Gabriele Marcotti continues his series profiling countries who performed exceptionally well at a World Cup only to, for one reason or another, fail to go all the way.
Having covered Brazil in 1950, Hungary’s outstanding 1954 side is next on the agenda.
Why were Hungary great in 1954?
For a start, there was a whole romantic back story. Despite the nation being ravaged by World War II, Hungary's footballers became the gold standard in Europe. Between 1945 and 1950 they went undefeated, scoring 105 goals in 27 games. They didn’t go to the 1950 World Cup because the Hungarian government couldn’t afford it. We can only guess what might have happened if they had.
They did win the 1952 Olympic tournament and, in 1953, famously went to Wembley and gave England the mother of all reality checks, winning 6-3 to leave a nation reeling. A 7-1 win in the Budapest rematch six months later left no doubt; Syd Owen, England’s centre-back, said it was “like playing people from outer space.”
All of this happened despite losing two of their most popular stars for distinctly non-footballing reasons. Laszlo Kubala defected in 1949, just as the nation turned to Communism, while Ferenc “Bamba” Deak, an old-school centre-forward who once notched 66 goals in 34 games in a single season, was excluded from the national team for his political beliefs.
Hungary were stacked with talent, so much of it redefining and revolutionary to the game. Gyula Grosics was among the first keepers to be thoroughly comfortable with his feet, often coming out to act as a sweeper.
Jozsef Bozsik was the Andrea Pirlo of his time, playmaking from just in front of the back four; Sandor Kocsis was the lethal centre-forward who would end his international career with more goals (75) than caps (68); and Zoltan Czibor moved from wide areas with flair and unpredictability.
Nandor Hidegkuti was the original “false nine,” retreating from a forward position to create space and befuddle opponents (while still scoring plenty: he had four goals in the 1954 World Cup). And then of course there was Ferenc Puskas, a man who makes just about everyone’s all-time top-10 player list.
Hungary began by destroying South Korea (9-0) and then West Germany (8-3). As emphatic as the latter win was -- they were 8-1 up with 15 minutes to go -- it would have a knock-on effect as a nasty foul on Puskas would force him out until the final.
Even without their best player, Hungary raced to a 2-0 lead over Brazil, before finally emerging as 4-2 victors in a wide-open, ill-tempered game that would be remembered as “the Battle of Berne.”
There were three red cards, a pitch invasion and more fighting in the dressing room. It was ugly and it showed that, for all their talent, Hungary also had a definite edge as well.
In the semifinal, still without Puskas, they took on the reigning world champions, Uruguay, who were probably a better team than the one that triumphed at the Maracana four years earlier.
Hungary again took early control and with 15 minutes left looked set for a comfortable win, but Uruguay clawed it back to 2-2 and extra time. It only seemed to anger Hungary and they dominated the additional period, eventually winning 4-2 thanks to a brace from Kocsis, who would end up as the World Cup’s top scorer with 11 goals.
What went wrong?
It remains a mystery how Hungary managed to lose to a West Germany team it had dominated and beaten by five goals just two weeks earlier.
Wear and tear was clearly a factor following the grueling, physical clashes with Brazil and Uruguay, and the inclusion of Puskas -- still not fully fit but desperate to play -- probably didn’t help either.
As they had done in previous games, Hungary blitzed the opposition early, going 2-0 up inside 10 minutes. But this time, rather than wilting, the West Germans hit back straightaway, and by the 20th minute it was 2-2.
Hungary unleashed all their fury, creating chance after chance: Czibor hit the woodwork and Puskas missed several sitters he would otherwise have buried. However, the sodden pitch gave the more physical and athletic West Germans the edge. Hungary began to tire and, with six minutes to go, Helmut Rahn beat Grosics.
Cruelly, Puskas scored what he thought was the equalizer just before the final whistle, but the English referee, William Ling, disallowed it.
What happened next?
Hungary were simply shell-shocked and stunned. Rather than going home to Budapest for their triumphal return, they flew to a provincial town in order to avoid angry, questioning mobs of supporters.
Conspiracy theorists had a field day. A popular (but baseless) idea doing the rounds was that the players had been ordered to throw the game to the West Germans in exchange for a shipment of tractors. In an age before drug testing, whispers continue to haunt the West German team, according to reports released by the University of Leipzig in 2010 and Berlin’s Humboldt University in 2013.
Either way, Hungarian fans would witness the dismemberment of their team in 1956. Honved Budapest, home to most of the national side, were playing a European Cup game in Bilbao when the Hungarian revolt against the pro-Soviet government broke out in October. The team remained abroad until the uprising was quashed as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. At that point, some, like Bozsik, went back.
Others, like Czibor, Kocsis and Puskas, chose to defect. The former two would star for a number of teams, including Barcelona, while the latter would go on to lead Real Madrid to three European Cups. It marked the end of one of the greatest teams ever assembled and left many to wonder what might have been.