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Magyar Moments: A World Cup Story of Football and Revolution in Hungary


by Danny Evans


In the years after the Second World War, while Stalin’s lap-dogs consolidated their power in the Hungarian government, a far more liberating experiment was underway in Hungarian football.  Based upon a fluid, attack-minded passing game, the Magical Magyars, as they became known, played like Brasilians before Brasil.  Their philosophy was summed up by the legendary Ferenc Puskas; “When we attacked, everyone attacked, and in defence it was the same.  We were the prototype for Total Football.”  The coach, Gusztav Sebes went further and, in sentiments that would be echoed by Shankly, described the style as “socialist football.”

This ‘socialist football’ was based around the innovative idea of two inside forwards, Puskas and Sandor Kocsis, forming the main prongs of attack while the centre forward, Hidegkuti dropped deep.  The development of such tactics was aided by the fact that most members of the team played domestically for the Hungarian army side, Honved, for which national service was used to recruit talent.  This combination of factors helped Hungary become one of the finest teams to grace the world stage, a reputation cemented by their victory in the 1952 Olympic Games, which came half way through a four year unbeaten run.

1953 saw the side travel to Wembley for a match with England, the lofty ‘inventors’ of the game, who had never been beaten on their home turf.  Sebes used every match as an opportunity to motivate his players with political rhetoric and, if they needed any further motivation for a contest billed as being between the two best sides in the world, here they had the opportunity to prove to arrogant imperialists the innate superiority of the ‘socialist’ system.  England did little to alter their reputation for arrogance, with one player infamously reported to have remarked on taking the pitch “look at that little fat chap.  We’ll murder this lot.”  Unfortunately for the lackeys of capital, the ‘little fat chap’ was Ferenc Puskas, who went on to flummox Billy Wright with the first ever televised drag-back before scoring one of his two goals in the 6-3 thrashing dished out to England.  During the 90 minutes, Hungary had 35 shots to England’s 5.  In The Times’ match report, Geoffrey Green wrote that England had “found themselves strangers in a strange world, a world of flitting red spirits, for such did the Hungarians seem as they moved at devastating pace with superb skill and powerful finish in their cherry bright shirts.”

If it dawned on the English players that they had been outclassed, it was viewed more as an anomaly by the FA, and a return match was hastily arranged for Budapest.  A million Hungarians applied for the 100,000 tickets available.  Stories abound of ticket-holders smuggling carrier-pigeons into the ground and, once through the turnstiles, releasing them with their tickets attached.  The tickets would then be flown home to be re-used by relatives waiting in the loft! 

England played the game with unchanged tactics and were duly annihilated 7-1.  Stanley Matthews hailed the Hungarians as “the best team I ever faced.  They were the best ever.”

By the time of the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, this ‘golden team’ were undisputed favourites.  Pressure from the adoring public, and, more sinisterly, from a totalitarian government desperate for national unity in the face of increasing unrest, was brought to bear, but initially everything went to plan.  In their by now customary fashion, Hungary dispatched South Korea 9-0.  Facing the widely detested West Germans, playing in their first World Cup since the war in neutral Switzerland, they again put on a show, winning 8-3.  But this result was a little deceptive, as the Germans, anticipating a loss, had put out a reserve side.  Puskas, meanwhile, injured his ankle and was pulled out for the next two games.

In the knock-out stages Hungary faced Brasil in what was to become known as the ‘Battle of Berne’.  In a 4-2 win, Kocsis scored while having his shorts pulled off and fights on the pitch were carried on off it after an invasion of the Hungarian changing rooms during which the coach Sebes is said to have been bottled.  Brasilians, eh?  Nothing changes.  Uruguay in the semis also provided problems and, although Hungary won again 4-2, they arrived for the final, where they would face West Germany for a second time, with bruised and heavy legs.

Somewhat controversially, Puskas declared himself fit for the game.  Although the side was not short of world class players, Puskas remained a talismanic figure.  Short and stocky, woeful in the air and notoriously one-footed – he once declared that “If you kick a ball with two feet you end up on your arse” – his skill with his left foot made his inclusion a risk seemingly worth taking.

The match took place in the Wankdorf Stadium (aaahhaahaahahahaha!) in Berne in the midst of downpours that had beset the city for days.  In Germany heavy rain was known as ‘Walter’s Weather’ due to their captain, Fritz Walter’s reputation for only playing well when wet.  Nevertheless West Germany were underdogs, and few were surprised when Hungary took an early 2 – 0 lead, with Puskas scoring one.

Showing an annoying tenacity and resilience that was to become familiar, however, West Germany pulled back, and the sides went in at half time level.  It must have begun to dawn on the tired Hungarians that it wasn’t to be their day as, during the second half, they peppered the German goal to no avail.  They hit the post, the bar and had a shot cleared off the line.  Then, with 6 minutes remaining, Rahn, the German winger, scored.  With two minutes left, Puskas thumped home what could have been a redemptive equalizer, but it was disallowed, questionably, for offside by the English referee.  In disbelief, Hungary suffered their first defeat since 1950. 

They had been imperious, playing the game as it had never been played before; the great teams that were to come, most obviously the Brasilian and Dutch sides of the ‘70s, played in their footprints.  They had carried all before them, but lost when it really mattered.

And it did really matter.  On the journey home, the team train was stopped and the squad taken to dinner by top bureaucratic scumbags.  In the speech that followed, the side was assured that there would be no consequences.  This seems like an extraordinary ‘assurance’ for a political official to make during an unannounced meeting with a football team, and its significance was not lost on those present; there would be consequences.  Within the year the goalie Grosics had been arrested on a charge of treason.

But the consequences went beyond the team itself.  In Hungary the national football side was not just a vehicle for political propaganda, but was also seen by the people as an outlet for Hungarian expression, one of the only areas resisting ‘Russification’ as the Kremlin practiced old fashioned empire building.  Such was their importance, they could mock politicians with impunity.  After defeat in the final, riots in Budapest lasted three days, and took on a political character, possibly even surpassing the levels of consciousness exhibited by Josh and Lawrence when they banged their hands on that Volkswagen after Euro ’96.

The riots were an expression of a rising mood of discontent and rebellion in the country.  The death of Stalin and the slight relaxation of governmental terror in Russia had a trickle down effect on the satellite states.  Vacillating and confused government policies, as hard-line Stalinists competed for influence with the reformist Imre Nagy, were taken advantage of by Hungarian writers and students, who gained in confidence and audacity, calling for greater freedom of expression and independence from Russia.   

On the 23rd October 1956 a demonstration making clear these demands was denounced as ‘fascist’ by the state radio in Budapest, which led to a demonstration outside the station doors.  When a delegation in the station building failed to reappear after a couple of hours the mood in the crowd outside grew tense and suspicious.  As anger mounted, the AVH, the Hungarian ‘secret’ – but uniformed – police opened fire into the peaceful demonstrators.  Fighting then continued through the night, and the Hungarian revolution was underway.

Encouraged by the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt a few months previously, and on request from the Hungarian government, Russian tanks were sent to crush the uprising.  In the street battles that followed, the students and intellectuals that had first articulated the demand for greater freedom were outflanked by the Hungarian working class.  The uprising was given a strongly social revolutionary character as a general strike gripped the country and worker’s councils were set up in the factories and industrial districts of Hungary.  The fiercest fighting took place in the areas with the roughest reputations; intellectuals and students expressed amazement that the demands they had hoped to impress on the top level of government were being carried forward and expanded by the anti-social school kids and small time gangsters known locally as ‘the yobos.’  Over the coming weeks the revolutionary fighters came to be known affectionately as ‘the boys’, even the girls.

Soviet troops were amazed to find that they had been sent to fight working people and not fascists and initially there were several instances of fraternization.  An occasion when Russian tanks joined a Hungarian demonstration was only ended by sudden machine gun fire from nearby roof-tops, presumably fired by the AVH, leaving several dead and causing paranoia and panic.  This wasn’t helped by the efforts of Radio Free Europe, the Cold War broadcasting service of the West, which spread lies and disinformation about the uprising in the hope of giving it a right wing character.  The revolution had its grim side, and the opportunity was taken by reactionaries to crawl out of the woodwork, but the central thrust was strongly socialist and based primarily around the democratically elected workers’ councils which coordinated resistance while presenting the revolutionary programme to both the government and the people.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops at the end of October was a temporary tactical measure.  The councils did not disband, the general strike did not end, the need for change was felt all the more by the people after seeing friends and relatives killed for its sake.  The second Soviet intervention was more disciplined and determined.  15 armoured divisions, comprising 6000 tanks, were sent to fight a barely armed people.  The fighting was fierce but doomed.  Above all it was brave; young and old chose to fight to the death rather than meekly surrender to a life of compromise and submission.

Even when the fighters were crushed and their sympathizers in government, including Imre Nagy, abducted, the workers’ councils refused to stop practicing their direct democratic challenge to totalitarianism.  In an increasing atmosphere of repression they held out as the last revolutionary outpost, on general strike and defiant to the last, eventually crushed after months through government violence, arrests and military occupation of factories. 

While this was going on the Honved football team were in Spain for a European game.  Most decided to stay put.  As a result they were banned and pilloried by the Hungarian government.  After months without a contract, during which time he put on a huge amount of weight, the ageing Puskas was offered a contract by Real Madrid.  Based around the attacking partnership he formed with Di Stefano, Puskas and Real won the next 6 consecutive European cups.  Kocsis meanwhile went to Barcelona.  While it is apparent that Puskas, ideologically uncommitted, took up a contract at the first opportunity, there may well be a story behind the Kocsis move; a defector from a country in revolutionary ferment who ended up playing for Catalonia’s rebel club in Franco’s Spain.  But if there is I haven’t heard it.

Sebes was replaced in 1956 by an ideologically sound committee and this committed socialist had to pick over the bones of a faith betrayed by totalitarian bureaucracy and drowned in blood.  Another Hungarian coach, Bela Guttman, left in 1956 for South America, exporting Hungary’s footballing revolution to Brasil.

If the legacy of the Hungarian revolution can be found in the undying hope of a repressed people in the face of overwhelming odds, the liberating spirit in which they played their football continues to be a reason to watch the game.  If the revolution they made, which was ‘more democratic than the capitalist West and more socialist than the Soviet East’, is ever to be revisited, the collective self expression that Shankly and Sebes saw in football will be released from the motives of commerce to animate society at large.









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