One of the great achievements in European football took place before 127,000 spectators at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland on May 18, 1960. The European Cup Final was played that Wednesday afternoon with the Spanish club of Real Madrid facing Eintracht Frankfurt of West Germany. Real had come back from an early deficit to take a 2-1 lead, but with the first half almost at an end the game was still a toss-up. Then Ferenc Puskas, the prolific forward so often associated with the glory days of Hungarian Football during the 1950’s, scored the first in what would be a barrage of goals. He single-handedly stretched Real’s lead from 2-1 to 6-1 by scoring four goals over a period of 27 minutes. Such a one man offensive assault has never been seen again in a European Cup Final.
At the time of the match, Puskas was 33 years old. He had been exiled from his homeland for over three years and many thought to be well past his prime. Then in less than half an hour of match time he had reminded everyone of the superb power and precision of his left foot shot, one of the best in football history. “The Galloping Major” as Puskas had been known while playing for the army sponsored club of Honved in Budapest for years, galloped off to Spain after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a move that revitalized his career. He was one of several Hungarian players who just a few years before had been part of the famous Magical Magyar team of the 1950’s. This team had revolutionized the game of football with their training, tactics and innovation of an early form of Total Football. Ironically, another revolution, one based not on sport, but that of politics cast much of the team adrift, ending the golden age of Hungarian football forever.
Soldiering On – Honved Hits The Road
On October 23, 1956 an uprising exploded in the streets of Budapest. Tens of thousands of Hungarians had started out by protesting peacefully. The protest grew larger and more virulent throughout the day. Then in the evening violence broke out. Hungarians demanded an end to the one party communist state that held the nation in its iron grip for far too long. On that mid-autumn day Hungary was transformed. These changes were also felt by a group of Hungarians who were outside the country when the revolution broke out. Several members of the Hungarian national football team played for the Budapest Honved club. At the time of the uprising they had just lost the away leg of a two match series in the European Cup against the Spanish team, Athletic Bilbao by a score of 3-2.
The home match for Honved was to take place in Budapest, but was postponed due to the unrest. Despite the outbreak of fighting, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) announced that Honved would have to play the match or forfeit the game. It was rescheduled and played at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. This time Honved managed a tie, which was quite a feat considering the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the team. Unfortunately the tie did not allow them to advance. They ended up losing the series on aggregate score 6-5. All was not lost though, as this was just the beginning of their autumn adventure. The revolution had ended in defeat, but Honved soldiered on. Instead of returning to a homeland suffering in deep despair, Honved’s players had their families join them and went on the road for a fundraising tour.
Stateless Wonders – Kocsis, Czibor & Puskas Soar
The fiercest opposition to the tour did not come on the field of play. Officials at the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) were against it since Honved did not have the support of the Hungarian Football Association. In effect they were stateless when it came to official support. Nevertheless they played throughout southern Europe and as far afield as Brazil on the tour. While ostensibly for a good cause, the tour was also an opportunity for Honved’s top players to showcase their talent before prospective foreign clubs. These auditions might possibly lead to a lucrative contract for a lucky few. Playing for pay as a professional in the west was a much better proposition than playing for the perks doled out by the Communist Party back in Hungary. Who would return and who would stay was an open question. Honved was not the only Hungarian club to tour abroad. MTK Budapest also left the country and went on the road. The difference was that the MTK players would return home, while some of Honved’s best players decided to stay abroad.
Three of Hungary’s greatest players, Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor and Ferenc Puskas eventually signed contracts to play in Spain, the first two with Barcelona and the latter with Real Madrid. Kocsis and Czibor were the kind of world class players any time would have been grateful to acquire. FC Barcelona was able to sign them due to the efforts of Lazslo Kubala, another Hungarian exile who had left the country in 1949 when it became apparent that a hard line Stalinist regime was being implemented in Hungary. Kubala’s efforts paid immediate dividends for the club as the additions of Kocsis and Czibor led to Barcelona winning the La Liga championship. In 1961 Barcelona made it all the way to the European Cup final. Ironically, the final was being played in Wankdorf Stadium in Berne, Switzerland, the same place where Kocsis and Czibor had experienced defeat in the 1954 World Cup Final. The second time was not a charm for them either as Barcelona lost 3-2 to Benfica. After Kocsis retired he opened a restaurant in Barcelona. He lived out his life in the city. Czibor eventually would return home.
Losing Twice – A Nation & Its Football Team
As for Puskas he played world class soccer for Real Madrid up into the mid-1960’s helping lead them to multiple European Cup finals. He then took up coaching, enjoying a fair amount of success. Never more so then when he took the Greek team Panathinaikos to the 1971 European Cup final. Only after the collapse of communism would he return to Hungary. Puskas was feted as a national hero. His long and notable adventures as a foreign exile were behind him. So were the glory days of Hungarian soccer. The national team had never been a threat to win the World Cup after Kocsis, Czibor and Puskas fled abroad. Puskas was made coach of the national team in 1993, but this did little good. He failed to resurrect a team that was lacking in talent. Miracles rarely happen twice. The Magical Magyars of the 1950’s were a once in a lifetime team. No one knew this better than Puskas. Their brilliance and mystique had been damaged by their loss in the 1954 World Cup Final. Two years later, it disappeared entirely with the outbreak of revolution. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 had transformed both the nation and its national football team. In both cases, Hungary lost. These are defeats from which the nation has yet to recover.