Last week marked the latest point in a FIFA men’s World Cup summer at which Hungary have retained hope of ultimate glory, 53 years ago in the last week of July 1966 in England. With this in mind and as part of a three-part series, we look back at Hungary’s past World Cup performances and see how far they have progressed each time. The second edition covers the early post-war years.
According to mlsz.hu, the first FIFA World Cup to take place after the Second World War came in Brazil in 1950. The hosts were heavily tipped to win their first world title and their task was made easier due to the absence of a young but already-impressive Hungary team, reputedly due to financial constraints which precluded a long trip to South America (in the end, Brazil lost their final match 2-1 to eventual winners Uruguay).
Thus, it would be 1954 before Ferenc Puskás and his Magical Magyars, by now unbeaten at national-team level for four years, could take the opportunity to prove themselves in FIFA’s biggest tournament. Their warm-up had been seamless, defeating England twice, firstly 6-3 in November 1953 to become the first overseas country to win at Wembley, and then 7-1 in Budapest in May 1954, before Gusztáv Sebes’ side benefited from Poland’s withdrawal to qualify for the finals in Switzerland without a ball needing to be kicked.
Hungary were well-known aa the best team in the world at this time and results continued to indicate this, a 9-0 drubbing of South Korea followed by an 8-3 demolition of an under-strength Germany.
However, the latter match saw captain Puskás injured with what turned out to be a hairline fracture of the leg, which sidelined the superstar for Hungary’s next two matches. Those turned out to be dramatic, energy-sapping 4-2 victories over Brazil in the quarter-final and Uruguay in the semi-final, before a reunion with Germany in the final.
Hungary were odds-on favourites to win despite fielding Puskás who was still hindered by that earlier injury. In wet, muddy conditions, the Magical Magyars got off to their customary fast start, Zoltán Czibor and Puskás slotting home presentable chances to open up a two-goal lead but the scores were level again within 18 minutes of kick-off thanks to retaliatory strikes from Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn. Hungary peppered the German goal but couldn’t regain the lead and were punished with six minutes of the second half remaining, Rahn’s low shot sliding past Grosics and into the far left corner of the goal to put Sepp Herberger’s team 3-2 up in the dying minutes.
There was still time for Puskás to break free and place the ball into the German net from a tight angle, but the English linesman adjudged the Honvéd striker to be offside and thus a prospective last-minute equaliser was disallowed. Germany became world champions for the first time while Hungary’s world-record unbeaten run of 31 came to a distressing end. It was scant consolation that the title of top goalscorer at the 1954 World Cup went to Hungary’s Sándor Kocsis with eleven goals.
Four years later, Hungary’s squad was in a state of flux. Still suffering the after-effects of the 1956 Uprising which resulted in stars such as Puskás, Kocsis and Czibor defecting to the West, the squad was in transition and although ‘Golden Team’ stalwarts Gyula Grosics, József Bozsik, László Budai and Nándor Hidegkuti were still around, they were all the wrong side of 30 years old. Indeed, aside from these four, no one in the squad had more than 29 international appearances to their name.
The unsettled nature of the squad was evident in that Grosics, Bozsik and Hidegkuti all had turns at captaining the team over their four matches, but team spirit was intact and performances against tough opposition showed the players were playing for each other.
The first of these contests came against World Cup debutants Wales and their inspirational player John Charles, who came to the tournament freshfrom winning the Italian league championship with Juventus. Bozsik gave Hungary the perfect start with a fourth-minute opener but Charles equalised on 26 minutes and although the Magyar eleven were always the aggressors, they were unable to seriously test the Welsh keeper for the remainder of the match.
This 1-1 draw was followed by a fixture against hosts and eventual finalists Sweden, who boasted several world stars such as Gunnar Gren, Nils Liedholm and young Kurt Hamrin, the latter stunning Hungary with a goal in each half. Honvéd forward Lajos Tichy had struck the crossbar in the 54th minute but the referee had adjudged the ball not to have crossed the goal line and just one minute later, Hamrin doubled his team’s lead. Sweden captain Liedholm missed a penalty in the 69th minute and Tichy took advantage of that good fortune by halving the deficit twelve minutes from time, but there would be no further addition to the scores.
This and Sweden’s subsequent goalless draw with Wales left Hungary needing to win their final match against Mexico to stay in the tournament. This they did in some style, Tichy scoring twice before goals from Károly Sándor and József Bencsics secured a thumping 4-0 win. Now level on points with Wales, a play-off between the two teams would be required to see who would progress to a quarter-final with eventual winners, the Pelé-inspired Brazil. Tichy, having a tremendous tournament in front of goal, put Hungary ahead in the 33rd minute but creative forward Ivor Allchurch restored parity despite calls for offside and Terry Medwin pounced on a short pass out from goalkeeper Grosics to score the winner in the 76th minute and knock Hungary out of the competition.
By the time of the 1962 edition in Chile, Lajos Baróti’s team had taken on a fresh, new look and would feature some of the greatest players of the 1960s. In had come Kálmán Mészöly – Vasas’ young central defender known as the ‘Blonde Rock’, strongman Ernő ‘Pixi’ Solymosi in central midfield, flying winger Gyula Rákosi and the genius of Flórián Albert upfront.
Hungary’s first opponents England had already suffered at the hands of Albert two years earlier when the striker scored both goals in a 2-0 home win in the Népstadion and this time they were similarly shorn of answers to the threat he posed.
In the 17th minute of a match officiated by Dutchman Leo Horn – the referee of the legendary 6-3 victory at Wembley nine years earlier – Lajos Tichy made the first breakthrough, exchanging passes with Gyula Rákosi and striding forward before thumping a 20-metre drive down the centre of the England goal straight past keeper Ron Springett.
There were no further goals before half-time and Springett did well to maintain the deadlock with a smart, low save to his left from an Albert effort 12 metres from goal. Just as it seemed Hungary were about to turn the screw, an equaliser appeared on the hour mark, László Sárosi’s handball on the line giving Ron Flowers the chance to slightly fortuitously slide a penalty under Grosic’s sprawling dive to his left. Enter Albert again to win the points for Hungary with 19 minutes remaining, the young Ferencváros favourite running through to bypass a defender in the left channel, round Springett and slot the ball past a lunging Ray Wilson and into the net from a tight angle, just a few metres from the goal line.
That encouraging start was followed by one of Hungary’s greatest attacking displays against another Eastern European team, Bulgaria. Albert was rampant as Lajos Baróti’s side surged into a four-goal lead after just 12 (twelve!) minutes of the match – again held in front of a small, four-figure crowd in Rancagua – courtesy of two Albert strikes, the first after just 50 seconds, and further goals from Tichy and Solymosi. István Ilku deputised admirably for Gyula Grosics in goal while inventive forward János Göröcs’ World Cup debut was surely a factor in a cultured, elegant team performance, the like of which had not been seen on the world stage for several years.
With qualification all but secured, a confirmative goalless draw with Argentina in their last group match was perhaps not unexpected, especially given Albert was rested. One negative point was an 18th-minute muscle tear sustained by Göröcs, which reduced the team to ten men for the rest of the half and the Újpest playmaker to a virtual passenger when he returned to the pitch for the second half. Hungary progressed to a quarter-final tie with Czechoslovakia as group winners but the loss of Göröcs was to prove influential.
Time and again the attacking unit heaped pressure on a strong Czechoslovakia in an attempt to cancel out Adolf Scherer’s 12th-minute opener but somehow they could never quite convert pressure into goals. Even when Lajos Tichy’s free-kick appeared to cannon down off the crossbar and into the goal, the referee adjudged that the whole ball hadn’t crossed the line and therefore didn’t signal for a goal. Thus, an impressive World Cup for Hungary overall ended in disappointment, the Czechs meanwhile going on to reach the final where they lost 3-1 to holders Brazil.