The day magic wowed Wembley
Fifty-five years ago to this day, England strutted out at Wembley exuding an aura of invincibility. This was justified by their fielding of Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen, and the fact they had never lost at home to a team from outside the British Isles.
The overwhelming consensus was that this was not about to change, despite their visitors' own credentials. Hungary were the reigning Olympic champions and unbeaten in 22 games. They also boasted a devastatingly productive attacking sextet of midfielder Jozsef Bozsik, wingers Laszlo Budai and Zoltan Czibor, link-man Nandor Hidegkuti, and forwards Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis.
However, coach Gusztav Sebes was besieged by problems. Czibor and Kocsis had been caught on an all-night drinking session, and were dropped for the victories over Czechoslovakia and Austria. The pair returned for Hungary's last test before Wembley, but it was one they failed miserably: Sweden, whom they had beaten 4-2 in Stockholm just months earlier, drew 2-2 in Budapest.
"We played terribly against the Swedes and got chastised by the Hungarian press and fans," recalled Puskas. "They said: 'Don't even bother going to Wembley. England will murder you'."
This was not the entirety of their predicament. Hungary were not allowed to train on the Wembley pitch, their pleas against using a 'heavy' English ball for more than a half were rejected, and, on the day of the game, goalkeeper Gyula Grosics complained of a sinus infection. Then there was the psychological burden of having lost emphatically on their only previous visit to England: 6-2 in 1936.
Not even Puskas's novel, capricious ball-juggling in the centre-circle could depreciate English confidence. "We didn't know about Puskas. None of these players meant anything to us. They were men from Mars as far as we were concerned," commented future England coach Bobby Robson, then, aged 20, just one of 100,000 faces in the crowd. "We thought we would demolish this team. England at Wembley; we were the masters, they were the pupils."
It took those pupils just 50 seconds to revolt. Bozsik released Hidegkuti, whose crafty feint deceived an opponent and allowed him to arrow the ball into the top-right corner of Gil Merrick's net from 20 yards. Jackie Sewell equalised for England but, after a sublime Hungarian goal had been disallowed, Hidegkuti restored his side's lead.
Puskas then scored a goal for which he will eternally be revered. When he collected the ball at the right-hand tip of the six-yard box, the imposing Wright charged at him. However, with the craft of a torero side-stepping a bull, the Hungary captain's subtle drag-back rendered the defender's rush fruitless. "Nine times out of ten I'd have won that ball. But this was the tenth, and my opponent was the incomparable Puskas," rued Wright.
'The Galloping Major' duly thumped the ball past Merrick, and he made it 4-1 on 27 minutes before Mortensen pulled a goal back. The gulf in class between the two sides was again apparent after the restart, with Bozsik and Hidegkuti increasing Hungary's advantage, and Alf Ramsey's penalty proving a mere consolation. Truthfully, the 6-3 result conspicuously flattered the hosts, who registered only five shots compared to Hungary's 35.
"It was like carthorses playing racehorses," remarked Tom Finney, who missed the game through injury but played in England's less-than-surprising 7-1 defeat in Budapest six months later. "They were wonderful to watch, with tactics we'd never seen before." Matthews concurred: "That wonderful Hungarian team, they were the best ever."
"It was a magnificent performance," said Wright. "Looking back, we completely underestimated the advances that the Hungarians had made." As the teams emerged from the tunnel that momentous day, the iconic Englishman said to Mortensen: "We should be alright here, Stan, they haven't even got the proper kit." How symbolic, then, that England would swiftly adopt those selfsame v-neck-styled jerseys of their conquerors.
It was not the only figurative gesture. "The English supporters cheered our players as if they were their own during the second half, and a large contingent of them assembled to wave us off at Victoria Station," enthused Puskas. "They hadn't been beaten on home soil by a continental team in 90 years of playing the game, and it must have been a painful experience, but I'll never forget the way everyone in England hailed the victory without resentment."
Formatively and tactically, Walter Winterbottom's team found their adversaries unfathomable. Hungary were unpredictable in possession and uninhibited off the ball. The brains behind the masterclass was Sebes, whose avant-gardism provided England with an unsolvable conundrum.
Football had already been blessed by innovators: Herbert Chapman, Vittorio Pozzo, Karl Rappan, Jimmy Hogan and Marton Bulovi had all decrypted pieces of the historical puzzle. But Sebes's foresight at the home of the sport's founders, facilitated by the genius of Bozsik, Budai, Czibor, Hidegkuti, Puskas and Kocsis, had a more profound impact on the sport.
"I learnt more about tactics from Hungary's lesson that day than in years of involvement with football," said Ramsey. He went on to guide England to glory at the 1966 FIFA World Cup™. Bela Guttmann said it had a "major influence" on his coaching. He led Benfica to successive European Cup conquests in the early-1960s. Perhaps more expressively, Rinus Michels, the FIFA Coach of the Century, revealed that great Hungarian side "laid the groundwork" for his own revolutionary achievements.
Cruel twists of fate ensured the 'Match of the Century' was the zenith of the Magical Magyars' existence. Still, how many sides can revel in a capstone so exceptional and epochal?