Hungary’s 3-1 aggregate play-off win over Norway on Sunday night was something which put a smile on the faces of football fans who know their history, says Tom Simmonds.
In qualifying for their first major tournament since 1986, Hungary have ended their own 30 years of hurt; they have languished perpetually among the international game’s also-rans, with seemingly little sign of emerging from their Brian Wilson-esque slumber, throughout a series of mediocre qualifying campaigns when they seldom registered as being contenders for qualification.
This Hungarian success also seems like an anomaly. International football feels more egalitarian now, owing to smaller nations being able to field first XIs who mostly play in Europe’s top leagues. Only four of the squad picked for the Norway game – goalkeepers Adam Bogdan (Liverpool) and Balasz Megyeri (Getafe), Zoltan Steiber (Hamburger SV) and Adam Szalai (Hoffenheim) – are at clubs in those leagues. Both Bogdan and Megyeri lost out to 39-year-old veteran Gabor Kiraly in the selection stakes against Norway.
Football snobs – and Ipswich fans who have less than fond memories of him labouring under a large price tag in their shirt – can’t quite believe that a side spearheaded by Tamas Priskin deserve a place in France. However, Hungary’s a name that can make football lovers misty-eyed.
International football’s tapestry is littered with great sides who fall just short of winning the big prizes that the sum of their parts warrant, and, along with the Dutch team of 1974, Hungary’s Magical Magyars of the 1950s are probably the most famous example of this.
On 25 November 1953, when Hungary beat an England side basking in a paternalistic glow that the nation still hasn’t entirely shaken off 6-3 at Wembley, England captain Billy Wright described them as “the finest team ever to sort out successfully the intricacies of this wonderful game”. A 7-1 hammering in Budapest in a return fixture in May 1954 proved that the sands really had shifted.
Hungary, managed by Guzstav Sebes, a man who branded his team’s style “Socialist football”, and conducted by the rotund genius Ferenc Puskas, were a serious force in the 1950s. Puskas was supplemented by such talents as the first ‘false nine’, Nandor Hidegkuti, gifted playmaker Jozsef Bozsik, lethal striker Sandor Kocsis, and Zoltan Czibor, a man who predated today’s fashion for wide players playing on the opposite side to their natural one. After winning Olympic gold in Helsinki in 1952, they aced their 1954 World Cup group with 9-0 and 8-3 thrashings of South Korea and West Germany, before inflicting 4-2 defeats on Brazil and Uruguay in the knockout stages without the injured Puskas.
It therefore seemed destined that the Aranycsapat would take the Jules Rimet Trophy when they were rematched with the Germans in the final in Berne, particularly after Puskas and Czibor put them 2-0 up within eight minutes. What the Germans call ‘The Miracle of Berne’ then occurred; Max Morlock pulled one back within two minutes, and Helmut Rahn equalised after keeper Gyula Groszics fumbled a corner. Rahn’s second after 84 minutes should have been equalised by a Puskas strike four minutes later, wrongly disallowed for offside. A great side were denied another shot at their rightful place in history by human error, and Hungarian football has never recovered since.
While it is fanciful to suggest this Hungarian side can get anywhere near the heights of the team who will forever overshadow every one of its successors, it is lovely to know that a nation who have contributed so much to the evolution of the game are being represented in tournament football again. The fluid system pioneered by Sebes, where any player could fill in any position, was a strong influence on the Dutch ‘Total Football’ seen 20 years later. Puskas’ direct footballing lineage can be seen in the likes of his fellow stocky geniuses Diego Maradona and Paul Gascoigne. The Magical Magyars undeniably laid some of the strongest foundation stones for the game we watch now.
Younger football lovers: Treat yourself, type any of those great Hungarian names into YouTube and enjoy grainy footage of these wonderful footballers playing football way ahead of its time.
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