From Honvéd to Hidegkuti, and Guttmann to the Galloping Major, Hungary’s influence on European football as we know it is both far-reaching and fascinating.
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It was the game that changed everything. But this was no high-stakes knockout tie, nor even a championship joust at the top of the table. It was a friendly, literally played for bragging rights in the days before UEFA club competitions existed. But who could have known that bragging rights would end up bringing such sweeping consequences?
Even before it kicked off at Molineux on 13 December 1954, this game pointed to the future. Wolverhampton Wanderers were one of the first clubs in the UK to install floodlights – opening the door to prime-time televised football – and they had been showing them off against a series of overseas teams. All except First Vienna had tasted defeat, holding on for a 0-0 draw, and next up were Hungarian champions Budapest Honvéd.
Just the mention of Hungary was enough to make English fans queasy. The Mighty Magyars had stunned England with a 6-3 win at Wembley the previous November and followed up with a 7-1 masterclass in Budapest that May. Wolves, as English champions and league leaders, had a chance to set the record straight against familiar tormentors such as Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor.
The problem was that Honvéd were good. Really good. And they led 2-0 at half-time, at which point Wolves manager Stan Cullis instructed the club’s staff and young trainees to water the pitch. Among the latter was future Manchester United boss Ron Atkinson, who later recalled, “We thought he was out of his mind: it was December and it had been raining incessantly for four days.”
The ploy worked, with the waterlogged turf thwarting Honvéd’s slick football. “Their tricks got stuck in the mud,” said Atkinson, who watched as Wolves made hay with their long-ball tactics to pull off a 3-2 comeback win. “There is no doubt in my mind that, had Cullis not ordered me and my mates to water the pitch, Honvéd would have won by about 10-0.”
The English press were not quite so humble – certainly not the Daily Mail, which famously declared Wolves “champions of the world”. Over in France this was too much hubris for L’Équipe journalist Gabriel Hanot. “Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible,” he wrote, “let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: Milan and Real Madrid to name but two. A club world championship, or at least a European one … should be launched.”
With UEFA embracing the idea, the European Cup was up and running by September 1955. The football landscape had been transformed – and, for Puskás, Kocsis and Czibor, the new competition would be a life-changer.
Two years after their trip to Wolverhampton, Honvéd were abroad again. It was November 1956 and the pride of Hungary were in Spain for a European Cup tie against Athletic Club. Back home, however, the country was in turmoil. Protests against the government’s Soviet-imposed rule had escalated into revolution, which was swiftly quelled when the USSR sent in the military. Honvéd’s players decided not to return and contested the second leg of the tie in Brussels; following elimination, suddenly they were stranded.
A fundraising tour of Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Morocco was followed by a trip to play matches in Brazil. But when FIFA decided to ban the club and its players outright, decisions needed to be made. Many went back to Hungary but Puskás, Kocsis and Czibor refused, opting to find new clubs after serving their suspensions. Ultimately, all three of them would leave a lasting imprint on the continental game.
For Puskás, the glory years would come at Real Madrid. He had already struck 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary, helping them win Olympic gold in 1952 and reach the final of the 1954 FIFA World Cup, which he played with a fractured ankle and still opened the scoring in a 3-2 loss to West Germany. Greater feats lay ahead, and though he was 31 when he joined Madrid and “at least 18kg overweight” by his own admission, his magical left foot was as potent as ever.
“If he kicked the ball once, he scored two goals,” said Czibor, summing up the Galloping Major’s finishing acumen. Puskás won three European titles with Madrid and helped himself to 156 goals in 180 Liga games, forming a devastating partnership with Alfredo Di Stéfano that reached its zenith when Puskás struck four and Di Stéfano hit three against Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final. “He is not only world class,” said former Honvéd team-mate Gyula Grosics, “he belongs to the realm of dreams.”
Meanwhile, Kocsis and Czibor ended up at Barcelona. There they joined fellow Hungarian legend László Kubala, who had fled his homeland in the back of a truck in 1949. Together they were part of a team that clinched two Liga titles and progressed to the 1961 European Cup showpiece at the Stadion Wankdorf in Berne – the same ground where they had lost the 1954 World Cup final. Kocsis and Czibor refused to set foot in the dressing room of that painful loss and changed in the corridor, but the result was no better: Barça succumbed 3-2 to Benfica despite goals from both men.
It was not all misery and torment, however. Far from it. The season before, Kocsis had earned sweet revenge on Wolves by scoring four in a 5-2 Barcelona victory at Molineux. Nicknamed Golden Head, he buried an incredible 75 goals in 68 matches for Hungary As for Kubala, he struck seven times in a Liga match against Sporting Gijón in 1952 and still left his coach wanting more. “Kubala scored goals today but he didn’t have a great game,” complained Ferdinand Daučik. “He’s going to need to work to get better.”
Those luminaries formed a golden generation, perhaps the finest of all. Indeed, several greats from that era never received the widespread recognition they deserved, simply because they stayed in Hungary.
Think Honvéd stalwart József Bozsik and Nándor Hidegkuti, scorer of a hat-trick in that famous Wembley win and the Mighty Magyars’ linchpin, thanks to his revolutionary deep-lying centre-forward role.
The innovative position that Hidegkuti occupied was thanks to the ingenious thinking of coach Gusztáv Sebes, who brutally exposed the frailties of the WM formation (3-2-2-3) that was dominant at the time. By falling back into midfield, Hidegkuti would draw his marker with him, leaving space for his fellow forwards to exploit. The key to Sebes’s flexible system was versatility, with his players encouraged to occupy multiple positions during the same game. “When we attacked, everyone attacked, and in defence it was the same,” said Puskás. “We were the prototype for Total Football.”
Hidegkuti eventually enjoyed success abroad when he moved into coaching himself, leading Fiorentina to victory in the inaugural edition of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1960/61. No less impressively, he also took Hungarian outfit Győr to the European Cup semi-finals in 1964/65. However, there is one Hungarian coach who towers above all others when it comes to gauging continental club success: Béla Guttmann.
A Holocaust survivor, Guttmann was a restless manager who knew his worth and spoke his mind. Having played with a 4-2-4 formation (that was an evolution of Sebes’s tactical ideas) while in Brazil, he steered Porto to the Portuguese Liga title in 1958/59. That summer he switched to arch-rivals Benfica, where he off-loaded 20 players, promoted prospects from the youth team and won the league again. The Eagles repeated their success the season after – but, more importantly, also lifted the European Cup. Guttmann’s side edged the Barcelona of Czibor, Kocsis and Kubala in the final to become the first team other than Madrid to claim the prize. They did it again the following year, this time downing Madrid 5-3 in the decider to underline their point.
The image of Puskás handing his shirt to a young Eusébio, scorer of two goals that day, felt like a symbolic passing of the flame; instead it was Puskás’s compatriot who was about to say goodbye. Fortified by this latest triumph, Guttmann asked the Benfica board for a raise. When they refused, he quit, allegedly leaving them with a haunting promise: “Not in 100 years from now will Benfica ever be European champions.”
With the Eagles having lost eight European finals since then, the Guttmann ‘curse’ is yet another facet of Hungary’s extraordinary football legacy.
Words by Chris Burke