There has never been a clearer favorite to win the World Cup than Hungary in 1954. They came into the tournament riding a four year, 28 match unbeaten streak. Football had never seen anything like their superb passing, highly skilled ball control and offensive attack. A variety of expressive terms were used to describe them as Magical, Magnificent, Marvelous and Mighty Magyars. None of these terms were exaggerations. This Hungarian team really was that good. They seemed to attack in waves, capable of producing an explosion of offense. As their best player and one of the greatest strikers in football history, Ferenc Puskas put it “when we attacked, everyone attacked.” And what an attack it was! There was Puskas, with his golden left foot, accurate from up to 35 yards out. He had scored 65 goals in 55 international games. Center-forward Nandor Hidegkuti who was just as deadly with his right foot and Sandor Kocsis, also known as “Golden Head”, due to his ability to strike while the ball was in the air. These stars were supplemented by the aggressive propulsion brought by right-half Joszef Bozsik and right winger Zoltan Czibor.
The defense while less lauded was nearly as stout. In goal was one of the all-time greats, Gyula Grosics. He had been placed under house arrest in 1949 after attempting to defect, but was eventually allowed back on the national team. He was the first to innovate the role of sweeper-keeper where he would take on a role as an extra defender. With his versatile athleticism, Grosics would often leave the goal to challenge opponent’s shots and was a constant threat to cut-off long balls. This array of talent, a product of chance, fortune and development was overseen by the Deputy Minister of Sport, Gusztav Sebes, a committed communist who had been a trade union organizer earlier in his life. Sebes was devoted to the cause of building socialism and saw football as a crucial force in the struggle between communism and capitalism. The struggle on the football field was one he believed could be won by building a team based on exceptional physical fitness and the implementation of a 3-2-3-2 formation that opened up a vast amount of space in the midfield. These tactics allowed the highly skilled and versatile Hungarian players to press the attack. It is ironic that Sebes, an acolyte of a centrally planned, state controlled system would be the leading developer of an extremely flexible, progressive system of football that was a forerunner of modern football.
The Greatest Of All Time – Up To A Point
As the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland approached the Hungarians were considered not only the best team, but perhaps the best team ever. In their 28 game unbeaten run, 19 of the games were played on the road. They compiled a record of 17-0-2 in these games. In 17 of the 28 games Hungary had scored at least four goals and 11 times shut out the opposition. Their last defeat had been to Austria in May 1950. Since that game, the Hungarians had played the Austrians four times, winning three and drawing one. On the international tournament stage, they dominated both the 1952 Olympics and the Central European Cup competition. Hungary was predicted to do the same at the World Cup, but the tournament would present some obstacles they had yet to face. It was to include such strong South American teams as Uruguay (1950 World Cup champions) and a strong Brazil side.
For the first time since the 1938 World Cup a German team would be allowed to play. West Germany qualified, coming in with a deceptively strong side. Hungary was unfortunate in that of their six matches at the 1954 World Cup, four of them would be against Brazil, Uruguay and West Germany. The Hungarians had not played any of these nations during their unbeaten streak. Years later an analysis using the Elo system (a statistical method for rating head to head matchups which coincidentally was invented by Hungarian Arpad Elo ) would show that Hungary played in three of the top eight all-time highest rated international matches all during the 1954 World Cup. In the spring of 1954 Hungary seemed up to the monumental task they would soon face. In three international friendly matches they outscored the opposition 11-1. The last of these was a 7-1 demolition of England. It is still the worst loss England has ever suffered in international play.
The Price Of Victory – Losing Puskas
Hungary kicked off their pursuit of the World Cup in much the same fashion, annihilating South Korea 9-0 in Zurich with Kocsis scoring three consecutive goals at one point. The tournament would turn out to be a goal scoring festival, setting a record for average goals scored per game. On Sunday June 20th before 56,000 spectators in Basel the Hungarians faced West Germany in a group match. The West Germans did not go all out and held back several of their starters, but no one knew at the time just how much a difference they could make. The Hungarians rolled right from the start. Kocsis showed that he was just getting warmed up during the previous game. At the three minute mark he opened the scoring. Towards the midpoint of the first half he scored again to put Hungary up 3-0. And he was not through. Kocsis would end up scoring four goals, one more than the entire West German side. The final score was 8-3.
As big a victory as this was for Hungary, they also suffered an irreparable loss. Puskas was roughly fouled several times during the game, the most egregious of which was a nasty tackle by the West German center-half Werner Liebrich. It resulted in Puskas suffering a hair line fracture of the ankle that would sideline him for Hungary’s next two matches. He would eventually return, but be nowhere near his best. That was not the most immediate problem for Hungary though. Brazil loomed on the horizon, a team that would push the Hungarians to the breaking point and beyond. Their match would be memorable for more than football.