Hungary was under a rigorous Stalinist dictatorship in 1952. So much so that the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ) wasn’t even permitted to arrange its own fixtures, and when a request was made, it had to come with a guarantee of victory.
Few would have risked pleading to enter that year’s Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, but having the likes of Gyula Grosics, Jozsef Bozsik, Zoltan Czibor, Nandor Hidegkuti, Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis at his disposal convinced Gusztav Sebes that his Hungary team was on the cusp of something special. “There were some great sides around at the time – Soviet Union, Austria, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Italy – but I felt we had the players and tactics to compete with anyone,” the coach explained.
Sebes have been convinced enough to offer solid, successful persuasion, but rival teams didn’t flash any concerning glances Hungary’s way. They had, after all, lost three of their four previous Olympic outings – 7-0 to Great Britain, 3-0 to Egypt and 3-0 to Poland; their preparations for Helsinki 1952 had been besieged by dictatorial interference and a lack of match practise; and while the so-called stars to which Sebes alluded were big names inside the Carpathian Basin country, they were little-known outside it.
Hungary did little – if anything – to change that perception in the preliminary round, scraping past an unfancied Romania side 2-1 in a game in which Kocsis was sent off in the final moments. But if they stumbled out of the blocks, they hurtled through to the final hurdle, beating Giuseppe Meazza’s Italy 3-0, Turkey 7-1 and defending champions Sweden 6-0 to book a final date with a formidable Yugoslavia.
On the day of that game, 60 years ago to this Thursday, Sebes received a phone call from Matyas Rakosi, the Hungarian Prime Minister and a major Joseph Stalin ally. “He reminded me in no uncertain terms that defeat would not be tolerated,” recalled Sebes. “I didn’t relay the call to the players, but they knew what was at stake and there was great tension in the lead-up to kick-off.”
The pressure was firmly on, but the Hungarians did have the majority of the 59,000 inside Helsinki’s Olympiastadion – the locals had become enchanted by their novel 4-2-4 formation and exhilarating attacking play.
Hungary dominated possession from the outset, with Bozsik tormenting Yugoslavia with his piercing through-balls, Hidegkuti frustrating them with his elusive movement, and Puskas and Kocsis causing havoc in attack.
However, a series of excellent saves from Vladimir Beara – including one from a Puskas penalty – left the deadlock intact until the 70th minute. That is when, following a delightful interchange between Bozsik and Hidegkuti, the ball fell on what was in the midst of establishing itself as one of the most deadliest weapons in football history: the left boot of Puskas. Following a ferocious swing of that boot, the scoreboard changed to 1-0. Two minutes from time, Czibor cut in from the left to seal a 2-0 victory and the Olympic gold that had been demanded of the Hungarians.
“I felt an overwhelming sense of relief,” said Sebes afterwards. “We had done what we had to do, and we had done it in style. All of a sudden the international press was showering us in praise. Those Olympics put us on the map.”
Puskas recalled decades later: “We were already a great side, but it was during the Olympics that our football began to flow with real exhilaration. It was a proto-type of the ‘total football’ played by the Dutch [in the 1970s]. We had positional freedom and when we attacked, everyone attacked, from the defenders to the strikers.
"On the train home, once we left Prague, the train kept stopping at every station to allow crowds to greet us. The scenes at Keleti station when we arrived in Budapest were unbelievable. There were around 100,000 people crammed into the surrounding streets to celebrate! We were ecstatic. That was our first great victory and our hearts were still so young.”
One of the greatest sides in international football history - ‘The Magical Magyars’ as Sebes’s symphony was instantly nicknamed - had been born.