The Wankdorf Stadium in Bern was getting a soaking, but the sun was shining on Hungary’s brightest generation. Gusztáv Sebes’s side had not lost since May 1950 – an undefeated international streak that would not be surpassed until 1993 – and here they were, with 63,800 increasingly sodden souls watching on from the open terraces, cruising to victory in the 1954 World Cup final. Their four matches en route had brought a faintly ludicrous 25 goals: South Korea hammered 9-0 and West Germany taken apart 8-3 in the group stage, Brazil swept aside 4-2 in a brutal quarter-final and Uruguay, the holders, edged out by the same score after extra-time in a semi-final for the ages.
West Germany, the tournament’s surprise package, were lined up to go under the steamroller again in the final and their fear seemed palpable in the opening 10 minutes. Werner Liebrich played the ball straight to József Bozsik 40 yards from his own goal. Bozsik fed Sándor Kocsis, whose shot deflected off a defender and fell to Ferenc Puskás, who crashed the ball home. Two minutes later, Werner Kohlmeyer and goalkeeper Toni Turek appeared overwhelmed by panic as Kocsis pressed, allowing Zoltán Czibor to scoot in from the right and prod the ball into the empty net. Two-nil, eight minutes gone.
No team before or since has held a two-goal advantage in a World Cup final and failed to lift the trophy. No team before or since has entered a World Cup final on the back of a 30-game unbeaten streak. No team before or since has ever faced, in a World Cup final, a team they had already battered 8-3 in the group stage. But then no team before or since was ever quite like Hungary’s Aranycsapat, the Golden Squad, the Magical Magyars.
Hungary’s appearance in the 1954 final was no bolt from the blue. Like their neighbours to the east, Austria, Hungary had been a pre-war European powerhouse. The Wunderteam of the early 1930s had knocked Hungary out of the 1934 World Cup at the quarter-final stage before losing to Italy in the semis; Hungary, though, went one better than their central European rivals four years later, reaching the final of the 1938 tournament before Italy, again, proved a bridge too far.
Both nations would see their footballing fortunes fall prey to authoritarian regimes, Austria prior to the second world war, Hungary in the aftermath. After the horrors of the conflict – close to a million Hungarians lost their lives – it took four years for the Soviet Union to fully bring the country into the communist bloc, but by the middle of 1949, when communist parties won 97% of the vote in elections, the job was done. Mátyás Rákosi’s Stalinist regime brought secret police, show trials, murder and the end of free speech; it also helped create the conditions for one of the greatest teams in football history to prosper.
It would thrive in the hands of Sebes. The son of a cobbler, Sebes had enjoyed an unspectacular playing and coaching career before and during the war but, crucially, was a stalwart trade unionist and a longstanding communist. That and the odd usefully powerful old buddy – he and János Kádár, a former Communist Party leader and member of the Hungarian politburo, had played youth football together – meant that by the middle of 1948 he was second-in-command at the Ministry of Sport, chair of the Olympic committee and the head of a three-man coaching committee that ran the Hungarian national football team.
As authoritarian states so often are, the new regime was well aware of the power of sport and began a drive for national sporting excellence. No player from the top two tiers would be permitted to move abroad to play. The interests of the national side would take complete precedence over the club game. Sebes set about making it happen.
There’s a hint of Ocean’s 11 get-the-gang-together montage in the way the side formed. Goalkeeper Gyula Grosics was banned after attempting to defect, but was brought back into the fold. Gyula Lóránt was in a labour camp having – spot the theme – attempted to form a team to get out of the country. Jenő Buzánszky was plucked from the tiny northern town of Dorog. The drive for youth meant key roles for wide-eyed teenagers Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis and László Budai. But Sebes’s plan did not solely rest on bringing the best of Hungary’s talent together for the national side. He had seen the success of Vittorio Pozzo and Hugo Meisl, with Italy and Austria respectively, when selecting national squads from just a couple of teams – Juventus and Torino for Pozzo, Rapid and Austria Vienna for Meisl. Sebes was determined to have the same set-up.
As luck would have it, the various tentacles of the communist regime were quick to take an interest in the sporting sphere and by the end of 1949 the army were keen to have their own club. Ferencváros was the biggest in the country but was historically right-wing so, in the end, the small team of Kispest was chosen. Handily enough, Puskás and Bozsik were already there and would be joined by many of their international teammates at the club now renamed Honvéd. Honvéd’s status as the army club made the unseemly business of transfers unnecessary. Conscription was the only tool required. Players were given the choice of playing football or grabbing their rifles and heading to the border.
Initially, players were given uniforms, ranks (hence Puskás’s Galloping Major sobriquet) and were housed in army barracks, but the pretence was soon dropped. With the secret police then taking over MTK in Budapest, providing Sebes with the second of his two domestic hothouses, everything was in place. Everything apart from a winning team.
Sebes’s first game in sole charge was a 5-2 defeat to Czechoslovakia in Prague, Hungary’s own Wembley moment four years before they destroyed England’s sense of superiority in north-west London. “After that game, the issue could no longer be avoided,” Puskás wrote in his autobiography. “Hungary had to evolve an entirely new method of play if we were to make any headway in international football.” What emerged was one of the earliest iterations of Total Football.
The outdated W-M formation that featured five forwards became something much closer to a 4-2-4, with first Péter Palotás and, from 1952, Nándor Hidegkuti, wearing No 9, but playing in a much deeper free role behind the front four. It was a system designed, said Hidegkuti, to cause “maximum confusion”. And it worked. They won six (exacting revenge for that defeat in Prague with a 5-0 win over the Czechs in Budapest) and drew two of their next eight. A 5-3 defeat against Austria in May 1950 (a loss that persuaded Sebes to get Grosics to Honvéd and back into the team) ended that run, but it would be the last game they would lose for more than four years.
By the time the Helsinki Olympic Games arrived in the summer of 1952, Sebes had his first XI nailed down: Grosics in goal; a back three of Buzánszky, Lóránt and Mihály Lantos; József Zakariás patrolling in front of them with his midfield partner Bozsik given more licence to attack; Budai on the right wing, Czibor on the left; and Hidegkuti playing as a deep attacker behind the inside forwards Puskás and Kocsis. Five, maybe six, of the side could claim to be among the very best in the world in their positions. The side swept all before them in Finland, battering Sweden 6-0 in the semi-final before a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia secured gold.
The train home – shared with the rest of the Hungarian Olympic squad and the various swimmers, fencers and wrestlers who had also won gold (Hungary came third in the medals table behind the US and Soviet Union) – was stopped at stations by crowds as it neared Budapest and in the capital, 400,000 people lined the streets to welcome home their sporting superstars. But the gold medal wasn’t the most important thing the Hungary team brought back from Helsinki – they also returned with the promise of a date with destiny. The FA president Stanley Rous had watched the semi-final rout of Sweden alongside his Hungarian counterpart Sándor Barcs and, suitably impressed, had invited Barcs to bring his team over for a friendly in London.
Arrangements for a clash between nations on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain were not straightforward (the top brass of the Hungarian government were keen to know whether Sebes could guarantee them victory), but on the afternoon of 25 November 1953, Puskás led his side out at Wembley. The 90 minutes that followed on that dreary late autumn day remain among the most significant in English football history as Walter Winterbottom’s side and the 100,000 watching in the stands were given a lesson in football’s future, “firemen heading to the wrong fire” and all that. Hidegkuti thundered home an effort from distance inside the first minute and by the half-hour mark it was 4-1. It finished 6-3. “Football from another planet,” reckoned the England defender Syd Owen. “Carthorses against racehorses,” said Tom Finney.
While England’s lions licked their wounds and embarked on a bout of self-reflection, Hungary marched on. A warm-weather training camp in Egypt provided No 24 in the undefeated streak, a narrow win over Austria made it 25 and England’s visit to Budapest for Hungary’s final World Cup warm-up resulted in a 7-1 home win, an even more emphatic performance than at Wembley. Hungary were ready to take on the world. And the world expected to lose. Hungary, then, travelled to Switzerland as tournament favourites on the back of a 26-game unbeaten streak.
The draw pitted Puskás and co against West Germany (a team that had existed for four years and had not particularly impressed in bettering Norway and Saarland in their qualifying group), Turkey (who, in typically well-thought-out Fifa style, had reached the tournament after the 14-year-old son of a stadium worker in Rome had drawn their name out of hat following a draw in their play-off against Spain) and the debuting South Korea. In further time-honoured Fifa fashion, what should have been a simple group stage was needlessly complicated. The two seeded teams – Hungary and Turkey would not face each other, but take on only the two unseeded teams, with the top two in the group qualifying for the quarter-finals. If second and third ended level on points, a play-off would be used in preference to any more sensible decider.
Sepp Herberger, though, saw a clear path through the mess. The West Germany manager saw no point in trying to beat the Hungarians and considered a Turkish victory over the Koreans as a certainty. His team, then, would need to beat Turkey in their opening game and then again in a play-off to make it out of the group. It worked a treat. Turkey were dispatched 4-1 in the opener while Puskás was helping himself to a hat-trick against South Korea in a 9-0 win. Three days later, Turkey also had little problem in swatting aside the Koreans 7-0 in Geneva, while at St Jakob Stadium in Basel, Hungary and West Germany were embroiled in one of the more intriguing and controversial group games in World Cup history.
Hungary thrashed a German side featuring only four of those who had played against Turkey, Kocsis scoring four in an 8-3 win. Of greater significance than the score, though, was the fate of Puskás. The Hungarian captain had been in top form: “I could feel the ball as a violinist feels his instrument.” Jupp Posipal was run ragged so switched positions with Liebrich. It made no difference. And as the scoreline grew, so did German frustration. English referee William Ling (more of him later) turned a blind eye to the various clatterings dished out – three blatant penalty shouts were almost comically ignored – and eventually the inevitable happened. Puskás looked to spin away from Liebrich on halfway; Liebrich hoofed his opponent into the Basel air. A cynic might argue West Germany had achieved the perfect result despite the score: Sebes had a strong hand but had revealed it; Herberger had kept his best cards close to his chest; and Puskás’s tournament appeared to be over. While Puskás put a brave face on his ankle injury the rest of the squad prepared for a quarter-final against Brazil.
In another baffling organisational decision in a tournament of baffling organisational decisions, the teams who finished top of their groups went into one half of the knockout draw, with the runners-up in the other. Thus, Hungary would face Group One winners Brazil in the quarters, and then whoever came out on top between Group Three winners Uruguay and Group Four winners England in the semis. Brazil had been runners-up on home soil (and not particularly happy about it) last time around and would go on to win the tournament in 1958, 1962 and 1970. The only answer they had for Hungary in 1954, though, was one of violence. Bozsik and Nílton Santos were sent off for fisticuffs and Humberto Tozzi saw red for putting the boots to Lóránt. Sebes described it as a “brutal, savage” match. But the real action in the Battle of Bern came after the final whistle, Hungary having seen off a spirited Brazilian fightback to prevail 4-2.
Swiss police had struggled to contain a few pitch invaders as things got a little rowdy in the Hungary changing rooms into which the brutal Brazilians rushed. An almighty stramash broke out in the tunnel, with players, fans and officials involved. Broken bottles and boots were wielded as weapons. There were “blood and fists everywhere”, said Czibor. Sebes caught a bottle in the face and needed stitches. Brazil’s Pinheiro suffered a similar fate – Puskás was reckoned to be the guilty party. After the briefest of investigations Fifa, in trademark style, shrugged and left it up to the respective FAs to dish out punishments. It was a decision that suited everyone and allowed both FAs to wash their hands of the whole sorry affair.
Uruguay, the holders, awaited in the semis. In a story that would become horribly familiar, Hungary were 2-0 up and cruising only to throw away the lead. To their credit, however, Sebes’s side rallied and two Kocsis headers ensured a 4-2 win and Hungary’s second final in three World Cups.
And then came the Miracle of Bern. Hungary were 2-0 up after eight minutes but with a thud of his left boot, Helmut Rahn made it 3-2 with six minutes to go, completing the greatest comeback – and arguably the biggest shock – ever seen in a World Cup final. There were plenty of reasons for the unlikely result.
While Hungary had battled (literally) past Brazil and Uruguay, West Germany had a far more serene passage against Yugoslavia and Austria (who they beat 6-1 in the semi-finals). The rain and stodgy pitch sapped what energy was left from Hungarian legs. The Swiss national battle-of-the-brass-bands was held in the town of Solothurn, where Hungary were based, the night before the final and the players struggled to sleep. In the morning, reckoned Puskás: “We were not at all refreshed, but nearer a state of nervous exhaustion.” The referee, one William Ling, made a series of questionable decisions. Puskás even scored a late equaliser to make it 3-3 only to see the linesman rule it out for offside (it’s not by any means clear from the footage, but he looks more on than off).
Puskás may (or may not) have been fit enough to play, but he clearly wasn’t at 100%. Hidegkuti hit the post. Kocsis hit the bar. Turek made save after save. They relaxed too much at 2-0, they were always vulnerable at the back, West Germany had worked them out, West Germany were on steroids … the how and why of the 1954 final remains one of football’s great mysteries (needles were found after the final; the German team doctor Franz Loogen insists they were simply vitamin supplements). Nevertheless, the unbeaten run was over. West Germany had not won the World Cup though, ran the thought in Budapest. Hungary had lost it.
The reaction back home forwent most of the five stages of grief and focused simply on the anger. The team was not permitted to return to Budapest but instead redirected to a training camp in Tata for their own safety. Theories swirled of the squad throwing the game for a Mercedes each. The outpouring of rage on the streets would prove a trial run for the uprising two years later. Sebes, whose son was beaten up at school, and Puskás took much of the blame , but despite the furious reaction, the team soon returned to winning ways with another 18-game unbeaten streak (West Germany, on the other hand, had rather gallingly lost to England, France and Belgium by the end of the year). That meant that between May 1950 and February 1956, Hungary only lost one of the 49 games they played – the one that mattered.
Behind the successes, the team was crumbling. Grosics was arrested on suspicion of spying, Czibor was left out after rowing with Puskás, while Zakariás and Lóránt were ditched for younger players. Defeat in Turkey in early 1956 was followed by a home loss to the Czechs — their first ever defeat in the Népstadion — a 5-4 reverse in Belgium and a 2-2 draw with Portugal in Lisbon. Sebes was shown the door.
The final nail came as the country exploded in revolution in October of 1956. As the uprising ignited in Budapest, Honvéd left the country to travel to Bilbao for a European Cup tie, while MTK headed to Austria for some hastily arranged friendlies. Soviet tanks rolled into the country while both squads were away and, with neither particularly keen to head home, each embarked on mini-European tours to keep the money rolling in. By the time the players regrouped in Vienna, the revolution had been crushed. The Soviet Union was brutally restoring its authority. Despite obvious fears of defections (48 of the 60-strong Hungarian Olympic squad had refused to come home after the Melbourne Games in 1956 and the entire Under-21 football squad had followed suit) the Hungarian FA felt the best way to woo the stay-away players home was with a stick rather than a carrot. Lengthy bans were promised on their return. So some chose not to. Kocsis instead went to Barcelona and was joined by Czibor (whose move to Roma had been blocked by the Italian FA). Puskás trained with Internazionale before accepting an offer to join Real Madrid (he would play for Spain in the 1962 World Cup). It was over. The Golden Squad was no more.
It’s sometimes difficult to get a grasp on just how good the teams of earlier eras were – the game Puskás and co were playing was a very different beast to the modern version, and the grainy, jerky black-and-white footage only makes it more so. But, nearly 70 years on, there is still something other about the Aranycsapat – a sense of movement, space and swagger, of opponents scrambling at full pelt just to keep up. Eventually they did, and then went past them, the same political system that provided the fertile soil in which this special team grew proving deeply inhospitable when things started going wrong. The consolation, if one is needed, is the fact the Golden Squad are always in the conversation when talking about not just the greatest teams not to win the World Cup, but the greatest teams full stop.