Sometimes referred to as the 'Match of the Century', Hungary's 6-3 demolition of England at Wembley Stadium in 1953 is seen by many to mark the birth of football's modern age. If so, then Gusztav Sebes, the manager of the 'Magical Magyars,' was the man most responsible for the game's shaping place in football history.
Though rightly remembered for the beauty of their play and the brilliance of the world-class players in their ranks, the feats of Hungary's Aranycsapat (Golden Team) also marked a turning point in tactics, group dynamics and on-field fluidity. Sebes's side have come to be regarded as a precursor for the most skilled and intelligent teams in the sport's subsequent history. As Hungary's inspirational captain Ferenc Puskas once said: "When we attacked, everyone attacked, and in defence it was the same. We were the prototype for Total Football."
Given the central concept of 'Total Football', it is no surprise that Sebes, the son of a cobbler, was attracted to the philosophy; the notion of every player pulling an equal weight and able to play in all positions fitted neatly with his famous socialist ideals. He even described it as "socialist football", and his history as a labour organiser in Paris and Budapest no doubt honed his equally celebrated ability to inspire his men.
"If we beat the English at Wembley, our names will be legendary," said Sebes. His masterful motivating job in the build-up to the friendly match on 25 November 1953 often drifted into political terms - the unsung eastern Europeans playing in the home of the empire against the aloof inventors of the game themselves. Hungary's goalkeeper of the time, Gyula Grosics, later recalled: "Sebes was very committed to socialist ideology, and you could sense that in everything he said. He made a political issue of every important match or competition, and he often talked about how the struggle between capitalism and socialism takes place on the football field just as it does anywhere else."
The communist government in Hungary allowed Sebes, whose official title was deputy minister of sport, complete control of team planning and, inspired by the Italy side that won two pre-war FIFA World Cups, he duly built his squad around two clubs, Honved and Red Banner (formerly MTK). He developed a tactical system centred on the strength of his best players - Puskas and fellow inside-forward Sandor Kocsis formed a majestic attacking partnership supported by the elusive elder statesman Nandor Hidegkuti.
If Sebes' political language was taken to its
logical conclusion, one could fairly say that the 1953 victory
under Wembley's Twin Towers was akin to a chilly afternoon
revolution. The 6-3 score line barely did justice to Hungary's
dominance as the visitors' skill and tactics left their hosts
helpless and the watching supporters stunned. They had 35 shots on
goal to England's five and their final goal, a Hidegkuti
volley, followed a sublime ten-pass sequence. One of England's
greatest-ever players, Sir Tom Finney, was on the field that day
and summed up the match as "race-horses against
cart-horses". He continued: "They were the greatest
national side I played against, a wonderful team to watch with
tactics we'd never seen before." Another English legend,
Sir Stanley Matthews, echoed the sentiment, saying: "They are
the best team I ever faced. They were the best ever."
Hungary lent further weight to these words by inflicting further humiliation on England the following May, routing Walter Winterbottom's men 7-1 at Budapest's Nepstadion. The result firmly established Sebes's side as clear favourites to lift the 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland following their impressive displays in winning gold at the Olympic Football Tournament two years earlier. The Hungarians had triumphed in Finland by overcoming four fellow European sides to the tune of 18 goals for and one against. The gold medal was theirs after defeating a high-quality Yugoslavia team 2-0 in the final.
The 'Magical Magyars' also registered what was the longest unbeaten streak in international football history until the 1990s when they went four years and 31 matches (27 victories) without losing. That run continued into the 1954 FIFA World Cup as they thrashed South Korea (9-0) and West Germany (8-3) in the group stage before dismissing the top two teams from 1950, Brazil and Uruguay, 4-2 in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively.
Sometimes even fairy tales have an unhappy ending, however. Hungary were undone in the final by a significantly improved German side from the one that they drubbed in the first round. After the favourites went 2-0 ahead in the first eight minutes, West Germany took over, evening the match in just ten minutes before finding the winning goal six minutes from the end. Sebes, his team and an entire country were crushed. It was "bad luck" the manager explained, and it was hard not to argue given the torrential rain in Berne, the injuries afflicting key players after a pair of bruising knockout round matches and the equaliser that Puskas saw cancelled out moments before the final whistle.
Speaking before the final, the 48-year-old Sebes had warned of the challenge facing his team. "Our greatest enemy is not so much physical fatigue as nervous tension. I never suspected that the World Cup could be such a test of nerves." Their nerve failed them at the decisive moment and that 3-2 defeat at the rain-sodden Wankdorf Stadium was to prove the beginning of the end for the Hungarians, even if they subsequently went another 18 matches unbeaten until falling to Turkey in early 1956. That loss was followed by a draw and two more defeats, and Sebes was duly relieved of his duties. Later that year, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, Puskas and others defected, and the Cold War slowly swallowed up the lives of many of the Aranycsapat. Sebes stayed active in football, coaching Hungarian club sides until the late 1960s and assuming administrative roles with UEFA and the Hungarian Olympic Committee. Yet for both him and Hungarian football, the golden age was at an end.
Hungarian football was at the vanguard of tactical innovation in the 1950s. The traditional 3-2-5 formation (or WM) was turned upside down as club sides and Sebes's national team adopted a prototype of the 4-2-4 system. Where the old WM incorporated two attacking inside-forwards, two wingers and a centre-forward, this new approach saw the centre-forward withdrawn behind two attacking inside-forwards. A midfielder was pulled back to strengthen the defence, while two midfield half-backs helped both the defence and attack. Sebes adopted the tactic and brought it to the international game using Nandor Hidegkuti as the deep-lying forward and Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas as the central attackers. Sebes also encouraged his defenders to attack and his goalkeeper, Grosics, to act almost as a sweeper. (Grosics was even referred to sometimes as the 'fourth back'.) Interestingly, another Hungarian, Bela Guttman, travelled to Brazil where he turned the nation on to the values of a more standard 4-2-4 with which the Selecao won the 1958 FIFA World Cup.