Glorious Failures: Hungary’s Golden Team

This is part one of a three-part series.

The Glorious Failure Phenomenon

As a rule, success in football is measured by trophies.  Setting aside all ideological arguments over the merits of beauty over efficiency aside, the teams that have gone down in history are those that have won when it counts: World Cups, European Championships, European Cups, League Titles, etc.  Greatness requires victory.

And yet, there are exceptions.  A select few international sides have been able to transcend their failures on the pitch to take their place among the pantheon of greatness.  The 1954 Hungary, 1974 Holland, and 1982 Brazil sides are emblematic of this ‘glorious failure’ phenomenon.  Over the next several weeks Café Futebol will examine these three legendary sides and attempt to understand the reasons for why their reputations arguably outweigh their accomplishments.  This will not be a general history of these sides; more than enough has been written on that front.  Instead, this series will focus on why history has been so kind to these glorious losers, when so many others have been cast aside and forgotten.  We start with the Magical Magyars.

The Legend of the Aranycsapat

To anyone well-versed in footballing history, the Hungarian side of the 1950s needs no introduction. Boasting such star names as Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, and, Nándor Hidegkuti, and with the innovative Gusztáv Sebes at the helm, the Aranycsapat (Hungarian for Golden Team, as they are known) were the best team in the world in the early 1950s.  They eased to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1952 and the following year gave England a footballing lesson and shocked the English football establishment to its core.  The 6-3 victory at Wembley is considered one of the greatest performances of all time, and they followed it up with a 7-1 victory over the Three Lions in Budapest the following year.  From 1950 through 1956 they accumulated a record of 42 victories, 7 draws, and just one defeat.  That defeat, however, happened in the 1954 World Cup Final.

The Aranycsapat

Despite their failure to win when it mattered most, the Aranycsapat is widely recognized as one of the greatest teams of all time.  In his fantastic blog Football Pantheon, journalist Miguel Delaney places them 7th in his list of the greatest international teams of all time, a full 17 slots ahead of the West German side which defeated them in that fateful final.  From a purely results-oriented perspective, it is obvious that the Magical Magyars were awfully impressive; their record contains just one blemish, albeit a very prominent one.  Nevertheless, to truly understand their significance in football history and lofty reputation as one of the greatest sides of all time, we must look beyond just results.

Tactical Innovation

In stark contrast to the rigid traditionalism which hampered tactical evolution in England, footballing attitudes on the continent were much more conducive to change and experimentation.  Vienna was a hotspot for such innovation and it gave rise to what has since become known as the ‘Danubian School’ of football.  Jimmy Hogan, an expatriate Englishman who stressed the merits of passing and movement, found the Central Europeans much more receptive to his ideas than his compatriots. Hugo Meisl’s success with the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s and their exhilarating style of play reinforced the Danubians’ belief in the tenets preached by Hogan, and a tactical tradition was established. Though Meisl was essentially a conservative and a did not stray from the 2-3-5 formation, his use of Mathias Sindelar as a withdrawn centre forward proved prophetic.

Hungarian football was firmly within the Viennese sphere of influence and its coaches tended to be adherents of the Danubian School.  By the time the second World War had ended the 2-3-5 has been replaced as the dominant formation by the W-M, effectively a 3-2-2-3.  The focal point of this system was a centre forward who was usually big, powerful, and neither particularly skillful nor technical. The legendary journalist Brian Glanville characterized the classic English conception of the #9 as “the brainless bull at the gate.”

Márton Bukovi, manager of Hungarian club side MTK, lacked such a player, and thus decided to improvise.  He took one of his wing-halves, Péter Palotás, and put him in the centre forward role.  He was a centre forward in name only.  In reality, he was withdrawn into the midfield and played effectively as an attacking midfielder.  The experiment was succesful, and Palotás went on to start for the national team and was a regular for the side that won gold at the 1952 Olympic Games.  But in September of that year, Hungary manager Gusztáv Sebes made a fateful substitution.  During a friendly which Hungary was losing 2-0 to Switzerland, he brought on the 30 year old Nándor Hidegkuti to replace Palotás.  Hungary came back to win 4-2, and Hidegkuti’s performance was so impressive that he became the undisputed starter. Though often referred to as a withdrawn centre-forward, Jonathan Wilson argues in his exhaustive history of football tactics Inverting the Pyramid that “he was, in modern terminology, simply an attacking midfielder.”

The ‘invention’ of the attacking midfielder as a re-imagining of the role of the centre forward was just one of the tactical innovations pioneered by the Hungarians.  The two full backs, Mihály Lantos and Jenő Buzánszky, were given license to roam down the flanks.  In the midfield, József Bozsik advanced forward to support Hidegkuti while his midfield partner József Zakariás sat back and was played almost as an auxiliary centre back.  According to Wilson, this set up was “a hair’s breadth from 4-2-4.”  Considering that the 4-2-4 was the formation so successfully adopted by the Brazilians.  It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the early advocates of 4-2-4 in Brazil was Béla Guttman, a Hungarian manager who introduced the formation during his spell at São Paulo in 1957-58.   

It is important not to view the tactical innovations of the Magical Magyars in isolation from tactical development as a whole.  Bukovi, Sebes, and Guttman, were all heavily influenced by the Danubian School and their tactical philosophies represent a historical continuity with their predecessors, not a break with the past.  The withdrawn centre forward, after all, was not even a Hungarian invention. Hungarian managers took already existing ideas and tweaked them according to their own needs and to better suit the circumstances.  Nevertheless, few tactical developments have resonated so heavily in the world and especially in the home of football.  The impact of the Aranycsapat would have been impossible without one sterling performance at Wembley.

Glory at Wembley…

On their way to the Gold Medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Hungary met Sweden in the semifinals.  Sweden were supposed to be one of the favorites, but were cast aside 6-0. Stanley Rous, secretary of the FA and future FIFA President, was in attendance and extended an invitation to his Hungarian counterpart to come play a friendly at Wembley.  The game was set for November 1953.  Sebes prepared his side meticulously.  They used heavier British balls and practiced on a pitch the size of Wembley.  The world had by now taken notice of the Hungarians, but few could have expected what was to come.

England was not unbeatable, as their embarrassing defeat to the USA in the 1950 World Cup demonstrated, but still the English media were unyielding in their belief that they were the best side in the world, theirs was the right way of playing the game.  Up until 1953 England has only ever lost one match against foreign opposition, and that was to Ireland four years prior.  England’s perceived domination in that match and Ireland’s status as a former colony probably mitigated the reaction to that result.  The world had been catching up to England for a long time, but they were oblivious.  Journalist Frank Coles wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “Hungary’s superb ball-jugglers can be checked by a little firm tackling.”  Here it was, the pervasive attitude that a bit of English grit and determination was all that was needed.

Billy Wright exchanges pennants with Puskás before the famous match (source: BBC)

“How long does it take for am empire to die? How long does it take to lose a match?” asks David Goldblatt in The Ball is Round. Forty-five seconds.  That is how long it takes for the Hungarians to take the lead in a fluid passing move.  Hungary dominates the match. England’s defense has no idea how to to deal with Hidegkuti’s withdrawn position.  They are unable to keep up with their quick passing, their impeccable technique.  One moment in particular starts out. In the 24th minute, with Hungary up 2-1, Puskás collects a low ball from Zoltán Czibor at the edge of the 6-yard box.  With England captain Billy Wright bearing down, Puskás calmly drags the ball back and beats the England keeper on the near post.  Wright ends up slide tackling empty air.  The final score was 6-3, but the consensus was that the result was very flattering to the English.

No other match has so thoroughly shocked England and so upset their conception of the balance of power in world football.  The myth of English superiority was dispelled in such a convincing manner that Brian Glanville dubbed it a defeat “that gave eyes to the blind.” According to Sir Bobby Robson, “That one game alone changed our thinking. We thought we would demolish this team – England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the pupils. It was absolutely the other way.”

It is hard to exaggerate the impact of the defeat in England.  A 7-1 result in Budapest the following year, to this day England’s worst ever result, confirmed Hungary’s superiority. Coaching methods were overhauled, archaic tactics called into question, and continental training regimens adopted. The 6-3 is perhaps the single most significant moment that explains the enduring legacy of the Aranycsapat.  Obviously they were a fantastic side, but the 6-3 demonstrated just how good they were.  Whether England were even worthy opponents is irrelevant; the shock they gave to the establishment and was enough to forever cement their place among the greatest sides of all time.

…And Tragedy in Bern

Nevertheless, as significant as the 6-3 was, it was still just a friendly result.  The World Cup the following summer would allow the Aranycsapot the opportunity to confirm what many already thought: that they were the best team in the world.  Hungary were the favorites in the tournament and started off brilliantly.  In the first round they hammered South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3.   After getting past Brazil in the quarterfinals in an ugly, violent encounter that has come to be known as “The Battle of Berne,” the Hungarians defeated defending champions Uruguay 4-2 in the semifinals to set up a rematch with West Germany.

The final was supposed to be crowning moment of all of their achievements over the past two years. Everything was going according to plan, as Hungary took a 2-0 lead just eight minutes into the match.  But just ten minutes later the scores were level, and six minutes from time West Germany took the lead.  Puskás had a goal controversially disallowed for an offside and that was that.  In Germany this match is known as the “Miracle of Bern,” the match that has come to symbolize the country’s emergence from the post-war depression and its development into an economic power in the years to come. But in Hungary, it was a tragedy.

The match and the reasons for the defeat have been subject to endless analysis.  Having already beaten the Germans so easily in the opening round, they were clearly the favorites in the final.  So what went wrong?

Only five of the players who started in the 8-3 defeat for West Germany featured in the final.  As the story goes, Sepp Herberger decided to rest his players and study Hungary while not showing his hand, as he was confident of a win against Turkey in the ensuing playoff.  The veracity of this version of events is still disputed, but Herberger’s assistant Helmut Schön insists that it is true.

In the 8-3 against West Germany Puskás was tackled from behind by Werner Liebrich and was taken off injured.  He missed the next two matches with what was later revealed to be a hairline fracture.  In a book published the following year Puskás claimed that Liebrich set out deliberately to injure him, though in later years he retracted this accusation.  Whether Liebrich was trying to injure Puskás or not, when he returned for the final he was clearly not at his best.

To accomodate Puskás, Sebes was forced to switch Csibor to the right, Mihály Tóth played on the left, and Lászlo Budai was dropped.  In the subsequent inquest into Sebes’s tactical decision, some claimed that Tóth was only selected due to being the Sebes’s son-in-law, despite the fact that Sebes’s only daughter at the time was 10 and definitely not married.

West Germany celebrate their improbable victory (Source:

Though questionable tactics may have contributed to the result, ultimately Hungary were simply unlucky.  Their best player was injured.  It rained heavily in Bern the day before the final and all throughout the match; the waterlogged pitch severely impeded Hungary’s passing game.  Most importantly, Puskás’s 88th minute equalizer was disallowed by the Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths in what is generally believed to be the wrong decision.  “I could have murdered him,” said Puskás, “to lose the World Cup on such a decision just isn’t right.”

The Aranycsapat were denied their moment of catharsis.  The perception of their defeat as tragic and unjust has contributed to their legend.  The innovative, brilliant side that thrashed England at Wembley ended up agonizingly short of their final goal.  Perhaps the romantic idealization of the side is only possible as a result of their ultimate failure.  The narrative is made all the more alluring by the unjust and unlucky nature of the defeat to the West Germans.

The Political Aspect

Unlike the hero’s welcome they received after the 6-3 in Wembley, the reaction of the Hungarian public to the defeat in Bern was that of disappointment, anger, and violence.  The apartments of some players were ransacked, and wild allegations of the players throwing the match for a fleet of Mercedes were widely circulated.   Puskás bore the brunt of the public’s discontent and was dropped from the national team for his own safety.

The protests and demonstrations against the side that soon escalated into open discontent with the Communist regime.  According to Gyula Grosics, the goalkeeper of the Aranycsapat, “in those demonstrations… lay the seeds of the 1956 uprising.

Sebes, a trade union organizer in interwar France and thus a man with impressive socialist credentials, claimed that “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.”

It is all too tempting to conflate Hungary’s failure on the pitch with the subsequent political events of the 1950s, and such a view is a vast oversimplification of the obviously complex geopolitical situation.  Nevertheless, for better or worse the fate of the Aranycsapat and the Hungarian regime are inextricably tied together.  Grosics, a man with questionable political leanings who had a reputation as a loner and intellectual, was arrested several months after the Bern debacle and was imprisoned for 15 months.

Sebes was retained as national team manager and Hungary then went on an unbeaten streak for 18 months.  But after a string of poor results in early 1956 – a 3-1 defeat in Turkey, a 4-2 home loss to Czechoslovakia, and then throwing away a 3-1 half-time lead against Belgium – Sebes was publicly condemned by the Ministry of Sport for his bourgeois leanings and dismissed from his post.

As the national team disintegrated, so did the regime.  After Stalin’s death the reformist Imre Nagy became the Prime Minister in 1953 but just two years later he was deposed and expelled from the Communist Party, replaced by the Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi.  The hardline Stalinism of Rákosi, however, ran counter to the overall trend of de-Stalinization east of the Iron Curtain.  Rákosi was eventually removed in June of 1956 and there were popular calls for the reinstatement of Nagy.  In September the growing sense of self-determination and independence felt by the Hungarians was supplied with a footballing parallel as Hungary beat the Soviet Union for the first time ever in a friendly in Moscow.

But the Hungarian awakening would soon come to a violent end.  On October 23, 10,000 protesters met in the center of Budapest to march in solidarity with the Polish workers’ movement.  The protest soon escalated into a street battle between protesters and sympathizers against the secret police and Soviet loyalists.  A statue of Stalin was destroyed and by the 25th Nagy was reinstated as Prime Minister.

Less than two weeks later the Soviets invaded and crushed the Hungarian resistance.  Nagy was captured and eventually executed and a new puppet regime established.

During the revolution two of Hungary’s leading clubs, MTK and Honvéd, left the country and eventually embarked on tours of Western Europe and Latin America.  Most players returned home but three of the Honvéd squad: Puskás, Kocsis, Czibor, chose to remain in Western Europe and found new clubs.  Without these three players, the Aranycsapat was no more.  Though the Golden Team way have already been in decline since Bern, the Revolution ensured that there would be no renaissance.

Hungarian football has never reached the heights of the Golden Team.  As former Hungarian striker Tibor Nyilasi remarked, ‘it is as though Hungarian football is frozen at that moment, as though we have never moved on from then.”

Enduring Legacy

To return to our original question, why is Hungary’s Golden Team considered one of the best teams of all time, despite their failure to win a World Cup?  Why are they often ranked ahead of such victorious teams as the Uruguayans in 1950, the Brazilians of 1994, and even the West Germans of 1954, the team that defeated them in the final in Bern?

First and foremost, the Aranycsapat were simply a brilliant footballing side.  Their performances at the Olympics and especially at Wembley resonated throughout the footballing world.  Their tactical innovations paved the way for the legendary Brazilian sides of 1958 and beyond.  Their quality is beyond question.

But they never won the World Cup.  The juxtaposition between the glory of the 6-3 and the tragedy of Bern is what makes the Magical Magyars such a fascinating example of the glorious failure phenomenon.

Finally, the dismantling of the squad and of Hungarian football in general as a result of the Hungarian Uprising has cemented their status as the ultimate example greatness unfulfilled.  They may not have won the World Cup, but their place among the greatest sides of all time is completely understandable and justified.  Their story has everything but the catharsis of a World Cup victory.


Jonathan Wilson’s books, Inverting the Pyramid and Behind the Curtain, provided invaluable source material for this article, as did Davild Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round.

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