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Puskas puts England to the sword

Jonathan Molyneux-Carter, ESPNsoccernet
November 17, 2011
Billy Wright exchanges pennants with Ferenc Puskas before the game © PA Photos
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November 17 marks the fifth anniversary of the death of one of the greats of the game. Hungarian Ferenc Puskas helped to lead the football world back from the horror of war and his part as a captain of the Aranycsapat (Golden Team) in the early 1950s ensured that his place in history was cemented. Arguably, one of the team's finest moments came in 1953 as Puskas led the side to a 6-3 demolition of England at Wembley - inflicting their first home defeat in 81 years.

The pre-war years had been a great success for Hungarian football. They were finalists at the World Cup in 1938, clubs Ferencvaros and MTK blazed a trail in the European game and the country's coaches were viewed in such high esteem that they formed the basis for Italy's Serie A. The arrival of World War II in 1939 halted their development but, as football began to take shape again in the early post-war years, a new and different form of the Danubian School (a tactical modification of the 2-3-5 formation played by the Austrians, Czechs, and Hungarians in the 1920s) began to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.

The Hungary side that would become known by a number of nicknames, including 'Magical Magyars', was born out of the war and, early on, it was difficult to pick between soldiers and players. Hungary international Gyula Grosics once revealed: ''Every so often we did some military training. I remember once we were taken to the shooting range. None of us had been there and we had to do target practice with various guns. Very soon they asked us to stop because we were putting our immediate surroundings in danger.''

As the Hungarian domestic league restarted in 1946, international football took centre stage again, although the side were viewed with some suspicion in western Europe as they were still primarily made up of Communist soldiers. One gem who stood head and shoulders above the rest was captain Puskas and his skills were immediately recognised by Juventus who openly offered $100,000 for his services after a game with Italy in Turin in 1947. Puskas opted to stay in his homeland for the time being, but it was a difficult time.

In the midst of political uncertainty across the continent, the Communist Party won an election in 1948 and declared Hungary a people's republic. Football was placed under the watchful eye of the Ministry for Sport and the state took over Puskas' club, Kispest, and renamed it Honved a year later. With a majority of Hungary's best players - including Sandor Kocsis, Jozsef Bozsik and Zoltan Czibor - already in the side, the state took the decision to ''ensure the national team would benefit from their familiarity'' according to historian David Goldblatt.

Kispest had been managed by legendary coach Bela Guttmann, who had returned to Hungary after the war. But, upon the takeover in 1949, Gusztav Sebes, the coach of the national team, took charge. Sebes was a political dream: a long-standing Communist and a leading figure in the Hungarian trade-union movement, he was given the title of deputy minister of sport alongside his role as coach and Grosics remembers that ''he made a political issue of every important match or competition; he often said that the fierce struggle between capitalism and socialism took place as much on the football field as anywhere else.''

Sebes had far reaching power in the early days, which allowed him the freedom to completely overhaul the system from the roots up. According to Goldblatt: ''He established a national scouting network, co-opted the entire coaching fraternity of the Hungarian league in his plans, arranged special midweek friendlies and training sessions for the national squad and, above all, experimented with players, tactics and ideas.''

Inspired by Hugo Meisl's Austrian Wunderteam and the Italy side that won two World Cups in the 1930s under Vittorio Pozzo, Sebes' desire to have his international players as club team-mates brought chances to hone a new kind of football on the pitch. With Grosics employed as a goalkeeper-sweeper who was comfortable with the ball at his feet, Sebes asked the rest of his players to interchange and overlap in what was essentially the foundation of the 'Total Football' model of the 1970s. When the conventional No. 9 (Nandor Hidegkuti) was withdrawn into midfield, what emerged was a 4-2-4 formation that preceded the Brazilian success with it in 1958 by just under a decade.

The 1952 Olympics in Helsinki provided Hungary with the stage they needed to show the world what they were capable of - and they did just that. Western powers were barred from sending their full-strength teams to the tournament, but the manner of Hungary's win was very impressive.

Coming out on top in the preliminary round 2-1 against Romania, with goals from Kocsis and Czibor, they advanced to take on Italy in the second round. Beating the former world champions 3-0 set the tone for the rest of their games and, in the quarter-final, a 7-1 demolition of Turkey had the home fans of Finland adopting them as their favourite.

Sweden, considered one of the strongest teams in the tournament, were brushed aside 6-0 in the semi-finals after Puskas had opened the scoring in the first minute and, in the final, Yugoslavia were despatched 2-0. In total, Hungary scored 20 goals in just five games and were given a hero's welcome upon their return.

Puskas would pinpoint the Olympics as the turning point for Hungary's new approach, saying: ''It was during the Olympics that our football first started to flow with real power. It was a prototype of total football; when we attacked, everyone attacked; in defence, it was just the same.'' And the public would not have to wait long for another spectacle as Stanley Rous, the secretary of the English FA, was in the stands for the semi-final and immediately shook hands on a proposal to bring Hungary to Wembley. After much debate, the friendly tie was settled for November 1953.

Puskas died in 2006 © PA Photos
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With a match at the famous home of football on the horizon, Hungary's politicians took advantage of the stature that their football team held. The opening of the Nepstadion in August 1953 was an ideal opportunity for propaganda - especially given that athletes from the Olympic team helped with the building of it - and a match between Honved and CSKA Moscow was played to commemorate the occasion.

By November, there was huge interest in the Wembley game across the continent. England were unbeaten in 81 years on home soil and, despite their failure to get past the first round of the 1950 World Cup after a shock defeat to the USA, the view was largely held that these were the two best teams in world football and it was dubbed the 'Match of the Century' by the press.

Hidegkuti was sceptical though, as he revealed: ''I think it had more to do with English propaganda. They were saying that the world's two best teams would be playing each other. They raised us, the Hungarians, up to their level.''

Like most things in his life, Sebes came prepared and arranged for the Hungarians to train with British balls on a pitch the size of Wembley in order to acclimatise. They played a friendly with a factory team at Renault in front of 15,000 production-line workers and, on the day of the game, ensured that they were at Wembley early to check on the texture of the turf.

''Like most foreigners, Hungary favour the close passing game, but they have shown in training that there is no lack of punch in their shooting. The long first-time passing of the English, something they rarely meet, will be their biggest concern,'' was the assessment of a 'special correspondent' in the Guardian. As it turned out, Hungary did not have much to fear.

With the photographers collected behind the Hungarian goal awaiting an English onslaught, it took 45 seconds for the game to turn in the visitors favour. As England failed to clear down the right, Hungary's fast-paced passing and movement carved an opening and an unmarked Hidegkuti rifled the ball into the roof of the net. England got one back through Jackie Sewell, but another from Hidegkuti and a quickfire brace from the brilliant Puskas (which included his famous drag-back) ended the contest before half an hour had come. By full-time, Hungary had hammered six and condemned England to their heaviest defeat for 72 years. The home side had scored three themselves, but had barely touched the ball and, when they did, they didn't look as if they knew what to do with it. The spell of English dominance had been broken.

England captain Billy Wright was honest in his post-match appraisal, saying: "We completely underestimated the advances that Hungary had made, and not only tactically. When we walked out at Wembley that afternoon, side by side with the visiting team, I looked down and noticed that the Hungarians had on these strange, lightweight boots, cut away like slippers under the ankle bone. I turned to big Stan Mortensen and said, 'We should be alright here, Stan, they haven't got the proper kit'."

Having been thoroughly embarrassed on home soil, the Guardian's Pat Ward-Thomas wrote the next day: ''Hungary gave England a lesson in football … in probably the finest exhibition of attacking play ever seen in an international match in Britain. The score of 6-3 did the visitors less than justice and, when the sixth goal came after less than an hour's play, no-one present would have been surprised had they scored ten.''

Back in Hungary, the Communist hierarchy arranged a huge welcome for their heroes at Keleti station. The players were awarded the People's Order of the Merit and showered with gifts. But within three years, the Magical Magyars would be no more.

What happened next? Hungary faced England again six months later, in Budapest, and won 7-1 to hand England their heaviest ever defeat. Hungary went to the 1954 World Cup as one of the favourites and made the final against West Germany with a record of 34 wins, six draws, and one defeat since August 1949. They were unbeaten in their last 31 matches, but despite going 2-0 up, West Germany came back to win the game 3-2 in a game dubbed 'The Miracle of Berne'. Following the World Cup, Hungary continued to dominate and remained unbeaten until Sebes was sacked in June 1956. The same year, the Hungarian Revolution erupted in Budapest and the Magical Magyars broke up with Kocsis and Czibor joining Barcelona and Puskas choosing Real Madrid soon after. Hungary, and perhaps the world, has never seen another side like them.

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