers were considered soldiers first, sportsman second and therefore debatable ‘amateurs’ – meant that they went into the 1966 World Cup in England as dark horses for the title. Bene and Albert were now acknowledged among Europe’s most promising players and certainly among the finest behind the “iron curtain”. Hungary were reputed to be attack-minded, using 4-4-2 to good effect, but they went to the north of England fearful that the flamboyant Brazilians and Portuguese would expose deficiencies in the system. They didn’t have to worry much about Brazil, whom they beat in style 3-1 at Goodison Park with the scouse crowd singing the praises of Albert. Hungary finished second in the group, earning them to a quarter-final against the Soviet Union at Sunderland’s Roker Park.
Not for the first time, Hungary found the physical Soviets too much, although it is worth noting that after 1956, they always struggled to get a result. Conspiracy theories aside, Hungary were undone by a goalkeeping error early on, Joszef Gelei dropping a shot and gifting Igor Chislenko with a tap-in. Valery Porkuyan added a second after 46 minutes, bundling the ball over the line at the far post. Bene pulled one back on 57 minutes to announce an all-out attempt to save the game, but the Hungarians ran out of steam.
Hungary had made their mark, however, and their performances in the early 1950s had left them with many friends in England. Nobody was under any illusions, though, the 1960s Hungarians were not a patch on their predecessors.
But in 1967, Flórián Albert was named European Footballer of the Year, finishing way ahead of runner-up Bobby Charlton of Manchester United. Albert was Hungary’s golden boy, an elegant performer with two food feet and an uncanny ability to caress the ball with his passing and vision. Although his emergence softened the pain of losing the talismanic Puskás, his style was more in keeping with that of Sandor Hidegkuti.
Hungary’s fortunes were beginning to decline. In the 1968 European Championship, they were beaten by the Soviet Union once more in the quarter-final play-offs, and in 1970, they were missing from the Mexico World Cup, a costly 3-2 defeat in Denmark costing dear although it was a play-off with Czechoslavakia that eliminated them. In the Olympics, they won gold again in 1968
After 1972, it was virtually all over, with Hungary losing 1-0 in the semi-final to [who else but] the USSR in Brussels and the Olympic team earning a silver. The question is, would Hungary have achieved more if they had not bumped into the Soviets in big competitions on such a regular basis?
Since then, it has been a grim story, not just on the international stage, but also on the domestic scene. It’s often easy to overlook the fact that Hungary is a small country, its population has not grown much since the 1950s, but what has changed is the appetite for its own football. In 1961, the average crowd for top level games was 13,000 and rose to 16,000 in 1964. Ferencvaros, the most popular (and most hated!) club was averaging 43,000 in 1963-64. Today, “Fradi” draw 9,000 their gleaming green and white stadium.
Players like Bene and Albert are a reminder, however, that Hungarian was not just about Puskas, that the system was capable of producing outstanding talent even after political and structural upheaval. Could it happen again? Let’s hope so, but the football world may not allow it. We live in interesting, commercial and globalised times.