European, World, and European Champions, again: Greatest National Team of all time?

After that sensational performance that night in Kiev; after all those brilliant scenes of joy; of a team that had conquered all, Spain had not only won their third consecutive trophy and completely buried any lingering remnants of the ”perennial underachievers” and ”Nine day wonder” tags, but had stirred up  another controversial debate. The pundits wasted no time in trying to establish the fact that Spain might just be the greatest National football team ever. This assertion is probably not only based on their mersmerising form in qualifiers and tournaments alike, but also by how they’ve stuck to a defined tactical system and still managed to outwit every team they’ve faced, convincingly outplaying even the ”big boys.”

People making this argument have had very little to do in terms of convincing, as their (Spain’s) dominance speaks for itself. Vincente Del Bosque’s team, oozes so much flair and intelligence, with a group of immensly talented dimunitive men. It’s a team whose play evinces a beautiful orchestra effect. A class act, to sum it up. Coupled with being trophy laden, the argument for Spain seems to have gone beyond all reasonable doubt…

The team almost everyone seems to have accepted to be compared to this revolutionary La Furia Rojas side is Mario Zagalo’s great Brazilian team of the 1970 World Cup. That team at the time played some of the most beautiful attacking football there had probably ever been, with some of the best players there were. I use ‘probably’ because, before then, the world had seen some teams very similar, if not different…

Hungary. Yes you read right, Hungary!

The Magical Magyars: The Great Hungarian Team of the 1950s

Nicknamed the Mighty/Magical/Magnificent Magyars, the team heralded as ”The Golden Team” were the world’s unrivaled football super power in the 1950s. I know many people wouldn’t believe it as the tales of this wonderful side have hardly been sufficiently told to this day. It’s almost as if they never existed ; but they did, and they were very dominant and influential. Maybe even more dominant than this current Spanish side…

It all began with the appointment of Gustav Sebes, their legendary coach, in 1936. Sebes, who later on became the trainer at Honved, (one of the two top Hungarian clubs) was a philosophical tactician who believed in tactical innovation as opposed to adopting already laid out systems. Along with his highly intellectual colleagues Marton Bukovi(who managed MTK, the other top side), and the quite infamous Bela Gutmann(who managed Hoved before Sebes), they were credited as the triumvirate that radically laid down a systematic blueprint, known as the 4-2-4 formation, that was to change the dynamics formations in world football.

The aim was to create a team that would dominate world football like
Hugo Meisl’s great Austrian and Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy had done in the 1930s. To do this, they had to prepare thoroughly, which they did. Sebes then began a massive restructuring of the grass root systems to stream line all efforts in Hungarian football towards the success of the National team. According Goldblatt, ”He established a national scouting network, co-opted the entire
coaching fraternity of the Hungarian league in his plans, arranged
special midweek friendlies and training sessions for the national squad
and, above all, experimented with players, tactics and ideas.”
He subjected his squad to regular club-like  training sessions which were unusual, but allowed the team to gel and consolidate their chemistry. He also emphasized rigorous fitness sessions, so as to equip his charges with the required physical demands to play according to his system. Keeper Gryula Grosics recalls ” Every so often we did some military training”.

Gustav Sebes

He carefully assembled a squad with core of key players: Ferenc Deak(early member,expert goal scorer), Péter Palotás and Nándor Hidegkuti (both successive deep lying fowards), Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskás(the potent attacking trio who got the goals) József Bozsik(Play maker) and Gyula Grosics(the goal keeper). These players had played frequently with each other at club level, which helped to facilitate some sort of continuity. The purpose was to tap into the chemistry from club level into the National side. This was vital.

He began implementing his pioneering methods in earnest, emphasizing collective team effort.They attacked together and defended together. The whole team, despite being under a defined formation, exchanged positions during play, as Sebes wanted to cultivate the system of players being able to ”play anywhere”. The secret lay in the dynamism and flexibility, which allowed them to stretch the 4-2-4 into adjusted variations.

An example of the Hungarian Line-up in a variation of the 4-2-4

With the team being moulded in a system that allowed positional versatility and formational variations, it allowed them the freedom to accentuate their attacking potential. And they had the players of technical quality to execute their plans. Striker Puskas said this of their playing style “When we attacked, everyone attacked, and in
defence it was the same. We were the prototype for Total Football.”

Unbeaten Run, Olympics and The Central European International Cup
Hungary’s groundbreaking innovations began bearing fruit by 1950. Prior to 1950, they won the Balkan Cup in 1947, and were leading when the following year’s edition got cancelled. It took them a while to get accustomed to and perfect their system, and when they finally did, they became an unstoppable force. Between June 4, 1950 to July 3 1954, the team went 31 games unbeaten.

Their brilliance came into the spot light especially at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. After years of experimenting players, tactics and ideas, it was their moment to showcase their work to the world in a major tournament. And they did, and in quite spectacular fashion I must say. After brushing brushing Italy, Turkey and Sweden 3-0, 7-1 and 6-0 aside respectively, they met Yugoslavia in the final. They beat them 2-0 win the gold medal. They had arrived.

The following year, Sebes led his men as they arrived in Rome to play the deciding game of The Central European International Cup tournament. This was an international football competition held by certain national teams from Central Europe, which was the predecessor of the UEFA Euro Championship. This edition of the tournament, had started in 1948 with a 6-1 thrashing of Poland (it was held in a league-home/away format over some years). It had reached it’s climax in 1953, against Italy.

They went, they saw, and they conquered, leaving Rome with the ultimate prize, after two goals from Puskas and one from Hidegkuti helped them to a 3-nil win over the Italians. They finished the tournament with 11 points, 3 points clear of second placed Czechoslovakia. They had won the Olympics and conquered Europe, all unbeaten. A legendary era had began.

”Match of the Century”

Captain Ferenc Puskas leads out his team at Wembley

When we walked out at Wembley that afternoon, side by side with the
visiting team, I looked down and noticed that the Hungarians had on
these strange, lightweight boots, cut away like slippers under the ankle
bone. I turned to big Stan Mortensen and said, ‘We should be alright here, Stan, they haven’t got the proper kit’.”
English player Billy Wright.

By this time, the Hungarians were on cloud nine. They were the number one ranked team in the world by both FIFA and Elo and had not lost a single game since May 1950.(24 games unbeaten). They had gone around the world, battering almost every National Team into submission. They induced fear and inferiority in every team they faced, and made sure they left them confessing their superiority. They thrashed, Poland 8-2, Bulgaria,Sweden and Czechoslovakia 5-0 , Albania 12-0, Poland 6-0, Finland 8-0 amongst others in exhibition games. Kocsis, Puskas, Hidegkuti, Czibor and Palotas fired in goals from every angle. Not only did they outplay every team else with attacking football, they did so scoring plenty of goals. ”On fire” was an understatement. They became the team to beat, they became the masters.

Naturally, not all nations wanted to accept the indubitable fact that they were the best, and sought to challenge them in high profile exhibition games. At the forefront of such nations was the Queen’s very own England, who pride themselves as being the inventors/originators of football. The English had just lost only once on home soil against foreign opposition, which had been in 1949 against neighbours the Republic of Ireland. As always(trust the English to hype themselves), the English believed their tactical system(of the traditional WM formation) was far superior to the beautiful 4-2-4 of the Hungarians. They proudly thought they would be no match for them.

The legendary 4-2-4 Hungarian Formation
The traditional WM formation that the English operated.

And so the FA invited Sebes and his team to Wembley on the 25th of November 1953 for an exhibition game.The ever sensationalistic British press labelled it as the “Match of the Century” – pitching the inventors of the game, against arguably the finest team in the world at that time. The stage was set, and infront of 105,000 fans, the Hungarians gave the English a footballing lesson.

6-2 it ended, with the English left to mope over the huge flaws of their WM formation and entire playing philosophy for that matter. That day, Nandor Hidegkuti(who scored a hatrick), made famous the deep
lying center forward role ( quasi ”false 9”). The English had thought
he would be conventionally positioned deep upfront, but he withdrew (quite in
Lionel Messi fashion), into the midfield and displaced all the defenders
marking him, which opened the English defense ajar for  Puskas(scored a
brace) and co to run riot

“We saw a style of play, a system of play that we had never seen before”
“That one game alone changed our thinking. We thought we would demolish
this team – England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the
pupils. It was absolutely the other way.”
the late Sir Bobby Robson.

In what was considered one of the finest performances of all time, Sebes
and his men practically brought England to it’s knees, in the full
glare of the world.The story was legendary, the message was clear and simple ”WE ARE THE BEST”. Interestingly, the embarassment was so intense that six members of the England team – Alf Ramsey,  Harry Johnston, Stan Mortensen, George Robb, Bill Eckersley, and Ernie Taylor – were never called up to play for the three lions again. That game was their last.

The English stubbornly demanded a rematch back in Budapest in the hope of avenging that humiliating debacle at Wembley: a mistake they should have never made. Why? At the Nepstadion in Budapest, infront of 92,000 fans, the Hungarians utterly pulverized the English beyond repairs.

7-1 it finished. A goal feast. The English raised the white flag from beneath the rubble of their own destruction.It was England’s heaviest ever defeat, and the reality dawned on them;they were no longer a super power in football. Both games against the Magyars was a defining moment in football in every
respect, as it no doubt made the English consider a major restructuring
of the their systems. They finally had to admit their’s was inferior, and to learn from the masters.

The day was 23rd May 1954, the day the English became totally convinced they were ”wack.”

1954 World Cup

The 1954 FIFA World Cup was supposed to be that moment, the defining moment for the Magical Magyars. After all their hardwork, innovation and domination, it was only befitting to seal it with a World Cup win to further deepen the mark they made in the annals of world football history. They entered the tournament in Switzerland as red hot favorites(which does not even capture the intensity of expectations).  I mean , winning two tournaments, thrashing the noisy English and being unbeaten since 1950 was more than enough a track record to be tagged as favorites. Infact, it was almost as if they had won the tournament months before competing. Most football fans, who had been won over by their brilliance and charisma , rooted for Hungary to win. They were set on the brink of history, and nothing was going to stand in their way.

They found themselves in group 2, as the seeded side, alongside West Germany, Turkey and South Korea. Being seeded meant they had to play only two matches in the group against the unseeded sides. The teams they met, wished they had never played them. They were mercilessly humiliated and  annihilated to say the least. The Magyars beat South Korea 9-0…9-0!! and West Germany 8-3…8-3!! Winning both games with a 100% percent record and 17 goals sure did send lethal shivers down the spine of the other ”competitors” in the tournament. The Hungarians had their eyes on the prize, and were in no mood to entertain any form of an obstacle course.

They went on to face Brazil in the Quarters. In a match heralded ”the battle of Berne” , the Hungarians faced a Brazilian side that had almost won the world cup 4 years earlier and had also been highly praised for their attacking style. The game was won 4-2 by the magyars, amidst a game that featured uncharacteristic physical battles and multiple fouls. Legend has it that the players fought in the tunnels and dressing rooms after the game, in a game that was worryingly ugly. But the Hungarians couldn’t care less, as it qualified them to face world champions Uruguay in the semis. Uruguay had never lost a World Cup match in their history, winning both previous tournaments they had entered. They were however going to lose that record, as the devastating Hungarians triumphed 4-2  after extra time. It was a game that in stark contrast to the one against Brazil, as both teams ”opened up” and attacked each other, in one of the finest attacking displays in World Cup history.

They were closer now more than ever. Just a game, ONE game, and they would become immortalized….world champions…they could feel it. Standing in their way…..West Germany. Again. The Swiss capital Berne was to hold the final. The Hungarians couldn’t wait.

I reckon they thought ”Ah well, lets just beat them and get it over with.” Complacency, yes, it was complacency, and it was justified complacency, sweet complacency. Could you blame them? They had brushed them aside 8-3 in the group stages, although German Boss Sepp Herberger claimed to have fielded a reserve side. The Germans would be no match, and only a miracle would save them from the utter destruction that was to ensue in Berne…yes…a miracle…only a miracle…

Interestingly, the worst fear of the Hungarians happened right before their eyes. A miracle, which was least expected, did happen. In fact, the final became known as ””Das Wunder von Bern” (“The Miracle of Bern“). It was a literal miracle, because, on paper, the Germans stood no chance, heck, at the end of the first ten minutes, the Germans  stood no chance, as they were already two goals down! The Hungarians meant business.

 But football as it is, a vast valley of emotions  and the unexpected…

Aus dem Hintergrund müsste Rahn schießen, Rahn schießt – TOR, TOR, TOR!” meaning…”Rahn has to shoot from the background, Rahn shoots – goal, goal, goal! -German radio commentator Herbert Zimmermann during that miraculous game in Berne, Switzerland.

The Germans came back from two goals down to win 3-2. An 84th minute Helmut Rahn strike dashed the hopes of the Hungarians. It was harsh…too harsh…after all they’d done…they were crestfallen…

AUS! AUS! AUS! Das Spiel ist aus. Deutschland ist Weltmeister, schlägt Ungarn 3 zu 2!” meaning- “Over! Over! Over! The game is over! Germany are World Champions, beat Hungary 3–2!)-Zimmermann continued.

This is probably the most famous audio clip in German football history, And in sharp contrast, the most disheartening for Hungarians, symbolic of a dream that never was.

And so it was not to be. Sebes and his men, Kocsis(who top scored in the tournament with 11 goals), Puskas, Czibor, Hidegkuti, Grosics, et al, were left dejected. It was their first loss in 4 years. Losing was a feeling they had almost forgotten even ever existed. It was a reality check, and it was hard on them. Way too hard…

The Dutch team of the 70s were not the only great team never to win a World Cup.The Hungarians shared in their misfortune. The unfairness of football epitomized.


The disappointment in Berne proved a heavy blow to their momentum. Nonetheless they stayed at the top for a while, even engaging in another historic match at Hampden park infront of 113,000 fans on the 8th of  December 1954. Scotland were the opponents, who were more or less trying to ”teach England how it’s done”. The Scottish had seen England lose their very footballing dignity at Wembley two years earlier and were determined to beat the Hungarian and get one over their neighbours…WRONG!

The Hungarians beat them 4-2. I guess it’s fair to say that the Scottish at least put up a credible fight, as at some point in the game they actually had a chance of winning, which not many teams can boast of against the Magyars . Puskas even personally congratulated the Scottish after the game.

After the 54′ World Cup heart break, between July 1954 and February 1956, Hungary played a 19 games, winning 16, drawing 3 and losing none.
Despite this, Sebes was sacked in June 1956, which just went to show just how high their standards had reached. He was replaced by Márton Bukovi, a colleague. Sebes however stayed on in a different capacity, as President of the Hungarian Olympic Committee from 1948 to 1960.

The eruption of the Hungarian revolution in October of that same year broke up the team, very much like the Anschluss(the taking over of Austria by Hitler’s Nazi Germany) broke up Hugo Meisl’s Austrian Wunderteam in the 1930s. Most of the players left Honved and MTK respectively, to Spain especially. Puskas as most people quite know joined Santiago Bernabeu’s great Real Madrid side whilst Kocsis and Czibor joined Helenio Herrera at Barcelona.

It was dusk time on one of the greatest eras in football…

This wonderful team shaped the game in many respects. Their doctrine of players being versatile and playing every position, as I mentioned earlier, was the module upon which Rinus Michels refered to in the creation of the Total Football philosophy in the 70s. Total football as we all know evolved through the years into Barca/Spain’s current tiki taka. Although Hugo Meisl’s Austrian side of the 30s have been credited for
playing the earliest form of total football, it was the Hungarians that
clearly enunciated the idea for the world to see.

I noticed from my research that the Hungarians actually pioneered the core elements of the tactical
system the Spanish operate today. In fact, from jux apposing these
two great sides, I observed that the Hungarians were very much
like the Spanish on so many levels, some of which are that:

  • They(Hungarians) also had a defined tactical philosophy(of attacking total football) that was their signature system.
  • Their team was made up of a unique core of players that played
    together frequently at two dinstinct clubs(MTK and Honved) which made
    that connective fluidity flourish within their ranks. According to
    historian David Goldblatt, it also ”ensured that the national team benefited from their familiarity(from club level)”. You may have noticed how the current Spanish side also have a similar
    core of players that play together at club level(ie Real Madrid and Barcelona)
  • They utilized that unorthodox role of the deep lying center forward ,something that inspired today’s ”false nine”.
  • They also considered the Goal keeper as very much a vital part of
    ball play, as he was considered a sweeper, who was also nurtured to be
    comfortable with the ball at his feet.

The coincidental
similarities between the systems of both iconic sides are striking. There is not a shadow of doubt that Barca and Spain’s current philosophy is based fundamentally on
the Hungarian blueprint. Of course, it has morphed significantly and
might not be exactly the same, but it’s only fair that the Hungarians be
given the due credit.

Many teams and managers became inspired by their impressive attacking game. There was a massive  change in formations in world football in the 50s as many teams migrated from using the orthodox WM formation unto the new 4-2-4 formation pioneered by the Hungarians. Brazil utilized the 4-2-4 system and won the 1958 World Cup.

With regards to player recruitment for the National team, the Hungarians again were pace setters using a distinct method. Here’s a paragraph I found on Wikipedia, which I decided to copy verbatim for the purposes of harnessing it’s very essence. Here goes…

”Sebes’s idea of using a core set of players, drawn from just a handful
of clubs, was a new idea that was critical to the success of the team.
Most national teams were selected on the concept of picking the best
players, not the best team; England famously had a selection committee
that selected the team for each game. By using players who were familiar
with each others strengths at a club level, Sebes introduced a sense of
continuity at a national level – something no other nation had at the

At the peak of their powers, the Hungarians beat all of the football super powers then; England, The Soviet Union, Uruguay etc. At a time when the world was firmly divided along ideological lines amidst tension, the magyars were seen as a symbolic embodiment of the communist ideals of the Eastern bloc. The Hungarian dominance of the world football landscape was an expression of power for the iron curtain-ers over the westerners during the cold war.

The Hungarians set a tall list of World records, some of which to date, remain unbroken. I selected some of their most impressive records via Wikipedia. The Hungarians….

  • feature in three of the top 10 highest rated matches all-time, a list of
    the 10 matches between teams with the highest combined Elo ratings (the
    nation’s points before the matches are given) as of July 16, 2010). 
  • hold the world record run: of  42 victories, 7 draws, 1 defeat(the West Germany loss)  between June 4, 1950 to Feb 19 1956, chalking a jaw dropping- 91.0% winning percentage ratio.
  • hold the World Record: strongest power rating ever attained in the sport’s history using the Elo rating system for national teams, 2166 points (set June 30, 1954)
  • hold the World Record: most consecutive games scoring at least one goal: 73 games (April 10, 1949 to June 16, 1957).
  • hold the World Record: longest time undefeated in 20th and 21st centuries: 4 years 1 month (June 4, 1950 to July 4, 1954)
  •  hold the World Record: most collaborative goals scored between two
    starting players (Ferenc Puskás & Sándor Kocsis) on same national
    side (159 goals)
  •  hold the 20th Century Record for a manager: (Gusztáv Sebes)
    highest ratio of victories per game past 30 matches with 82.58% (49
    wins, 11, draws, 6 defeats).
  •  hold the 20th Century Record for Most International Goals: Ferenc Puskás (84 goals)
  • hold the  World Cup Record: 27 goals scored in a single World Cup finals tournament(1954 WC)
  • hold a Precedent: first national side from outside the British Isles to defeat England at home since the codification of association football in 1863, a span of 90 years (Hungary 6-3 England see “Match of the Century” )
  • hold the World Cup Record: highest margin of victory ever recorded in a World Cup finals tournament match ( Hungary 9, South Korea 0 – July 17, 1954)….. etc etc etc..

I can predict just how surprised, impressed and informed most people’ll probably feel after reading this piece, just as much as I was during my research. It is especially hard to believe this ‘tale’ since the current Hungarian side look nothing like it’s predecessors, currently ranked 34th and 47th on the FIFA and Elo Rankings respectively. It is sad that there’s such a disconnection, as normally, such quality is usually sustained over the years. It however  should come as no surprise should Hungary wake up from their deep slumber to reclaim their place in the higher most echelons of world football. Form they say is temporary, but class is most definitely permanent.

At this juncture, I feel it’s now appropriate to ask: after all you’ve learnt about the Magyars, do you think it’s fair for the Greatest National team ever debate to be narrowed down to just Spain(2008-2012) and Brazil (1970)?

Well, YOU be the judge.

*Credit to Wikipedia and ESPN Soccernet for the facts and records and Google images for all the photos*

Fiifi Anaman.  ( @fiifianaman )
Sunday July 22, 2012.