The Mighty Magyars’ Alternative History

Tomasz Mortimer takes you through a fictionised history of what might have happened to Hungarian football had the Hungarian revolution not gone the way it had. The fiction starts from 1956…

1952: Olympics

The journey started in 1952. National team coach Gustav Sebes had set up a scouting network which scoured the country for the best talent available ahead of the upcoming Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Different tactics were tried and tested, but thanks to the pioneering methods of Englishman Jimmy Hogan, almost 40 years earlier, Hungary already knew the way they were going to play.

Their system was completely different to anything that had ever been seen before, and their fluidity, both with and without the ball, confounded everyone they came up against. For the most part, the stars of the team hailed from Budapest Honved, the dominant club in Hungary’s top tier. There was Zoltán Czibor, Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis, with other superb talents like Nándor Hidegkuti thrown in for good measure. Hungary easily beat Italy 3-0, Turkey 7-1 and Sweden 6-0 before coming up against friendly rivals Yugoslavia in the Olympic Final.

The Magyars won it at a canter, with the 2-0 score very flattering to the Slavs. The Hungarians were happy just to return home with gold medals, however – much to the delight of friends, family, and an adoring public. The world had been given their first glimpse of the ‘Mighty Magyars’. Much more was to come.

1953: ‘Match of the Century’

A year later, Hungary lined up against England at Wembley, on a cold November night. Since the formation of the FA, England had been comfortable in its superiority with regards to the game it invented. Its governors saw no need to become too involved in any football affairs beyond the home nations. Nor did the FA or club chairmen see any need to evolve our basic tactics or training methods.

Their position as founders would carry them through any challenge. As a result, innovative thinkers, such as Jimmy Hogan, were more welcome in the cafes of Budapest and Vienna than they were at the local pub. The Three Lions had never been beaten at Wembley by a foreign team, but nothing lasts forever. Sebes’ men relished the chance of becoming the first visitors to come away from the cradle of the game as victors.

Kenneth Wolstenholme – BBC Sports Commentator 1953:
14.14: England, then, defending the goal to our right, and now there’s an exhibition of ball control. Just look at that from the inside left, Puskas. Well, we see a great deal of that, I think we’re gonna have an awful lot of trouble holding these unbeaten Hungarians. Lined up in their usual formation, with a front five of Budai, Kocsis, Hidegkuti, Puskás and Czibor.

14.15: Well, everybody has always said, these continentals can’t shoot, but if that’s a sample of what we’re going to have this afternoon, then England are going to be in dire trouble. 1-0 after 45 seconds, then, for Hungary.

14.54: And that was Puskas, the inside left and captain, who scored that one, and my goodness, if he can turn on tricks like this, we ought to have him on the music hall. I’ve never seen such tremendous ball control as that exhibition of that back-heel and the quick shot. 3-1, then, for Hungary.

14.57: Well, before the game, everybody was telling me that it was a lot of ballyhoo about these Hungarians, England would win. Well, here we are, 27 minutes gone, 4-1 down.

15.36: They seem to play football as the Harlem Globetrotters play basketball, this Hungarian side.

16.02: So that’s it. Six goals to three, all the goals coming within the hour. An expectant crowd of over 100,000 has been shell-shocked today. England looked to be rallying when Mortensen got the score to 42 but Puskas, the Galloping Major they call him, and I can see why, pranced through the England defence all afternoon, and Hidegkuti scored three. England’s long and illustrious home unbeaten run against non-UK opposition has come to a sudden end. These Mighty Magyars have sent shivers down the spines of so many footballing nations here.

1954: World Cup

Hungary went into the Swiss World Cup as massive favourites. They were on a 31-game unbeaten run which stretched back all the way to 1950. This included wins over Italy, East Germany and Austria among many other nations, and they had just beaten England 7-1 in their last warm-up game before the finals.

After cruising through a group including West Germany (8-3) and South Korea (9-0), the Magyars proceeded to beat both Brazil and Uruguay by four goals to two (the latter after extra time), to set up a rematch with West Germany in the final.

On 4 July 1954, under heavy rain, the stage was set. After taking a knock in the first game against the West Germans, Puskás was not quite fully fit, but Sebes decided to field his star man nonetheless. The decision looked justified as Puskás put Hungary ahead after just six minutes. When Zoltán Czibor added the second goal two minutes later the favourites seemed destined to ease to victory – just as they had in the group stage – and thus take the trophy.

However, West Germany would not lie down, and quick-fire goals from Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn had them level. Hungary were stunned but managed to reach half time at 2–2, both teams having missed several promising chances to take the lead. The second half continued where the first had left off, with both teams were pouring forward, desperately trying to nab a goal to no avail – until, with six minutes remaining, disaster struck for Hungary.

Rahn reached the ball 20 yards from goal, deceived the Hungarian defender by feigning a right-foot shot and scored with his weaker left. An equaliser from the supposedly under the weather Puskás was ruled offside by the Welsh linesman. It all seemed unreal for Hungary. Puskás’ goal wasn’t offside and they should even have had a penalty in the last second, but at the end of the day Hungary’s unbeaten run had come to an abrupt end in one of the biggest upsets in the history of football.

It would be difficult for the Mighty Magyars to bounce back from such an emotional defeat and two years down the line, the side had fallen into disarray. In the summer of 1956 Sebes was sacked, and then came an event which could have ended Hungary’s footballing system altogether.

1956: Revolution

The stunning success of the Hungarian revolution was pivotal to the nation’s footballing revival. Under communist rule, Hungarian football had flourished but just prior to independence, Magyar Foci was on the decline. The players were being treated like second-class citizens. Sebes was first undermined by the government and then removed when results went against him.

Hungary fell into Russian hands at the end of the War. The USSR took every penny that Hungary had and managed Budapest’s affairs from Moscow. In 1953, when Joseph Stalin died, the people of Hungary were given some hope that they might be free from Soviet rule. Alas, life only became worse for Hungarians as the new Soviet Premier, Nikita Khruschev, turned the screw.

Many Hungarians were out of pocket, barely able to survive. On 23 October 1956 students and workers took to the streets of Budapest and issued their Sixteen Points, which included personal freedom, more food, the removal of the secret police, and the removal of Russian control.

At first, Kruschev was content to let the protest be handled by local authorities. Within a fortnight, it became apparent that the movement was gaining momentum and Budapest might fall. Russian forces mobilised. Amazingly, students and tradesmen in both Czechoslovakia and Poland, the latter dissatisfied with Moscow’s interpretation of the Warsaw Pact, launched protests in support of their Hungarian brethren.

Kruschev suddenly had brushfires to put out in three cities. Then the supposedly non-aligned Marshal Tito took a hand, offering encouraging words and calling on western countries to offer support. Kruschev, unfazed, simply called up reinforcements. England and the US were content to stay out of the fray. Not only were the Soviets now also a nuclear power, but the US would look foolish, to say the least, if they condemned Soviet intervention in Hungary while supporting British and French intervention in the ongoing Suez crisis.

In London, however, ex-Prime Minister Winston Churchill was meeting with former US President Harry S. Truman. Very much against the wishes of their governments, the two somehow managed to fly into Budapest. Once there, the pair announced their presence to the press and on the radio, insisting that they would not leave until Kruschev himself arrived to negotiate a peaceful end to the uprising. Suddenly, with two of its iconic leaders in the thick of the uprising, NATO was intensely interested in the fate of Hungary.

With grudging Soviet permission, NATO emissaries arrived in Budapest to escort Churchill and Truman to safety. The old men refused to depart, insisting upon negotiating a lasting peace and an independent Hungary. A month-long stalemate ensued, with Yugoslavia’s Marshall Tito, long a thorn in the side of Moscow, volunteering, as a neutral party, to airlift supplies into the besieged city. Kruschev was incensed at the cheek of Tito but, with Truman and Churchill on the ground, he was unable to refuse without sparking another war. With the frightening spectre of nuclear conflict the likely result, neither side was willing to fire the first shot.

Finally, with no other alternative, Kruschev arrived to negotiate. The talks lasted another month but when all was said and done, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia each signed new non-aggression and mutual defence treaties with both the Soviet Union and NATO. Under the Budapest Accord, which usurped the more Soviet-biased Warsaw Pact, the Eastern European Union was founded, with the four nations forming an economic partnership, which Romania, Albania and, finally East Germany joined.

The EEU served as a buffer between the democracies of the West and the totalitarian USSR. The twin mutual defence pacts kept either side from encroaching on the fledgling states, enabling them to develop in a peaceful, if tense, environment. When the East Germans joined the Budapest Accord in 1958, Bonn was unhappy, as it prevented re-unification, and NATO and the Soviets were upset that they were politely but firmly asked to leave Berlin.

In 1959, Churchill and Truman, the man who dropped the first atomic bomb, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Ten years, later, the EEU was a thriving industrial bloc and the Mighty Magyars, who were on the brink of oblivion, along with the rest of Hungary, were once again the dominant force in football.

While Churchill, Truman and eventual Hungarian President Imre Nagy were negotiating with Kruschev, most of the Hungary players were stranded in Spain, being in Bilbao with Honvéd for a European Cup match. Fearing for their lives, they were reluctant to immediately return home. Left in limbo for weeks as the Russians and Hungarians negotiated, Honvéd lost the tie, 6-5 on aggregate, having to play the return leg in Heysel.

Finally, the Russian troops and officials withdrew. The players could fly home, be with their families and play for the national team, once more. The whole episode couldn’t have gone much better for Hungary. It lifted their morale, not just socially, but in football terms too, which most Hungarians lived for.

Sebes was back in charge and the 1958 World Cup was in their sights. Could they rebuild in such a short time and banish the memories from the Nightmare of Bern?

1958: World Cup

Hungary entered the 1958 World Cup in stark contrast to their previous World Cup campaign. They were no longer favourites for the tournament, no longer a communist country, and had the best team in the world to compete against, in Brazil. Nevertheless, Hungary’s squad wasn’t too depleted for the tournament and heroes from the Olympic side of ’52, Puskás, Czibor and Kocsis were all there to participate alongside greats like Hidegkuti, Gyula Grosics, and László Budai.

The Magyars were in a group with Mexico, Wales and hosts Sweden. On paper, it seemed a simple prospect but the hurried preparations after political reformation had made everyone nervous. Hungary only played one warm-up game before the tournament, against a poor Finnish side, whom they managed to beat 2-1. The performance was well below what was usually expected of them and the oddsmakers were unimpressed, making the Magyars longshots to win, at 11-1. After the Finnish result, the Hungarian FA panicked and reinstated Sebes.

As fate would have it, the move turned out to be a stroke of genius. Reunited with their mentor, the squad suddenly looked like themselves again, defeating Wales (2-1) and Mexico (4-0) before drawing to a fierce Swedish side determined to defend their home ground in front of a watching world.

In the quarter-final, Hungary drew their former occupiers, the Soviet Union. The match was a reflection of the Budapest Accord, with the Magyars flexing their independent muscle and the Soviets looking hesitant and unsure. At halftime, tensions boiled over, with the two sides brawling on their way to the dressing room. Each side received two red cards but luckily for the Magyars both of theirs were incurred by reserves. When the two sides returned, the Russians were refusing to take the pitch, down two men. Sebes huddled with the match officials and FIFA president Arthur Drewry and sportingly agreed to play with just nine men. The match resumed and the more skilled Magyars used the extra space to effect, scoring twice to claim a 2-0 victory.

Hungary then defeated old foes West Germany (3-1), which went some way to avenging their loss in Berne. This set up a tie against the best team in the World: Brazil. The Brazil side looked incredibly strong on paper – but so did Hungary’s – and importantly, the Magyars had gained in confidence as the campaign had progressed.

Gustáv Sebes interviewed by Imre Oláh for Nemzeti Sport on 6 July 1958:
IO: Congratulations on your 2-1 victory Gusztáv. How did the players feel going into their second World Cup Final in a row?

GS: Many of the players felt a lot more nervous than last time actually. You could see in their faces just before kick-off that they were thinking of the game four years ago, and it was up to me to lift the spirits in the dressing room. I started to talk about how we convincingly beat the World Champions in the semifinal, and all the other fantastic performances throughout the tournament. I’d like to think it really fired them up.

IO: What did you say to the players at half-time when you were leading by a goal to nil?

GS: Again, I had to make the players believe in themselves so I just told them to carry on playing their game, and if they did that they’d win the game. I was obviously nervous about some of the individual talent that Brazil had out there, like Pele and Garrincha, but I really believed my boys would bring the trophy home.

IO: Explain your emotions when Zagallo equalised in the last minute for Brazil.

GS: I was shell-shocked. After everything that we had come through to get to this point, I thought that the Football Gods had at last smiled upon us but, going into extra time, I had to tell the boys to carry on believing. I believed that one goal, if we could find it, would be enough and thankfully it was.

IO: It was a fine winner from Puskás. In your view, is he the best players who’s every played the game?

GS: Without question. The boy can do things the likes of which I’ve never seen before. He’s transformed the game into a modern age, almost on his own. He can do anything, dribble past defenders, score from range, pass, cross. He’s the perfect player – and a great friend. Even so, he’ll be the first to tell you to keep an eye on that young Brazilian, Pele. 

Hundreds of thousands converged on Budapest to celebrate the players’ incredible achievement. It was not just a win for football, but it was a win for freedom.

1959-61: Honvéd Times

Honvéd struggled to make as much of an impact in the newly formed European Cup following the Hungarian Revolution, only managing the quarter-final on two occasions andthe last-16 on another. But with a team full of players fresh from their World Cup victory, it wasn’t going to be long before they made their mark.

In a bold move Honved replaced their coach with the great Jimmy Hogan, who had by then reached the grand old age of 77. There was a lot of excitement about the appointment of the former MTK Budapest boss, but also a lot of scepticism: was he too old for the job? Could he work his magic on a new generation of footballers? These questions were dismissed by the majority though; Hogan had already been credited with the football revolution which lead to the Hungarians demolishing England 6-3 at Wembley, so if this was anything to go by success was sure to come.

And success did come. 1958/59 was the start of Honvéd’s three-year continental dominance. They began the campaign with a tricky visit to Polish champions Polonia Bytom, who they comfortably beat 6-1 over two legs, before the competition really started to hot up.

They were pitted against the title-holders from England, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and lost the first leg at Molineux 3-2, thanks to a hat-trick from Peter Broadbent. The second leg was built up as the ‘Game of the Decade’, but it sadly didn’t live up to the hype. Honvéd strolled the first half, and were 3-0 up after just 20 minutes thanks to goals from Kocsis and Puskás. The second half didn’t get any better for Wolves, who were duly thrashed 6-0.

The quarter-final was even easier for Honvéd: they beat Standard Liege 72 on aggregate. Only Stade de Reims stood in their way. Once again, however, they walked over their opposition, winning 2-0 in France and 3-1 back in Budapest.

The final was to be a much harder task. Honvéd were up against the reigning European champions, Real Madrid. While Honved teetered on the brink of obscurity, the Spaniards had won the European Cup in the first three years of its existence, but they had not had an easy route to the final this time. They squeezed past local rivals Atletico Madrid in their semi-final – a play-off was required after their two-legged tie ended 2-2. Real won 2-1.

Honved would go on to lose the first leg at the Bernabeu by two goals to nil, but the second leg would turn out to be a thriller.

Kenneth Wolstenholme – BBC Sports Commentator 1959:
17.45: Three goals to one Real Madrid lead at the interval then, worth their lead. Their English coach, Honvéd’s English coach, Jimmy Hogan, will have a hard task getting his team back into this one. Very, very tall order now for the Hungarians.

18.05: They’ve really come out of the blocks like Bobby Joe Morrow, and they’re deservedly level at 3-3. That goal from Budai and the two from Puskás, the second from a free kick, have all been top drawer, really perfect. They were calling this the ‘Game of the Decade’ and it’s living up to the billing this time, unlike their tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers, in the, earlier in the tournament.

18.34: Mateos scores, and that’s his second of the game and Real Madrid’s fourth. Do the Hungarians have any punch left in them?

18.40: Puskás with his head, and it’s in, they’re level, 85 minutes played and we’re all square, 4-4! What a player this fellow is, three goals from him, what a time to score.

18.44: Honved not sure what to do here, waiting for someone to move into position. It’s thrown in. Kocsis, still Kocsis, and it’s there! Kocsis has scored, and surely won the game for Honvéd! All his own work, Kocsis, left foot, through the goalkeeper, 5-4. Wonderful play from the inside forward, Stanley Matthews would have been proud of that play. Genius!

Honvéd had well and truly broken Read Madrid’s spell, and with a side that included Puskás, Kocsis, Czibor, József Bozsik, László Budai, Gyula Lóránt and the national team goalkeeper, Grosics, they won another two European Cups, matching Di Stefano and co.’s record.

In 1959/60, Hogan gracefully and gratefully retired and Károly Sós, pried away from rivals Ferencváros, took over. Honvéd didn’t miss a step, thrashing Eintracht Frankfurt, 7-3, in the final, with four goals coming from the talismanic Puskás. The hat-trick of titles was completed, fittingly, against Real Madrid in 1960, this time by a more comfortable 4-1 scoreline.

1962: World Cup

As the 1962 World Cup approached the Mighty Magyars were an ageing side, and arguably weren’t quite at the peak of their powers, yet still boasted class acts from the great Honvéd side such as Puskás, Kocsis and Czibor. They also included some new names, like the highly talented Flórián Albert and 22-year-old Ernő Solymosi.

The Magyars went to Chile with a lot of optimism and were looking to become just the second nation to win back-to-back World titles, after the great Italian side of the 1930s. Yet no European side had yet won one the Jules Rimet on South American soil. The players arrived in South America a month before the tournament was due to begin, which gave them a long time to prepare, bond and get used to the conditions which the unfamiliar continent had to throw at them.

They scheduled warm-up games against both club and international sides. Things didn’t begin well though, as they lost their first two preparation matches. A Pelé-inspired Santos beat them 3-1, and they also fell to another Brazilian team, Sao Paulo, 4-3.

The team gradually started to gel though, as they beat Argentinean opponents Estudiantes and River Plate 2-0 and 5-1 respectively. As the team moved on to Chile, confidence was brewing within the Magyar camp and they were greeted by a rapturous reception as they arrived in Santiago. The Chilean fans appreciate good football, which was clear to see as the fans lined the streets to welcome the Hungarians into their country.

Ferenc Puskás interviewed by David Coleman on 8th May 1962:
FP: We played OK but lost twice [in Brazil]. Now we are getting used to the weather here, the food, the pitches. Now we win our next two, so people start to talk about us again. We don’t worry too much about the scores at the moment, so I won’t make a prediction. And for me, personally, I am scoring so I am happy.

DC: You’re always scoring. What’s the secret?

FP: There is no secret. 

DC: How have you enjoyed your time in South America so far?

FP: Very good. Here, it has been unbelievable. These people [the Chileans] treat us like we have just saved the world from disease and famine. We are greeted as heroes, not football players.

DC: And how do you think your team’s chances in the tournament, can you emulate the Italian team of the ‘30s and claim back-to-back World Cup wins?

FP: I don’t make promises, but all I say is we are playing well and we are experienced. We have been in the last two finals and lucky enough to win one, but there are a lot of good teams this year. I am just glad we are free to play football – if we win, then all the better.

The first game in Chile was special, as more than 50,000 fans flocked to see Colo Colo take on the Hungarians. The visitors ran out comfortable 9-2 winners, with Puskás predictably scoring six on his own.

Not worried by the result, the Chilean fans continued their goodwill and Hungary left the field to a standing ovation. If their competitors didn’t know it before, they now knew the Mighty Magyars meant business.

They then moved on to beat Everton (of Chile), prior to defeating the national sides of Venezuela, Japan and the USA, before the real event began at the end of May. Many of the pundits had tipped Brazil to secure their first world title. They had a great side, including Garrincha, Pelé, Vavá and Amarildo – plus, like Hungary, the backing of the Chilean crowds. They could also claim some form of home advantage, being familiar with the continent, and this would give them an edge over the European contenders.

Hungary cruised through the group stage defeating England, Argentina and Bulgaria, before knocking out Czechoslovakia in the quarter-final. They defeated Yugoslavia 4-1 in the semi-final thanks to braces from Lajos Tichy and Albert, which set the final everyone wanted (not least the Chilean fans) – a tasty affair with Brazil.

With Puskás failing to recover from an injury sustained against the Czechs, the Hungarians’ task looked a tricky one indeed. They may have been expecting a good level of support from the Chilean crowd after their amorous welcome a few weeks ago, but the fans inside the Estadio Nacional gave their full backing to Brazil, who had been even more rampant than the Magyars on their way to the final.

Almost 70,000 people were to be disappointed though. Albert opened the scoring for Hungary inside of a minute, before Solymosi added a second just two minutes later. Suddenly, the match was being played in a vast canyon rather than a stifling cauldron. Coming out in the second half, the crowd tried recovered some of its voice and attempted to carry the Brazilians back into the match.

One man, especially, picked up the banner for the Brazilians. Young Pele, now twenty-one, showed the world that Puskas was not the only footballer who could take over a match. Time and again, he made inroads into the Magyar box but Hungary keeper Grosics held the game scoreless for almost the entire half.

Finally, in the eighty-seventh minute, Pele broke through, literally. Shouldering off three defenders he weaved into the box and, leaning to his left, sent the ball off the outside of his right foot, deceiving Grosics and bringing the Selecao to within one. Three minutes into stoppage time, he was in clear again on a perfect through ball and buried his chance, only for his joy to turn to despair upon seeing the linesman’s flag raised high in the air. The Brazilians surrounded the match official, ironically a Soviet, but to no avail. The call stood and, as the Magyars felt they had been wronged eight years earlier, in Bern, it was now the Brazilian’s turn.

Hungary, not without controversy, had conquered the world for the second time in succession. Footage of the play is grainy and one is unable to simultaneously view the ball being released and Pele splitting the defenders, so history will never know whether the goal should have stood. Regardless, Hungary’s run in the finals over those three tournaments remains an unmatched achievement.

The players were greeted in Budapest by thousands lining the streets, signing ‘Ria Ria Hungaria’. The scenes were reminiscent of the victory parade four years before, but this time they had achieved greatness with an unfancied, ageing side.

This proved to the world that the Mighty Magyars should never be written off.

2017: Hungarian football as a strong as ever

Now in 2017, Hungarian football continues to be as strong as ever, and despite their population of just under 10 million, continues to punch well above its weight.

The likes of Honved, Ferencvaros, and MTK continue to be mainstays of the Champions League latter stages, and though only one World Cup win has followed since the halcyon days of the 1950’s, Hungary continues to be a force on the international stage, and secured their second European title at Euro 2016 last year.

It’s difficult to imagine a universe where Hungary isn’t pivotal in the footballing world, though, in retrospect, it could have been oh so different had the 1956 revolution not turned out the way it did.