Who cares about the also-rans? Nobody remembers the losers, right? Wrong. They do when they were as talented as… Hungary 1954.


Why were Hungary great in 1954?

Despite the nation being ravaged by World War II, Hungary’s footballers became the gold standard in Europe. Between 1945 and 1950 they went undefeated, scoring 105 goals in 27 games.

So why did they not win the 1950 World Cup in Brazil? Post-war Hungary was eventually taken over by a Soviet-allied government and became part of the Eastern Bloc, and the Hungarian government did not want to pay for a trip to Brazil. We can only guess what might have happened if they had.

The team was built around the gold-plated left boot of Ferenc Puskás (one of the greatest ever), flanked by Nandor Hidegkuti (an original ‘false nine’) and Sandor Kocsis (a lethal centre-forward), and were famed for a magical brand of gung-ho, attacking football. Hungary’s ‘Magnificent Magyars’ were light years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of talent and tactics.

They did win the 1952 Olympic tournament, and a year later England felt the full Hungarian force. At Wembley, the visitors won by 3-6, with Hidegkuti bagging himself a hat-trick. In the Budapest rematch six month later, a 7-1 win for Hungary left no doubt: this team will win the next World Cup in Switzerland.

Hungary was unbeaten in 27 games going into the tournament. After romping through the group with 17 goals in two matches, including an 8-3 thrashing of a weakened West Germany side, it reached the final with rugged 4-2 wins over Brazil and Uruguay in the quarters and semis. The Magyars managed those two victories without the injured Puskás, who was back for the final, albeit half fit.

So what went wrong?

It remains a mystery how they managed to lose to a West Germany team it had dominated and beaten by five goals just two weeks earlier.

Hungary’s victory seemed written in the stars, especially when it went 2-0 up in the first eight minutes of the final at a rain-lashed Wankdorf Stadium. But this time the West Germans hit back straightaway, and by the 20th minute it was 2-2.

After that, Hungary created chance after chance, but the sodden pitch gave the more physical and athletic West Germans the edge. Hungary began to tire and with six minutes to go, German winger Helmut Rahn scored the winning 3-2. Two minutes from the end of the match, Puskás appeared to score an equalizer, but the goal was disallowed due to an offside call.

In Germany the final is still known as ‘Das Wunder von Bern’ (The Miracle of Bern).

What happened next?

Hungary and the whole world were shocked and stunned. The planned triumphal return to Budapest was canceled to avoid angry, questioning mobs of supporters. The best team in the world didn’t win the World Cup, so they flew back to an anonymous provincial town.

In October 1956, a spontaneous nationwide revolt broke out against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies. Budapest Honvéd FC, home to most of the national side, were playing a European Cup game in Bilbao when the Hungarian revolt broke out. The team remained abroad until the uprising was quashed as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. Some of them went back, others, like Puskás, chose to defect.

Puskás emigrated to Spain where he played for Real Madrid. While playing with Real Madrid, Puskás won four Pichichis and scored seven goals in two European Champions Cup finals. In 1962, Puskás took Spanish nationality and subsequently played four times for Spain. Three of these games were at the 1962 World Cup. For once, his goalscoring form deserted him and he failed to score any goals for Spain.

Other posts in this series:
Portugal 1966
Holland 1974