Communism, politics and football – the short story of Hungarian football’s dramatic fall

This article first appeared in June’s Libero magazine which you can subscribe to here

Hungary are finally getting ready for their first major tournament in 30 years this summer, but once the world leader in football innovation on and off the pitch, Hungarian football has desperately struggled both at club and international level ever since that last great side in the 1950’s. How did such a drastic fall occur?

Hungary’s most well-known side, the ‘Magical Magyars’, the ‘Aranycsapat’, the ‘Golden Team’ of the 50’s was not Hungary’s only great side, and if you were to speak to many Hungarian football historians, they’d argue that this wasn’t even Hungary’s best ever side.

In the 1930’s and 40’s Hungary’s side was full of quality, such as the great Gyorgy Sarosi who scored in the Magyar’s World Cup final loss to Italy in 1938, Gyula Zsengeller who netted 387 goals in 325 club games in Hungary, and Ferenc Deak who scored 29 goals in 20 matches for the Magyars, only failing to score in 4 international games. And if it were not for the second world war, many argue that Hungary would’ve won both the 1942 World Cup and the 1946 World Cup, and maybe even the 1950 World Cup when the ‘Golden Team’ were arguably at their peak (Hungary refused to participate in qualification), though they would’ve had stiff opposition from Uruguay and Brazil on their home continent.

But of course the Second World War didn’t just devastate Hungarian football on the pitch, it also devastated Hungarian society to a position that it would never recover. Hungary really didn’t want to participate in the war at all, and in 1941, Hungary’s Prime Minister Pal Teleki shot himself when he was forced to choose between two allies – Germany or Yugoslavia – after Hitler asked Hungary for help in invading Yugoslavia. Telki’s suicide note read, “We have become word-breakers – out of cowardice…We will be the most miserable of nations. I did not hold you back. I am guilty.” Telki’s words seem very apt when you consider Hungary’s eventual fall from grace.

The newly appointed Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Kállay a year later in February 1942 did try to make peace with the Allies, and promised the Hungarian people that they would pull out of the war, but when Hitler heard of the Kállay’s intentions, he invaded Hungary in 1944.

This German invasion lead to a devastating effect on the Jewish Community, Hungary’s leading lights in academia and footballing innovation (e.g. the infamous Bela Guttmann). Until 1944 the number of Hungarian Jews who fell victim to the holocaust was relatively low compared to other Nazi-occupied nations, but after the invasion, within two months, 430,000 Jews – two thirds of Hungary’s Jewish community – were killed.

In October 1944 during the Battle of Budapest – when Hungary was attacked by the Soviet Union – 120,000 people died and 80% of Budapest’s buildings were either damaged or destroyed including all the bridges linking Buda and Pest. The Soviet Union eventually claimed victory but by finishing on the losing side of the conflict, this killed the dreams of uniting the ethnic Hungarian people found in the likes of Slovakia, Croatia and Romania who had found themselves dispersed as a result of the border changes following the First World War. Even now players from ethnic Hungarian communities in central Europe move to play for Hungary including former Ipswich and Watford striker Tamas Priskin.

But at least Hungary was now to be liberated following the Nazi Occupation. But it was not. Hungary was instead occupied by the Soviet Union, arguably a worse occupation than the Nazi Occupation (half a million Hungarians were transported to Soviet labour camps and tens of thousands of women and girls were raped by the Soviet forces), and if optimists felt that the Second World War was going to set back Hungary 20 or 30 years, Hungary’s Soviet Occupation meant Hungarian society, and certainly Hungarian football, would never be the same.

Though Hungary were competitive on the international football scene up to the fall of Communism in 1991, it was nowhere near as successful as it was pre-Hungarian revolution. The revolution of ’56 was a revolt against the Hungarian soviet government and the Soviet-imposed policies, which lead to over 3,000 deaths and 200,000 displaced refugees. The Soviet victory lead the disbandment of the 1950’s Golden Team and the great Honved side that mirrored them. Honved were in the European Cup at the time and were due to play Spanish champions Athletic Bilbao in the return leg in Budapest after losing 3-2 in Spain, but the revolution meant this had to be moved to Belgium where Honved eventually went out 6-5 on aggregate.

Many of the side went on to leave the country and continue their careers abroad: Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor moved to Barcelona and Ferenc Puskas moved to Real Madrid, and even though footballing gold medals were to be won at the Olympics in 1964 and 68, and a silver medal in 1972, thanks to the Soviet’s victory in the Hungarian revolution, individual creativity and innovation throughout Hungarian society was being stifled thanks to the Communist’s draconian laws and policies repressing the Hungarian people.

As the Communist regime ticked along Hungarian football declined and declined. Hungary failed to qualify for the 1970 and 74 World Cup and didn’t make it through the group stage of the next three before their last major tournament in 1986. They failed to qualify for a single European Championship after 1972 and have only participated in one Olympic Games since that second place in 72.

When Communism fell in 91, Hungarian football slipped into a coma and only now is it starting to show any sign of life. Finally strategies are being started to put in place to improve the game after it was marginalised and neglected following Hungarian society’s true liberty from the Soviets. It wasn’t intentionally marginalised, the Hungarian people just had more important aspects of life to concentrate on.

Hungary’s qualification for Euro 2016 was hugely important, and though we should definitely avoid saying this is the start of something special, improvements are drastically being made in the Hungarian game and those improvements will hopefully bear fruit in the next 15 to 20 years. Will Hungarian football ever get back to the levels of before? Certainly not. But can Hungarian football be competitive again? With the right direction and some of that pre-World War II Hungarian innovation, they certainly can.