The Magical Magyars and their considerable influence on European football

Topics football | sports | Weekend Reads

The Magical Magyars in 1953. Photos: Wikimedia Commons
Just past 5 pm London time on November 25, 1953, Ferenc Puskás, hair slicked back like a Sicilian don and oak tree-like legs pounding the pristine Wembley turf, collected a low cross from Zoltán Czibor on the right. Sensing danger, England captain Billy Wright, widely rated as one of the best defenders in the world, rushed to close down his opposite number. Unfazed, Puskás, visibly overweight but blessed with the silkiest of feet, dragged the ball back with his left foot, sending Wright in the opposite direction, very much like someone headed for the men’s room but accidentally ending up in the ladies’ instead. Before Wright realised where he was, Puskás, like a ballerina, pirouetted and hit the roof of the net with a thunderous shot.

The goal would go on to become a symbol of English football’s tactical obsolescence, as well as remind us of the interstellar quality of Hungary’s football. Puskás would go on to score another; his team would score six in all. There was, of course, no shame in losing to Hungary, the top-ranked team in the world at the time. But a 6-3 shellacking for a side previously unbeaten at Wembley was disastrous enough to send shockwaves across the British Empire.

Earlier that year, Queen Elizabeth II had officially ascended the throne, a British expedition team had helped Edmund Hillary scale Mount Everest, and Len Hutton had led England to their first Ashes triumph in 19 years — despite having relinquished India, Britain was still lording over the world. Losing face so fecklessly to a communist nation that had been ravaged by World War II threatened to severely dent that reputation. Matters were only compounded the following May, when the English, desperate to extract revenge in the reverse fixture in Budapest, were marmalised again, this time 7-1.

This, as football writer Jonathan Wilson explains in Shaped the Modern Game, was Hungarian football in all its pomp — in the words of English centre-half Syd Owen, going up against them “was like playing people from outer space”. Unfortunately, the World Cup that summer marked the end of that imperious era. In a game they were easily tipped to win, Hungary lost the final to West Germany bringing to a halt a 31-match unbeaten run that spanned over five years (some reports later suggested that the Germans had taken amphetamines). The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 further eroded the country’s football pedigree, bringing the curtains down on a team and a culture that had effectively revolutionised 20th-century football.

The Names Heard Long Ago is special because it masterfully explores Hungarian football’s back story, from the tactical innovations it spawned to its coaches leaving their homeland to alter footballing landscapes across the world, in some cases their influence travelling as far and wide as Brazil and Argentina.

Unlike some football journalists, Wilson is a sucker for history, often writing about forgotten heroes and teams, and making obscure references in his articles. But more than anything else, he is a tactical geek, an expert at analysing all things football from a unique, intricate perspective. In fact, one of his earlier books, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, is considered a seminal work on the subject.

In The Names Heard Long Ago, for instance, he writes about Hungary’s use of a free-roaming false nine, a tactic unheard of in the 1950s. Against England on both occasions, Hungarian manager Gusztáv Sebes employed centre-forward Nándor Hidegkuti in a deeper role, a position that allowed him to torment opposition centre-back Harry Johnston by constantly pulling him out of position. So traumatised was Johnston after the Wembley annihilation that he wrote in his autobiography, “To me, the tragedy was the utter helplessness… being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook.”

The irony of it all was that the early seeds of Hungarian dominance were sown by one Jimmy Hogan, a former Burnley and Bolton Wanderers inside-forward who made a great name for himself coaching outside of England. Wilson’s portrait of Hogan is delightfully moving. He describes him as a brilliant student of the game relentless in his pursuit of improvement, almost a Johan Cruyff-like figure of his time who understood the importance of sound footballing education.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking is the story of his arrest — Hogan was picked up from Vienna at the outbreak of World War I, and was eventually saved by two Englishmen who had got their own freedom by giving £1,000 to the Austrian Red Cross. Hogan later returned to Hungary, managing the Budapest-based MTK to five first-division titles. Hogan, Wilson writes, was a guest of honour of the Hungarians at Wembley. “For him, a visionary rejected in his own land, this was a vindication in which he took pleasure.”

THE NAMES HEARD LONG AGO: HOW THE GOLDEN AGE OF HUNGARIAN FOOTBALL SHAPED THE MODERN GAME; Author: Jonathan Wilson; Publisher: Blink Publishing; Pages: 400; Price: Rs 1,400
Football aside, what makes this book so eminently readable is Wilson’s ability to draw wider political and cultural references. In some ways, The Names Heard Long Ago is as much about Puskás’ wizardry as it is about Stalinism, Nazism and anti-Semitism. Wilson’s capacity to understand football not only as a sport, but as something much deeper, a confluence of culture, economics and history, is on ample show here.

Also evident is the painstaking research that has gone into this work. Considering how prolific Wilson is — he releases a book almost every year — it is astonishing to see the number of people — some of them terribly difficult to track down — he has been able to interview here. And his writing, while not the most lyrical, has a directness that makes his books fabulous learning experiences.

Hungarian captain Ferenc Puskas (right) with his English counterpart, Billy Wright, before their famous encounter at Wembley on November 25, 1953
Going through The Names Heard Long Ago, it is impossible to think that Hungary no longer feature among the game’s elite. Their appearance at Euro 2016 was their first at the continental tourney in 44 years. Despite reaching the round of 16 in France — a very decent showing indeed — subsequent years have seen them slump to defeats to lowly oppositions like Andorra, Luxembourg and Kazakhstan. And while Wilson offers no broad explanation on why Hungarian football once ruled the world, he does give us abundant evidence that their tragic demise has left us poorer.

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