It was an uneventful and quiet journey from Berne back to Budapest for the Hungarian national football team following their upset loss to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final. The trip could not have been long enough for each member of the team. Every one of them knew that nothing would be the same when they arrived back home. They had no idea who or what would greet them, but it would certainly not be good. Much of the capital had been festooned with bunting prior to the final in anticipation of a victory. Following the loss all of the bunting disappeared in a matter of hours. What appeared on the streets was much more ominous and foreboding. In the working class districts of Budapest thousands gathered together to vent their frustrations resulting in localized riots. Some of them went even further. Among their targets was the National Football Lottery which they set on fire. Prowling the streets, shouting and inebriated, these vandals made their way to the National Radio Station, a prime target since it had broadcast the catastrophic loss. In vain they would shout for commentator Gyorgy Szepes to be brought out. They were searching for a scapegoat. The government would find one soon enough. These incidents were symbolic of the heartbreak and frustration of an entire nation now seething with discontent. Into this fraught situation, the Golden Team – its luster turning rapidly to rust – returned.
The Search For Scapegoats – “I Knew They Had It In For Me”
Much of the anger was directed at Ferenc Puskas. The star of the team became a lightning rod for much of what had gone wrong in the final game. Puskas had convinced the team’s coach Gusztav Sebes to add him to the lineup. Not only was Puskas still injured and unfit for match play, but his presence in the lineup also denied a place to Laszlo Budai who had been one of the stars in the victory over Uruguay. Later it was said that Puskas did this out of jealousy and a habitual dislike for Budai. After the loss Puskas was kept out of the limelight for many months, both for reasons of personal safety and fear that his appearance might provoke the public further. For his part, Puskas accused the Germans of doping. His complaints were loud, but few were listening. Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics and the team’s coach Gusztav Sebes bore the brunt of the Hungarian communist regime’s wrath for the loss. Grosics was already under suspicion for attempting to defect several years before.
Because of his checkered past, Grosics became a convenient fall guy for the communist regime. Who could be guiltier than the man who allowed all three goals by the West Germans? This was despite the fact that he had been named to the all-star team for the 1954 World Cup. Many years later Grosics would recall the greeting given to the team upon their arrival in Budapest by Hungary’s communist dictator Matyas Rakosi. “None of you should be punished for this game. I get the sound of his voice still in my ears…I knew that this means exactly the opposite. I knew that something bad would happen. I had often clashed with state security…now I had the feeling to be in danger. I knew they had it in for me.” Grosics was correct. Soon thereafter he was arrested, charged with smuggling goods and espionage. He could have been given the death penalty, but instead was banned from football for a year, then exiled to the mining town of Tatabanya, where he played for the local team when he was not being taken in for weekly interrogations. Only after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 did the pressure on him subside. He would be allowed to rejoin the national team, playing in both the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.
A Failure Of Nerves – The Plight Of Sebes
As Hungary’s coach, Gusztav Sebes found himself shouldering much of the blame. His decision to play Puskas was seen as a fatal error that helped cause the loss, but that decision was not just Sebes’. Other officials in the Ministry of Sport also put pressure on him to start Puskas. Sebes made some other odd lineup and position changes that directly impacted the team against West Germany. He included Mihaly Toth in the starting lineup though he was not a regular starter. He also switched Zoltan Czibor from his traditional position on the right wing to the left. Perhaps Sebes’ decision making was influenced by the immense pressure of trying to win the championship. During the tournament he said, “I never suspected the World Cup would be such a test of nerves.” An even greater test of nerves awaited him back home in the aftermath of that dreadful defeat. Sebes was a fierce communist ideologue, but he had let the regime down on one of the biggest international stages. Such a failure could not be easily explained away.
Sebes reputation was badly damaged, though he did manage to continue as the team’s coach for another two years. Then in 1956 after Hungary lost a friendly to Belgium and with the political situation in the country growing to a combustible level, Sebes lost his job. He was denounced by officials in the Ministry of Sport for being too bourgeois, a code word for ‘enemy of the people.’ His notoriety likely saved him from a worse fate than being fired. Eventually Sebes would find his way back to the game as an administrator and coach at the club level, but he would forever be shadowed by the 1954 World Cup Final. Sebes saw in the defeat a monumental political, as well as sporting loss. He once said, “If Hungary had won the football World Cup there would have been no counter-revolution, but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.” Such a statement might be dismissed as ideological nonsense. Then again what else did Hungary have in the 1950’s except an extraordinary football team, a team that represented an entire nation’s hopes and dreams? When those Magical Magyars were defeated, so was the state. At least that was the way it worked in the mind of Sebes.
The Greatest Loss
Sebes, Grosics and Puskas were all vital components in one of the greatest football teams ever. Yet each of these men also received much of the blame for Hungary’s stunning defeat. Hungarian football had ascended to such stratospheric levels that a single loss ended up obscuring the team’s many spectacular achievements. That was the way it had to be for a government and a nation that lost the one thing they could believe in together. It was a horrible loss, but more horrible ones were to come for Hungary and the losses would not be on a football field.