It would be both unfair and nearly impossible to compare teams from different eras, given that the evolution of football has been going on for more than a century and a half now. However, any time there is a debate on the world’s best ever team, a strong case can be made for the Magical Magyars. The names of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik, Zoltán Czibor, Nándor Hidegkuti and Gyula Grosics are all well-known and revered across the globe.
Over a not-so-short period of time between 1950 and 1956, “Aranycsapat” (the Golden team), as they were called back home, were an unbeatable machine. They lost just once in 57 games over seven and a half years, albeit that loss came in their most important match, the World Cup final.
Even more importantly, their influence on football tactics has been profound and long-lasting, as even some of the most modern features in today’s game, like the false nine, the sweeper-keeper and the Raumdeutung, were in fact introduced by Gusztav Sebes more than 60 years ago.
The English-speaking world got to know them all too well in November 1953, when they crushed England 6-3 at Wembley, becoming the first non-British side to win on English soil. The return game in Budapest ended in a 7-1 drubbing, still regarded as England’s biggest defeat ever.
Just like the most successful national teams nowadays, Sebes tended to choose players from just a few teams, in order to improve teamwork. Most of them played for Honved, the army club, and MTK, which was controlled by the Secret Service.
The story of Aranycsapat began in 1949, at MTK Stadium in Budapest (incidentally the setting of the famous “Escape to Victory”), where coach Marton Bukovi had to cope with losing a strong and powerful centre forward named Roberto Höfling. Instead of searching for a similar player, Bukovi decided to tweak his tactics a little.
At the time, nearly all of the top teams used the WM formation, with strict positions and duties, both in attack and defense. Bukovi’s idea was to pull his center forward back by some 20 meters, roughly to the position we call “number 10” these days. In a way, it was similar to what the famous Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ did before the war, but put on a whole different level.
This innovation allowed the player acres of space, as was proved by Hidegkuti’s role in the famous Wembley win. The defenders, used to literally holding on to their rivals up front, were completely perplexed. As Harry Johnstone, who was in charge of Hidegkuti that day, said to Stanley Matthews on their way to the changing rooms at halftime:
“Stan, do I stay or do I go?”
Sebes was glad to embrace the idea and build from there. In the days long before the internet, when football was still rarely seen on TV, it took the world some time to get accustomed.
The introduction of the “Hidegkuti position” (although it was Peter Palotas who played it for both MTK and country before 1953), or “the false nine” as we know it today, would lead to another modern concept, embodied in Thomas Müller – the Raumdeutung. Searching for free space is a key attacking duties nowadays, but it was the Hungarian team of the 50’s who first brought the concept forward.
Hidegkuti’s shift closer to central midfield helped the Hungarians have a numeric advantage in key areas of the pitch, where Bozsik pulled all the strings. That also enabled Sebes to move his defense-minded left half (usually Zakarias) closer to central defense. That move would be very important, as by the end of the decade it would lead to the four-man defense, which has remained prevalent to this day.
‘Total football’ is another pillar of the modern game. It is widely known that the system was introduced in the Netherlands by the great Rinus Michels and championed by Johann Cruyff.
Michels’ system, however, was predated by the Magical Magyars by a good two decades. Every player in Sebes’ team was expected to fulfill various duties on the pitch, regardless of their primary position.
That included Gyula Grosics, a top class goalkeeper, whose regular rushing out of his penalty box helped introduce what we know as the “sweeper-keeper” role. In the following years many keepers, most notably in Eastern Europe, followed his lead, but it was only with Manuel Neuer that the phenomenon became so well known.
All of these factors created great fluidity on the pitch that was almost impossible to match and which helped the Hungarians press their rivals much harder than anyone before. These days the Aranycsapat formation is sometimes described as 2-3-3-2, while others call it 3-3-4. With so many differing roles and specialized positions, it may as well be called the asymmetric 2-1-1-1-1-2-2.
To be fair, with the likes of Puskas and Kocsis upfront, Bozsik dictating the play, Czibor and Hidegkuti popping up and Grosics on goal, Hungary would have played a significant role in those days even without all the innovation. After all, the team featured in the World Cup final in 1938 as well. Still, what they achieved in six years with Sebes was amazing.
In 1952, they won the Olympic football tournament with five straight wins, 20 goals scored and only two conceded. At the time many nations across the globe, including all of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, took their strongest teams to the Olympics, making it the most prestigious tournament in between World Cups.
Going into the 1954 World Cup, the Hungarians were favorites to win. Their huge win against the Koreans was expected, but the 8-3 scoreline against Germany sent shockwaves around the globe. Hungary’s quarterfinal win over Brazil was marred by violence on the pitch, but Sebes’ side proved just as tough as they were mesmerizing.
In the semis Hungary were to play the defending champions from Uruguay. Los Charrúas had been playing non-South American teams since the 1924 Olympics and had never lost a single game, winning two Olympic golds and two World Cups. In a brilliant display of attacking football on both sides, extra-time was needed to determine the winner, and in the end it was Hungary.
The only thing standing between the world’s finest team and the World Cup trophy was the same German team that had conceded eight in the group phase match. Puskas was back in the team despite an injury that had kept him out of the previous two games, and he helped Hungary to a 2-0 lead after only eight minutes, only to see the Germans equalize over the next ten minutes.
In a dramatic encounter played through heavy rain, it was German persistence that won over Hungarian skill on the day. Helmut Rahn scored the shocking winner six minutes from time, and Puskas’ late effort was ruled out for offside. The Germans had conjured up a Miracle in Bern, and Aranycsapat suffered their first loss in 49 months.
Just ahead of the final game, they reached an Elo rating of 2166, which would not be surpassed until Germany won the 2014 World Cup. The Hungarians scored 27 goals in five World Cup matches, a record that is likely to stay untouched forever.
The end of the golden era was sudden, and completely unrelated to football. In the autumn of 1956 the Hungarian people attempted to overturn the Communist government and reintroduce democracy. In late October, the Soviet Army occupied the country, causing numerous deaths and a new wave of refugees.
The Honved team was out of the country at the time, playing European Cup games against Athletic Bilbao. That gave some of the players the opportunity to stay abroad. Puskas moved to Real Madrid, becoming a key part of the team that would go on to win five straight European Cups, while Czibor and Bozsik ended up at Barcelona.
Ironically, the last team to suffer a loss to the Magical Magyars was the Soviet Union, on 23 September 1956. The Soviets were rather ambitious and their team would go on to win the introductory EURO in 1960.
They had been unbeaten at home until that day, but Czibor managed to score the only goal of the match. Fittingly, the team was coached by Marton Bukovi, who had taken over from Sebes half a year earlier.
After that, Hungary would never come close to dominating the game again. During the 70s and 80s they enjoyed some success at club level, while their national team occasionally managed to make it to the World Cup. From 1986 forward, they would disappear from the map. Last month’s EURO playoff win means that next summer, Hungary will play at their first major competition in 30 years.
The Magical Magyars were just another chapter of the great Central European football story. For a quarter of a century, the world’s finest football was played in a relatively small area of Europe. It started with the Italian World Cup double in the 30s, crossed over the Alps to the shores of the Danube, where Matthias Sindelar led the Austrian Wunderteam, before his country was swallowed up by Nazi Germany just before the start of World War ll.
The horrors of the war left deep scars all across the region, but it was through football that the healing process began. ‘Il Grande Torino’ was the dominant force for years after it, until the tragic Superga air disaster, before the pendulum swung back to the shores of the Blue Danube with Puskas and co. Even the side that beat them to the 1954 World Cup was a Central European neighbor – Germany.
Only the emergence of the all-conquering Brazilian team that would win the 1958 World Cup would move the dominance back to South America. Even though Pele’s wonderful attacking skills grabbed all the attention, the basis for their success was laid by further developing the Hungarian pattern and introducing the four-man defense for the first time ever. Little wonder, considering that Béla Guttmann, Honved manager at the time of the 1956 revolution, ended up coaching Sao Paulo and the Brazilians the Hungarian way. But we’ll save that story for another day.