Hungary went 31 games without defeat between 1950 and '54
The Magyars began that record run 70 years ago today
The streak famously ended in the 1954 World Cup Final
International friendlies are rarely the stuff of football legend. But though no-one knew it at the time, one such game 70 years ago today proved genuinely historic.
While the result – a 5-2 win for Hungary over Poland in Warsaw – wasn’t remarkable in itself, the unbeaten run it started certainly was. Four years, one month and a record-breaking 31 matches were to pass before Gusztav Sebes’ spectacular side tasted defeat, a period during which they became Olympic champions and sparked a tactical revolution.
“We were the prototype for Total Football," said Ferenc Puskas, the team’s captain and star striker. Some, including the former England manager Sir Bobby Robson, went further still, insisting that Hungary’s Aranycsapat (Golden Team) outranked their more celebrated successors.
As one vivid tribute in the Observer newspaper put it: “'The Magnificent Magyars' were so sexy that they made Johan Cruyff's Dutch side of 1974 look positively frigid."
Sebes, a former labour organiser in Paris and Budapest, famously described their intricate, cohesive style of play as "socialist football". "When we attacked, everyone attacked,” said Puskas, “and in defence it was the same.”
But there was room for individualism too, and each member of Hungary’s awesome attacking triumvirate became icons.
The elusive Hidegkuti, who operated as an attacking playmaker, was key to Sebes’ revolutionary system. "He was a great player and a wonderful reader of the game," Puskas said of the trio’s elder statesman. “He was perfect for the role, sitting at the front of the midfield, making telling passes, dragging the opposition defence out of shape and making fantastic runs to score himself."
Known as 'Golden Head', Kocsis could claim to be the most deadly striker in FIFA World Cup™ history, having scored 11 times in just five games at Switzerland 1954. “There has never been anybody better with his head,” Sebes said of his powerful forward. “But he was also a very complete striker who held the ball up and could finish with both feet.”
And then, of course, there was the man who scored 83 goals in 84 internationals, the quality of which matched their remarkable quantity. “He scored countless goals after dribbling past opponents within spaces that didn’t exist,” Hidegkuti said of Puskas, Hungary’s beloved ‘Galloping Major’
For all their star quality, Hungary were still a relatively unknown quantity ahead of the Men's Olympic Football Tournament in 1952. The team’s triumph in Helsinki, capped by a 2-0 final victory over Yugoslavia, announced them to the world. “All of a sudden the international press was showering us in praise,” Sebes reflected. “Those Olympics put us on the map.”
The following year, the Magyars’ profile rose yet further when they stunned England at Wembley in a game dubbed ‘The Match of the Century’. The Times newspaper reported with wonder on “a new conception of football", while Jackie Sewell, one of the humbled English players, described the Hungarian team as “easily the best I ever saw play football”.
Sebes’ side had already eclipsed the previous world record – set by Scotland’s 22-match run in the 1870s and ‘80s – and they continued to rack up spectacular results. By the time they routed England again, winning 7-1 in Budapest in May 1954, Hungary were firmly established as hot favourites to win that year’s World Cup.
Lopsided group-stage wins over Korea Republic (9-0) and West Germany (8-3) strengthened that status, and by the time they advanced to the Final with 4-2 victories over 1950 runners-up Brazil and holders Uruguay, glory seemed assured.
Famously, of course, and despite taking a 2-0 lead against the German team they had demolished earlier in the tournament, the Magyars ended up on the wrong side of the ‘Miracle of Berne’. Their World Cup dream was over and so too was that mammoth unbeaten run, which had begun 1,490 days earlier in Warsaw.
It would, though, remain a world record for another four decades, while other benchmarks set – including their incredible haul of 27 goals at Switzerland 1954 – seem unsurpassable. Perhaps more remarkable still, Sebes’ side recovered from that heartbreaking Final defeat to embark on another 18-match unbeaten streak.
By the time that ended, Hungary could look back on a period – between June 1950 and November 1955 – during which they had scored 220 times in 51 matches. They could also reflect with pride on having made an indelible mark on football history.