Zoltan Czibor sauntered into the dressing room, wholly satisfied by his first-half exhibition. Hungary led Sweden 3-0 in their Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Helsinki 1952 semi-final. He had put the first-minute opener on a plate for Ferenc Puskas, witnessed the same player cannon a shot against the crossbar from his teasing centre, and then another of his crosses, which was en route to the infallible left boot of ‘The Galloping Major’, diverted into his own goal by Gosta Lindh.
Congratulation was expected. Condemnation arrived. Directing it was a team-mate. “He told me to stop crossing low for Puskas, that if I’d put more crosses in the air we’d have scored even more.” explained Czibor. “Puskas was the greatest player in the world. I don’t think anybody else would have dared take issue.”
The protester nevertheless had a voice that commanded attention. Czibor took heed and began to alternate between low and high crosses. The critic duly vindicated his half-time outburst by scoring twice en route to a 6-0 victory. They contributed to him retiring having netted a preposterous 75 goals in 68 internationals and almost a hundred more headers than Dario, the Brazilian who sits second on the list of football’s all-time aerial kings. Those stupefying statistics pay testament to why Sandor Kocsis could challenge even the immortal Puskas.
Lazslo Budai, another supplier in that irresistible side, later recalled: “Puskas had the best left foot and Kocsis was the best header of a ball I'd ever seen. The bad thing was that when we crossed the ball, we were always going to disappoint one, because one would want it on the floor and the other in the air. The good thing was that if we got the cross right, nine times out of ten it would result in a goal.”
The Puskas-Kocsis rivalry actually began long before the latter pulled on the Hungary shirt for the first time, and continued until both had donned it for the last. Kocsis, who, aside from being imperial in the air, was also brave, strong and a fine finisher with both feet, made his debut for Kobanyai as a 17-year-old in 1946, but swiftly joined national behemoths Ferencvaros. When he established himself as the club’s first-choice striker in 1949/49, a goal war with Puskas, then starring for Honved, commenced. Puskas, two and a half years the elder, hit 46 to Kocsis’s 33 that season, and then 31 to his rival’s 30 the following campaign.
Gusztav Sebes was paying close attention. The Hungary coach believed the blueprint for success had been defined by Austria’s Wunderteam of the 1930s and Italy’s double FIFA World Cup™-winners of the same decade. The former’s starting XI comprised players from only a few sides, while Juventus provided the core for Gli Azzurri’s triumphs.
Sebes yearned for his key men to be playing together week in, week out, and when Hungary became a communist state in January 1949, he seized his chance. The country’s Ministry of Defence assumed control of Kispest, who became known as Honved, and with Sebes exacting his influence, they added Kocsis, Gyula Grosics, Gyula Lorant, Budai and Czibor to a cast that already included Jozsef Bozsik and Puskas. The results were outstanding for both club and country. Honved won five top-flight titles between 1949 and 1955, with Kocsis finishing as the division's leading marksman on three occasions, while its players provided the backbone of what became an exhilarating Hungary side.
‘The Magical Magyars’ went on the win that Olympic gold. A year later they lifted the Central European International Cup and also stunned an acclaimed England side 6-3, becoming the first nation from outside the British Isles to triumph at Wembley in the process. Six months after that, they gave the same team a humiliating 7-1 tutorial in Budapest.
Hungary entered the 1954 FIFA World Cup™ as the overwhelming favourites, and stregnthened that status by rampaging through Group 2 thanks to a 9-0 thrashing of Korea Republic and an 8-3 defeat of West Germany – matches in which Kocsis netted three and four respectively. Sebes’s troops then recorded 4-2 victories over Brazil and Uruguay – ‘Golden Head’ was on target twice in both contests – to reach the Final, in which, with Puskas carrying an injury, they became victims of one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history: a 3-2 comeback loss to West Germany at the Wankdorfstadion.
That would prove the only loss ‘The Magical Magyars’ suffered in 49 outings from 1950 to 1956, when the Hungarian Revolution provoked the abrupt dissolution of one of the most enrapturing, formidable teams in international history. Kocsis, after a brief spell with Young Fellows in Switzerland, joined several of his compatriots in defecting to Spain.
There, he was the potent spearhead of a great Barcelona side including Ladislao Kubala, Czibor, Luis Suarez and Evaristo. Unfortunately for the Budapest native, his old strike partner meantime formed part of an even greater Real Madrid outfit alongside Jose Santamaria, Luis Del Sol, Francisco Gento, Raymond Kopa and Alfredo Di Stefano. Indeed, while Kocsis was on target prolifically as Barça won back-to-back La Liga crowns and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup during his seven seasons at Camp Nou, Puskas helped Los Merengues seize an implausible five successive European Cups.
That hallowed trophy was one Kocsis almost got his hands on in 1960/61. Barcelona had become the first team to beat Real Madrid in the competition in the first round, though they were seconds away from elimination in the semi-finals until their No8 surged between two Hamburg defenders and generated improbable power on his header, which sent the ball into the bottom corner of the net and took the tie to a play-off, which the Catalans edged. Kocsis then put Barça ahead against Benfica in the decider – with his head, naturally – but the Lisbon giants rallied to clinch a 3-2 success.
Kocsis had once again finished a runner-up at the Wankdorfstadion. And second, due to the existence of the extraordinary Puskas, is where ‘Golden Head’ would consensually rest in Hungarian football’s pantheon of all-time greats.
Sebes later said: “There has never been anybody better with his head. He had a great leap and then combined fierce power with pinpoint accuracy. But he was also a very complete striker who held the ball up and could finish with both feet.
“He never gave up and scored a lot of goals, crucial goals, right at the end of matches. He was an extraordinary player, one of the greatest players there’s ever been. His performances in 1954 deserved the Trophy.”
In his case, though, one can definitely dismiss the old adage that nobody remembers a runner-up. An international strike rate of 1.10 goals-per-games - one unprecedented for any player with more than 43 caps - and over 400 headed goals in his career safeguard Sandor Kocsis’s place in the sanctuary of the sport’s finest-ever forwards.
Sebes dropped Kocsis in 1953 after the striker went out on an all-night drinking bender. The Hungary coach later explained: “I was furious and intended to keep him out of the team against England to teach him a lesson, but it was Kocsis and we were playing at Wembley.”