The Hungarian ‘Golden Team’: How Creativity, Joy and Self-Expression Flourished under Authoritarianism

From a Western European perspective, the Hungarian ‘golden team’ of the 1950s can seem to stand outside of history. Exotic and flamboyant, they appeared from behind the iron curtain during the darkest days of Stalinist and post-Stalinist repression, playing football that celebrated the skill of the individual and affirmed a joie de vivre that few, if any, sides have since been able to match. Following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the side ceased to exist as suddenly as it had arrived.golden team

Were the Marvellous Magyars a historical aberration? A celebration the capacity of the individual spirit to retain its creativity and optimism under the most terrible repression?

For me, this traditional view of the team falls down on two levels. Firstly, by failing to recognise how the Hungarian team of the 1950s fits into a continual tradition of European football, with roots in the Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ of the 1930s, and an influence that runs through to the Dynamo Kiev and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and the Brazillian national teams of the 60s and 70s. Secondly, by downplaying the role of manager Gustav Sebes, it cannot account for the many ways in which he made the team successful because of, rather than despite, communist rule.
Anyone who doubts the greatness of the Aranycsapat need only run down some of its achievements: most goals (27) and highest average goals per game (5.4) in a single world cup final stage (both 1954); 31 games unbeaten, and only 1 defeat between 1950 and 1956 – the infamous 1954 World cup final defeat to Germany; 1952 Olympic champions, and of course the famous 6-3 and 7-1 victories over England.

This success was achieved due to superior levels of fitness and technique, as well as decisive tactical innovations – three factors that are directly attributable to the manager Gustav Sebes.
With an unimpeachable pre-war background as a trade union organiser in Paris, Sebes was handed complete control of the national side by the authorities, and was able to use all the levers of state power to shape the team in his image. Recognising the benefits of an international side that played together regularly, (as the Italian and Austrian National sides had in the 1930s) he ensured that the bulk of the national side would all play for the same club. When Hungarian football clubs were nationalised in 1949, Sebes was instrumental in ensuring that Honved became the army club, and he subsequently directed conscription to bring together most of the best players available. Ferenc Puskas and Jozsef Bozsik were already at Honved, and Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor, Laszlo Budai, Gyula Lorant and Gyula Grosics were all conscripted to the club.

Honved players were given military ranks, and subject to a full-time fitness regime and advanced dietary techniques to ensure that they were able to maintain a high tempo for 90 minutes. A master of detail, Sebes prepared for the 1953 match against England by training with the heavier balls that were in use in England, and on a pitch with the exact dimensions of Wembley. Sebes also instigated technical training, with the intention that his players would have a core set of skills that would enable them to play in any position. This underpinned his key tactical innovation – the withdrawn centre forward, that so perplexed England’s back line in 1953 and 1954, (although some credit for this innovation must also go to Marton Bukovi, who had used a similar formation at MTK). This expectation that players have the skills to play in many different positions on the pitch clearly anticipates the philosophies of the Ajax and Dynamo Kiev teams of the 1970s. Whilst our modern eyes might see the flamboyance and improvisation of the Golden Team as the antithesis of uniformist Stalinism, for Sebes his team were playing ‘socialist football’ – each pulling an equal weight, each able to play in any position, and no one position or player privileged over his teammates.

More than any other Warsaw Pact nation, Hungary carried the legacy of the first great flowering of cultured and intellectualised football in inter-war Vienna, although Budapest was far behind Vienna in the Danubian School hierarchy. Direct links can be traced through some of the players and managers who were influential on the development of the Golden Team – for example, Bela Guttman, who popularised the formation that led Brazil to their breakthrough World Cup victory in 1958, had played in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s, and managed a young Ferenc Puskas at Kispest FC in 1947-8 until he left the club after falling out with his star player.

In seeking to understand how the Aranycsapat flourished, it is also useful to have a better understanding of political developments in Hungary between 1945 and 1956. Stalinist communism did not arrive fully formed in Hungary in 1945, rather, the country went through four distinct phases: firstly a multi-party democracy led by the Independent Smallholders’ Association that lasted until 1949, followed by a period of nationalisations, repression and purges under the newly declared People’s Republic of Hungary, then a period of reformism that developed under Prime Minister Imre Nagy after Stalin’s death in 1953, and lasted until the revolution and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1956. The 1956 revolution finally brought the disintegration of the Golden Team – when Soviet Troops invaded Hungary, the bulk of the team were out of the country playing against Athletic Bilbao in the first round of the European Cup. Rather than return to the country, the team embarked on a fundraising tour (managed by Bela Guttman for the South American leg) before they went their separate ways. Although banned from football for two years, most resurrected their careers in Western Europe – Puskas in particular achieving a second greatness at Real Madrid.

Throughout these tumultuous political circumstances, Sebes was able to make use of all the advantages of authoritarianism to create a disciplined, well-trained team. Whilst with hindsight, it is easy for us to see the free-flowing attacking football they played as anathema to our usual ideas of grim Soviet uniformity, Sebes himself was a committed socialist, who felt that his team was an expression of the most positive factors of a collectivist philosophy. It does not take too much of a leap of the imagination to see the Golden Team as representatives of the more liberal and pluralist form of socialism that was being developed by Marshal Tito across the border in Yugoslavia, and which was a model for many in the reformist movement in Hungary during this period.

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