A great football nation, Hungary, hosts of this year’s FIFA Congress, is a small country with a tremendous history. Two-time FIFA World Cup™ finalists and three-time Olympic champions, they now aim to try to turn the page on a past that can often be as much of a burden as it is a source of pride, and to compete at the highest level once again.
For 24 long years, the rightful heirs of the Magical Magyars, Hungary’s legendary team of the 1950s, have been unsuccessful in their attempts to qualify for the final stages of a FIFA World Cup. Their last noteworthy performance at the event dates back to England 1966, where they reached the quarter-finals.
Today, however, Hungary are up to 35th place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, their best position since the global league table was established in 1993. The country’s glory years can be traced back to 1938, when they lost 4-2 to an all-conquering Italy team in the Final of the third edition of FIFA’s flagship tournament, held in France.
The Hungarians had to content themselves with boasting the competition's most prolific attack, with forwards Gyula Zsengeller and Gyorgy Sarosi – scorers of six and five goals respectively – helping them rack up an impressive total of 15 goals in four matches.
But it was at the start of the 1950s, under the tutelage of Gusztav Sebes, that the fabled side featuring Ferenc Puskas, Zoltan Czibor, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti, Jozsef Bozsik, Gyula Grosics and Peter Palotas, among others, began to take shape. This legendary line-up performed a fast, skilful brand of football, one that went against all established principles of how the game should be played at the time.
A lesson and a loss
The world was able to witness this for the first time at the Olympic Football Tournament in Helsinki in 1952, where they comprehensively dispatched team after team before overcoming Yugoslavia 2-0 in the final.
Their true date with destiny came at Wembley on 25 November 1953, where the Magical Magyars gave England a footballing lesson, outclassing them 6-3 and becoming the first side from outside the British Isles to defeat the Three Lions at home in the process. Remarkably, according to those that attended the famous match, the scoreline was actually somewhat flattering for England.
Two years later, Hungary went into the 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland as overwhelming favourites, especially since they were on an incredible 31-match unbeaten run that stretched back four years.
Impressive throughout the tournament, Puskas and Co only lost one match, but unfortunately for them it was the one that counted the most. Hungary’s shock 3-2 loss in the Final to Germany in Berne signalled the beginning of the nation’s gradual decline.
Hungary were still capable of putting together another great run, however, one in which they remained undefeated in 18 outings, but the previous magic was no longer evident.
On 23 October 1956, Russian tanks entered Budapest with the intention of quashing a Hungarian uprising. The core of the national team were on European duty with Honved at the time, and many of them, such as Puskas, Czibor and Kocsis, who would go on to star for clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona, decided not to return home.
Little by little, despite having the talents of the great Florian Albert at their disposal, Hungary's powers began to wane, although they did occasionally show they remained a force to be reckoned with, winning the Olympic Football Tournaments of 1964 and 1968 and beating an albeit weakened Brazil side 3-1 during the 1966 FIFA World Cup.
The European nation’s 3-0 defeat by France at Mexico 1986 was their last appearance at the final stages of the tournament to date.
Since then, Hungary have struggled and suffered disappointing results, but their previous achievements are never far away from the minds of fans and players. Pal Varhidi, who was a substitute during that landmark game with England, and who later became coach of Ujpest, believes that “the way in which Hungarians view the game of football is very close to what could be seen that day at Wembley”.
“The problem we have is that our glorious past will always be there, and the disappointing times we’ve experienced lately are constantly compared to it,” said Varhidi’s son Peter, former coach of the Hungarian national team.
“Hungary just can’t keep up. I don’t think we’ve got fewer talented players, but young people today are often not ready to make the sacrifices that are necessary to improve,” he added.
In 2010, following another failed FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, Sandor Egervari, a former MTK Budapest player and coach, and a man with experience of leading Hungary’s U-20 team, was put in charge of the senior national side. Under his guidance, the Hungarians have made continuous progress.
The entire nation of Hungary is now dreaming of seeing its national team compete with the very best once again. And with the conveyor belt of players coming through as productive as it has ever been, fans are convinced that confidence will return as results continue to improve.