Long before Pep Guardiola, long before Johan Cruyff, long before Rinus Michels, and even before Helenio Herrera, there existed a team, a team that changed the very fundamental foundations of football as we know it today. This particular team is widely considered to be the first great footballing side, dominating football with a never-before-seen swagger and style from 1950 to 1956.
Football at that time was dominated by the old English ethos, and the English national team along with the FA had for long been propagating the ‘WM’ formation which had been pioneered by Arsenal’s talismanic Herbert Chapman in the 1920s. The ‘WM’ dictated that the team’s centre-back would mark the opposition centre-forward out of the game, sometimes with help from the two full-backs if required. This tactic is widely speculated to have been devised to stop Everton’s rampaging Dixie Dean in the late 1920s, after Dean scored 60 goals in the 1927-28 season, a record in English football which stands till this day.
The formation made use of two half-backs in midfield (essentially central midfielders), and two inside forwards playing behind the main three centre-forwards. The formation was very stiff, and there was no real connection to the defence, and each player would only mark one particular player, making it extremely inflexible. The midfielders (half-backs) also connected to the attack only during the counter-attacks, which was what the formation was designed to specialize in.
After Arsenal’s ground-breaking success with the utilization of this formation, it wasn’t long before every other team in the country was implementing it, but none could achieve 100% mastery of the ‘WM’ because they lacked a player of the same caliber as Alex James, who occupied the crucial ‘Inside Forward’ role, an earlier advent of the ‘Playmaker’ (or ‘Trequartista’).
Despite their infamous 1950 World Cup defeat to USA, England was still considered to be one of the best teams of the world. Marching on with immense self-confidence and having defeated the likes of Italy and Portugal, they were scheduled to face a team, a team that was vying with the anarchist England for the title of the world’s best team. England was scheduled to face Hungary, the 1952 Olympic champions and unbeaten since May 1950.
England was to face Hungary on November 25th 1953 at the Old Wembley stadium, a ground where they were unbeaten against any side outside the British Isles in their 90-year history. Proud British journalists hyped up the match to the moon, terming it the ‘Match of the Century’.
“Look at that little fat chap. We’ll murder this lot,” was the infamous pre-match proclamation from the British press, their self-confidence having reached mammoth proportions after Hungary’s 2-2 draw with Sweden in Budapest, ten days prior.
What happened afterwards stunned the flabbergasted 105,000 strong Wembley crowd, and completely revolutionized football as we know it. With their captain, ‘the little fat chap’, Ferenc Puskas orchestrating the fluid side, the ‘Magical Magyars’ proceeded to destroy England 6-3, an English side that consisted the world’s best centre-half Billy Wright, the timeless wonder Stanley Matthews, and future World Cup winning manager Alf Ramsey.
Playing with a hitherto unknown style, the attacking triumvirate of Puskas, Nándor Hidegkuti and Sándor Kocsis ran England ragged with their tactical fluidity and positional interchange, with Hidegkuti occupying the deep-lying centre-forward role, also known as the ‘Playmaker’ role, and played in the ‘hole’. Hidegkuti constantly drew the centre-halfs, Wright and Harry Johnston out of position, allowing Puskas and Kocsis to drive wedges through the English defence, with the home side unsure on how to mark them. They employed a rigid and outdated formation which didn’t allow them to mark more than one player, and the technically and tactically superior Magyars ran circles around them, with Hidegkuti grabbing a hat-trick.
Tom Finney, who watched England’s woe from the Wembley stands, spoke for everyone when he said: “I came away wondering to myself what we had been doing all these years.”
The return fixture in Budapest resulted in even bigger embarrassment for England, with the team suffering a 7-1 defeat, their largest international defeat ever.
The Hungarian team had been a force for years, squatting world renowned teams such as Italy and Yugoslavia, and won the Gold medal at the 1952 Summer Olympics and also won the Central European Championship in 1953 (an early incarnation of the European Championships).
What exactly made Hungary so all-conquering and unbeatable? From the period of 1950-56, the ‘Golden Team’ played fifty matches, winning forty-two, drawing six and lost just one match, the one match that really mattered, the 1954 World Cup Final against West Germany. Here are some of the factors:
Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis
Pretty obvious, as the ‘little fat chap’ was the greatest player of his time, scoring 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary. Nicknamed ‘The Galloping Major’ for his time in the army, Puskas didn’t look like a traditional footballer. He was short, stocky, barrel-chested, over-weight, couldn’t head, and could use only one foot. But he more than made up for it with his exemplary vision, ball skills, and his never-before-seen understanding of the game. The one foot he could use, the left one, was a cracker of a foot, enabling Puskas to score as he wished, and is regarded as one of the finest masters Football has ever seen.
His legacy also includes his fantastic partnership with Argentinian legend Alfredo Di Stefano which was the driving force behind Real’s early domination of the European Cup, and his most famous moment as a Real player came in the 7-3 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 final at Hampden Park, which inspired one young Alex Ferguson watching to a great extent. Not to mention he won the ‘Pichichi’ four times. Not too shabby for a 30+ overweight player, right?
The legend of Kocsis has always been overshadowed by that of Puskas, but Kocsis was a prodigal goal-scorer in his own right, scoring 75 goals in just 68 games with a conversion rate of 1.10 goals per game, and he was also the first player to score two hat-tricks in the World Cup. His aerial prowess bewildered teams throughout the world, and is one of the most underrated players in world history. Only Pele and aforementioned Puskas outscored Kocsis in internationals in the 20th century, and each of them played a much higher amount of matches.
After Puskas was injured in the 1954 World Cup, he became the team’s spearhead, leading them to two of their most famous victories ‘The Battle of Berne’ (the quarter-final against Brazil), and ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’ (the semi-final against their challengers for the mantle of the world’s best, World Champions Uruguay).
The Playmaker – Nandor Hidegkuti
The brain-child of Hungarian manager Gusztáv Sebes, the concept of deep-lying centre-forward was unheard of in the ‘old football’ world. This type of player would play between midfield and attack, without being a true midfielder or forward. Defences would go haywire against Hidegkuti, because they weren’t sure how to mark him. He would dovetail between midfield and attack, essentially pulling the strings, while the Puskas-Kocsis combo ran wild. If the defenders tried to mark Hidegkuti, it would leave space galore, which would be exploited instantly by the irrepressible Puskas. Hidegkuti, just like any Magyar, had excellent ball control, and would spray the ball around after drawing away the unsuspecting defenders. It is regarded as the most crucial tactical innovation of the Magyars.
The earliest form of Total Football – Socialist Football
The main problem of the ‘WM’ formation was that each player had a clearly defined position and the scope for mobility was zilch. The Hungarian team used a ‘4-2-4’ formation, and although each player had a preferred position, if need be, players would interchange positions at the drop of a hat, causing mayhem in the opposition ranks, with teams unable to move as swiftly and fluidly as the unstoppable Hungarians. This was especially true with the attacking trio, as each one would drift in and out of position scoring as they wished. It also enabled players such as József Bozsik to drive forward from midfield. Bozsik primarily ran the strings in the middle of the park, but participated in most of the team’s attacks, and completely revolutionized the concept of a deep-lying midfielder.
The Brazilians were the first to successfully employ this quasi 4-2-4 formation, winning the World Cup in 1958, 1963, and 1970. The legendary astute Dutch tactician Rinus Michels expanded on this idea, and developed the famous philosophy of ‘Total Football’.
Ask any manager and he’ll tell you that a successful club side is always of prime importance for the country’s national side, as long as the players are home-grown. Majority of the players such as Puskas, Kocsis, midfield general Bozsik, winger Zoltán Czibor, defender Gyula Lóránt, and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics played their club football for Budapest Honved, and in this period won the Hungarian League five times.
Manager Sebes effectively utilized Honved as a breeding ground, and it enabled the crux of the side to get accustomed to each other. It was the place where he experimented, mostly successfully.
Following the Honved-Hungary mold, other dominant club-country pairings such as Ajax-Netherlands, Santos-Brazil, Bayern Munich-West Germany, Barcelona-Spain etc. have emerged, following in the footsteps of the Magyars.
They are possibly the most historically influential the world has ever seen, totally reinvigorating the tactical nature of the game. The 1954 World Cup saw them defeat their strongest opposition Brazil and Uruguay, only to falter at the final hurdle. The 3-2 defeat to West Germany, termed ‘The Miracle of Berne’ was the most shocking result in football history, especially after Hungary had walloped the Germans 8-3 in the group stages (although West Germany fielded a weaker team to ‘assess’ Hungary’s strengths and weaknesses).
The match is mired in controversy and it has long been told that Germany used performance enhancing drugs to finally conquer Puskas and co., and Puskas’s equalizing goal in the 87th minute had been ruled offside, despite multiple TV footages later showing that it was indeed a goal. Hungary had been cheated out of their rightful coronation.
After the World Cup, Hungary continued to dominate and seemed to be on collision course with Brazil at the 1958 World Cup, before the team was broken up by the Soviet Invasion of Hungary. This led to most of the vital players fleeing the country, such as Puskas and Kocsis to Spain.
The Mighty Magyars played their last match against the Soviet Union in September 1956, winning 1-0.
A heartbreaking demise of the greatest team of all time.
If only, if only.