Ascendance Or Vengeance – Hungary Vs. England: A Nation Back On Its Feet (Part Two)

After the Hungarian national team’s 6-3 destruction of England at Wembley they were given a hero’s welcome when they returned home. At the Keleti (Eastern) Railway Station thousands greeted them upon arrival. Among those waiting on the platform was the Hungarian Communist Party’s leadership. The national team was much more popular than the government. From 1948 until 1953 a hardline Stalinist dictatorship carried out numerous arrests, show trails and purges. Torture and murder were commonly used to eliminate suspected threats to regime. Only with the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 and the ascension of Nikita Khrushchev as leader did the mindless arrests, persecutions and murderous paranoia come to an end. Stalinism had brought the social fabric of Hungary close to a breaking point. The leading force for social cohesion during this period was the beloved national team. They were held up as icons. The Hungarian public had suffered horribly ever since the last year of the Second World War. The football team provided something that was decidedly lacking in communist Hungary, optimism. The public’s hopes and dreams were invested with their world best football team.

The Magical Magyars in the early 1950s at the height of their powers

The Magical Magyars in the early 1950s at the height of their powers (Credit: Tibor Erky-Nagy)

The Hope & Dream Of A Nation – Something To Believe In
A short walk from Keleti Station stood the Nepstadion (People’s Stadium) which took five years to construct using mostly volunteer labor and was finally finished in 1953. It was held up by the government as a shining achievement of the communist system. The Nepstadion was to be the scene of a rematch between Hungary and England just six months after the game at Wembley. This international friendly would either solidify Hungary as the best team in world football or show that their earlier victory over England had been an aberration. The English would have extra motivation with an opportunity to avenge the most embarrassing loss in their history. Conversely, they would be playing away from home, before a capacity crowd, in a nation whose one positive outlet was the national football team. The Hungarian people were rabid football fans, more so since they had little else to cheer under the communist system.

English preparation for the game was problematic. The English coach from the earlier debacle, Walter Winterbottom, would once again be on the sideline. Winterbottom was not allowed to choose his own players. This was done by the supposedly all-knowing administrators of the English Football Association. The entire English football apparatus treated their earlier loss as an outlier and decided to change nothing in their strategy. They were going to play the same way as before, under the false assumption that this time it would somehow be different.  They were to be sorely disappointed. As for the Hungarians, they had the advantage in skill, tactics, organization and confidence. From their viewpoint there was little to worry about. The match would also serve as a preview of both teams’ level of play less than a month before the 1954 World Cup was to begin in Switzerland.

The crowd at the Nepstadion awaits the start of the Hungary-England match in Budapest on May 23, 1954t

The crowd at the Nepstadion awaits the start of the Hungary-England match in Budapest on May 23, 1954

The 4-2-4 – Hallmark Of Hungarian Brilliance
A packed crowd of 92,000 were on hand as Hungary and England took the field on a Sunday afternoon in late May 1954. By the previous game’s standards the Hungarians got off to a slow start, not scoring right away, but they still controlled the game from the outset. The English used the same tactics that had got them obliterated at Wembley. They adhered to the increasingly antiquated WM formation, so named because the offensive formation was shaped like an M, while the midfield and defense formed a W. The offensive side of the formation allowed for a gap between the wings and the inside forwards which was often the path to successful counter attacks.  England’s problem was that their tactics were only effective if they could get control of the ball, something the highly skilled Hungarian team would not allow.

The Hungarians used a 3-2-3-2 formation which created a large amount of space in the midfield where defenders could roam freely to take the ball away from the opposition and start an attack. When properly executed the upshot was a formation of six forwards and six defenders with the midfielders taking on the role of both attack and defense. Such a style relied on teamwork, highly skilled individual players and quick passing. When properly executed a high degree of improvisation could take place, where any player could press an attack. The Brazilians would later use such a style to dominate the game, but in the early and mid-1950’s the 4-2-4 was the hallmark of Hungarian brilliance.

A nation on its feet - Hungarian crowd cheers their national teams 7-1 victory over England

A nation on its feet – Hungarian crowd cheers their national teams 7-1 victory over England

An Attack Mentality – The Future Is Now
In the game’s first few minutes it became apparent that the Hungarians were in total control, it would be just a matter of time before they scored. At the ten minute mark defender Mihaly Lantos struck, giving the Hungarians a lead they would never relinquish. This began a run of three goals in nine minutes, the second of which was scored by the brilliant, left footed striker Ferenc Puskas. England had come into the match ranked fourth in the world, but they looked like amateurs, totally confused on defense, subjected to a withering attack throughout the match. In the second half, the flood gates opened again as the Hungarians put together a run of four goals in only 14 minutes. The English were only able to counter with a single goal. The final score was even more decisive than the first meeting, as the Hungarians inflicted another devastating defeat on England 7-1. There was little doubt that the Hungarians were the present and future of world football, while the English style of play had been relegated to the past forever.

The game turned out to be the apogee for the Magical Magyars. That summer the Hungarians were brought down in a stinging upset by West Germany in the World Cup Final. Two years later the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet rule was crushed and many of the team’s best players, including Puskas fled abroad. A team that had brought a nation on its knees back to its feet would be remembered fondly for decades to come, both at home and abroad. Between 1950 and 1954 they produced an undefeated streak of 32 games, with 28 wins and 4 draws. In the process they had transformed football, never more so than in those two remarkable victories over England.

Click here for: Perfection On A Football Pitch – Hungary vs. England: Magyar Magic At Wembley (Part  One)

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