Why you should care
Sixty years ago, the Hungarian soccer team made mincemeat out of British hubris, playing “socialist soccer.” But Hungary couldn’t hold on to its players for long.
“It was like playing people from outer space,” choked England defender Syd Owen, as he walked out of the People’s Stadium in Budapest. May 23, 1954. England had just been trounced by Hungary’s Aranycsapat, the “Golden Team.” Nearly 100,000 fans roared beside the stadium’s giant scoreboard: Anglia 1, Magyarorszag 7. Football’s imperialists had been humbled by a socialist sensation. It was, and still is, England’s worst defeat.
Not four years later, Hungary’s Golden Team began to dissolve. And Hungary, broken and shattered by civil war, would look back at an era that should have ended in world domination. Instead it left its national team soccer’s greatest also-ran.
The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch.
— Gustav Sebes
That game in ’54 was conceived two years before, at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland. Hungary, which had fought in the war on the side of Nazi Germany, saw itself carved up at Yalta, the Crimean city where war leaders divvied up the world in early 1945. By 1949 the Hungarian People’s Republic had been established and a puppet Soviet government, led by Matyas Rakosi, installed.
Hungary was in collective shock. But in Helsinki, its footballers ran amok. Socialism deemed them amateurs, but they blasted favorites Sweden, 6-0. In the final, they dispensed neatly with the fancied Yugoslav team, 2-0.
Key to the Aranycsapat was its coach. Gusztav Sebes, a burly cobbler’s son, had sharpened his managerial skills as a union organizer at a Renault factory in Paris. “The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies,” he said, “but also on the pitch.”
That struggle bled into Sebes’ tactics. Hungary perplexed opponents, combining short passing with fluid field positions and, crucially, deep-lying strikers who were impossible to mark. It was “socialist football,” remarked Sebes. “When we attacked, everyone attacked,” said Ferenc Puskas, who is considered one of the sport’s all-time greats. “In defense it was just the same.”
The onlookers at the Sweden game included Sir Stanley Rous, president of England’s football association. England hadn’t been beaten at their majestic Wembley Stadium for 90 years. They were considered invincible on home turf. Hungary, Rous decided, would give them a good game, and he arranged a match at Wembley in November 1953.
England was supremely confident, not least because of its deadly Blackpool pairing of Stan Mortensen and Sir Stanley Matthews. As the two teams strode on to the pitch in front of 105,000 screaming English fans, captain Billy Wright noticed his opposite number sporting odd, lightweight boots. “We should be alright here, Stan,” he told Mortensen. “They haven’t got the proper kit.”
When we attacked, everyone attacked. In defense it was just the same.
— Ferenc Puskas
The game was a rout. Hungary ran out 6-3 winners. Puskas’ second goal summed up the afternoon’s play: He turned, deft, and dragged the ball back past England captain Billy Wright, who watched his opponent thunder past goalkeeper Gil Merrick on his backside. “When their sixth goal came after less than an hour’s play, no one present would have been surprised had they scored ten,” wrote in The Guardian.
Wounded but certain that the rout at Wembley was an anomaly, Rous arranged a return six months later, this time in Budapest. The English were so blasé that they stuck with the “WM” formation that had been comprehensively unraveled in London. But after 10 minutes, when Mihaly Lantos swept home, the writing was on the wall: Hungary ran out astounding 7-1 victors. “They were the best ever,” said a bewildered Matthews.
If 1953 had shocked the world, 1954’s demolition scared it. Little wonder Hungary headed to that summer’s World Cup in Switzerland as favorites. But despite hammering 27 goals — and surviving a brutal match against Brazil dubbed the “Battle of Berne” — the Aranycsapat fell in the final to West Germany. The game pivoted the fortunes of both countries’ teams in opposite directions.
That week, hundreds of thousands flooded the streets of Budapest, ostensibly to protest the Germany loss, but really against Rakosi’s increasingly repressive regime. The team still went another 18 games unbeaten. But in the winter of 1956, the Hungarian Revolution tore the country to pieces. Stranded during a club match in Bilbao, Puskas and two other core players chose to stay in Spain; Puskas signed for Real Madrid, and the others signed for Barcelona. Puskas even played four times for the Spanish national team. To this day FIFA presents the Puskas Award to the scorer of that year’s “most beautiful” goal.
After Khrushchev’s Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and crushed the revolution, Hungarian football followed. Its clubs would appear in just three more European finals. A slow decline gripped Hungary, whose side reached a nadir in October 2013, when the Netherlands destroyed them, 8-1. It was almost 60 years to the day they thrashed England at Wembley.
Today Hungary sits 44th in FIFA’s world rankings, frozen in self-reflective paralysis. “Hell comes on horseback and leaves on foot” goes a popular Hungarian phrase: In the case of its football team, hell has been crawling out since 1956.