The Vanished Magic of the Magyars – Hungarian Football: An Incurable Decline

In 1986 a book titled Gyogyitatlan was published in Hungary. On the cover was a female football player, down on her knees in the grass of the pitch. She was kneeling at the edge of the goal while holding a candle, in front of her was a football. Her head was bowed as if in mourning. The title of the book, roughly translated meant: Hungarian football is incurable. Not much has changed since the book was published. The last time the Hungarians actually made the World Cup was that same year, 1986 in Mexico City. They did not acquit themselves very well. Their first loss was a humiliating 0 – 6 defeat to a Soviet Union side which was not exactly a juggernaut. The Soviets failed to make it past the second round. In their final game, the Hungarians were matched against France. The winner would advance to the second round. The Hungarians failed to score a goal. Thus, they left Mexico City after being shut out twice. Their lone victory was over Canada, a nation that can hardly be called a football power.

The Magical Magyars - during the glory years

The Magical Magyars – during the glory years

Magical Magyars – The Golden Team
It was not always this way. During the middle of the 20th century Hungarian football was known for path breaking skill and innovation. This reputation lives on half a century later. Anyone who has spent time in Budapest has almost certainly seen the memorabilia for sale celebrating the “Magical Magyars” or “Golden Team” of the early 1950’s. Replica jerseys of that team’s star player, Ferenc Puskas, one of the great footballers of all time are on sale at tourist outlets across the city. The “Magical Magyars” dominated football like no other nation before or since.

From 1950 to 1956 they won 42 internationals, drew seven times and suffered a single defeat. This record included an incredible 6 – 3 destruction of England at Wembley in 1953. This was followed by an even more decisive 7 -1 victory at Budapest over the same English side in 1954. All the while, Puskas reigned supreme. His teammates such Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti and Gyula Groscis were superb. The team was known for its excellent level of physical fitness, versatility and tactical innovation.

Ferenc Puskas in action against the West Germans during the Miracle of Bern

Ferenc Puskas in action against the West Germans during the Miracle of Bern

A Battle & A Miracle – Bern in 1954
The “magical Magyars” arrived at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland as heavy favorites. They had gone several years without a defeat. This included a dominating performance at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Getting through to the final of the World Cup was not without its trials. They fought their way through the tournament in the most literal sense. In the quarterfinals, what became known as the Battle of Bern took place against Brazil. The Hungarians won a brutally physical contest. Fisticuffs continued off the pitch, as the teams squared off in a locker room brawl afterward.

A victory over defending champs Uruguay put Hungary into the final. They would face a West German team they had resoundingly defeated earlier in the tournament 8 -3. It looked as though yet another Hungarian triumph was a formality, but the West Germans had not fielded their best side in the preliminary match. They held back many of their stars, resting them for later in the tournament. The West German which Hungary faced in the final was quite a different force from what they had seen earlier. In addition, the Hungarians were hurting. In the first match against the West Germans, Puskas had been kicked and badly injured his ankle. Though he was able to play in the final, he was not at full strength.

The match took place in a drenching rainstorm. The wet, muddy conditions slowed the Hungarians vaunted attacking style. Nonetheless, they started brilliantly, taking a 2 – 0 lead a mere eight minutes into the game, but that would be the extent of their scoring. The West Germans found their footing and tied the score by the eighteenth minute. Over an hour of time would pass before another goal, but once again it was the West Germans who pushed it through as they took the lead for good in the 84th minute. With only two minutes remaining Puskas, despite his ankle injury scored and tied the game, but the goal was disallowed when he was ruled off-sides. The Hungarians went down in defeat. No Eastern European side has come as close to winning the World Cup since that time. As a matter of fact, not one has made it into the final since then. The Magic of the Magyars vanished that day. The final became known as the Miracle of Bern.

Sporadic Displays of Greatness Amid Decline – Hungarian Football Post-Revolution
It would be wrong to see the 1954 World Cup Final as the beginning of a decline in Hungarian football. The failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution sent many of their greatest players such as Puskas into western exile, but this did not preclude success in the coming decades. Hungary made the quarterfinals in both the 1962 and 1966 World Cups, losing by a single goal to fellow Eastern Bloc allies, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union respectively. It was not until the late 1980’s that the decline in Hungarian football had become firmly established.

The fall of the Iron Curtain only exacerbated matters as state support for the national side crumbled. The best players left the domestic league for better salaries and opportunities in the west. The domestic league was riddled with poor quality football and low attendance. This nadir has been most acute in the post-Communist era. The national side has failed to qualify for the finals of a major international competition since the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The meaning of that book entitled Gyogyitatlan now seems prescient. Hungarian football seems incurable.

Gyogyitatlan - Trying to cure the incurable

Gyogyitatlan – Trying to cure the incurable

Defeat In Victory – The Future of Hungarian Football
The qualification for the 2014 World Cup did not offer much hope. Many observers felt that Hungary’s 1 – 8 loss to the Netherlands in October 2013 was the ultimate embarrassment. Though that defeat was the worst loss in Hungarian football history, the Hungarians could at least take heart in knowing that Holland is one of the best football sides in the world. Ironically, it was a 2- 0 victory over Andorra later that spring that may have been worse. The Andorran side has only managed to win three international matches in their entire history, this against a record of 104 losses. It took the Hungarian team 51 minutes to score their first goal in the match. They only sealed the victory after the Andorrans scored an own goal late in the game. The Hungarians had avoided a humiliating loss, but their victory was reflective of the state of Hungarian football: lackluster, stale and uninspired.

From Olympic Champions and runner-ups in the World Cup to barely escaping defeat at the hands of Andorra in a World Cup qualification match, Hungarian football has been most notable by its extremes. For all the success of its national side in the post-World War II years, it has experienced even greater failures over the last twenty years. The decline of Hungarian football up to this time seems incurable. The future looks to hold more of the same, but as many Hungarian football fans already know, it might just get worse.

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