For the modern day football fan unless you are well versed in the game’s history the mention of Hungary and ‘The Magnificent Magyars’ would not even create a stir. For those entering their retirement years and beyond the reaction would be a raise of the eyebrows and a nod of the head to a national team that were once considered the greatest team on earth and arguably a rival to the Brazil teams of 1970 and even the modern day Spanish world beaters. From a promising early history to the peak of their powers in the 1950s, ironically post revolution followed an ever so gradual decline to mediocrity and an extended absence from the elite of world football. The domestic competition excelled on a similar timeline and pathway but with the fall of Communism in the 1990s came uncertainty and instability that has affected the national game but also seen largely continued dominance of a handful of clubs. Welcome to Hungarian football, where Ferenc Puskás may be the most popular figure but where many more legends were born.
Photo courtesy of http://www.fifa.com – ‘The Magnificent Magyars’
At the turn of the century Hungary were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire along with Austria but the regions formed their own football associations, Hungary taking the lead. Their first official game would be a duel against their brother nation and ended in a heavy 5-0 defeat. This would prove to be an anomaly as their first decade was promising and by 1912 they could lay claim to hammering Russia 9-0 and 12-0 in consecutive games, the latter still their biggest victory in history.
Fate would derail momentum gained and came in the shape of World War I, an obstacle that resulted in some of the world’s strongest nations and competition withdrawing from FIFA and forcing friendlies against their former sibling; during the war years 16 matches against Austria created the pinnacle of football boredom as their stars could not flex their might as they wished. A mixture of fortunes followed as they were denied entry to the 1920 Olympics due to being part of the ‘Central Powers’ along with Germany and an early exit at the 1924 Games prompted the sacking of their coach and the chief of the football association.
1927 saw the emergence of a free-scoring, adventurous Hungary. Buoyed by their revolutionary 2-3-5 formation, a complete reversal of a popular formation today, they destroyed France 13-1 in the Europa Cup and earned a runners-up medal in the game’s first official international competition battled for along with several other nations. With Hungary’s invitation to the first 1930 World Cup lost in the post they debuted at the 1934 finals and reached the quarter-finals followed by an incredible runners-up achievement four years later losing out 4-2 to France.
War would once again paralyse the national team’s development but when they emerged a decade later the result was phenomenal. The ‘Golden Team’ or ‘Magnificent Magyars’ would prompt so many gushing adjectives they would not fit on this page. 42 victories spanned a period from 1950 to 1956 with just one defeat in the game that could have elevated their place even more so in the game’s folklore. West Germany conjured up the ‘Miracle of Berne’ and came from behind to snatch the World Cup trophy 3-2. Regardless the era saw a 31 game undefeated run with such highlights as the ‘Match of the Century’, a 6-3 defeat of England at Wembley and the next year coasting to a 7-1 win in a return fixture.
The team was blessed with incredible talent but the rightful poster-boys of the team were goal-machine Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, Nándor Hidegkuti, Zoltán Czibor, Jázsef Bozsik and Gyula Grosics. The first incarnation of ‘Total Football’ saw a 2-3-3-2 formation that meant at the instant the ball was turned over from attack to defence and vice-versa the team was fluid to change positions, a feat made even more possible by a strict fitness regime. Players floated between positions and had so much freedom so that it would be akin to watching a modern-day team of ten Lionel Messi’s in the outfield. Kocsis and Puskás benefitted the most and played together for the majority of their international careers scoring 75 goals in 68 games and 84 goals in 85 games respectively. Throw in Hungarian Imre Schlolsser with 59 goals in 68 games from 1906 to 1927 and combined you have three of the six top international scorers of all-time, rubbing shoulders with Pelé and Gerd Müller.
With the 1956 Hungarian Revolution came the break-up of the team. Despite the lack of superstars their Olympic Games record from 1960 to 1972 saw a Bronze, Silver and two Gold medals, adding to their previous Gold in 1952. Their performances at major tournaments would start to subside in the 1970s and although regularly qualifying the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico would be their last major appearance to date. Humbled by a 6-0 drubbing from the Soviet Union a period of wilderness followed and by the 1990s their slump to 87th in the FIFA rankings and the appointment of God-himself Puskás could not stop their descent.
When the year 2000 arrived and with nothing to lose the Hungarian FA experimented with foreign big-name coaches such as German legend Lothar Matthaus and Dutchman Erwin Koeman. These efforts were in vain as the senior team disappointed at every hurdle with the exception of an Under-20 team that clinched Bronze at the 2009 World Cup in Egypt. In contrast to the years of old the most recognised Hungarian player was and arguably still is veteran Zoltán Gera, a capable striker playing for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion in the English Premiership. Furthermore the bulk of the rest of the national squad play either in the domestic league or at mid-level clubs across Europe. Currently their status shows no sign of abating with strong early efforts in qualifying for the 2012 European Championships and Brazil 2014 World Cup fading, culminating in a 8-1 defeat to the Netherlands just this month; the final nail in the coffin of hope and the final game of coach Sandor Egervari’s reign.
The domestic top-flight competition, NBI or Nemzeti Bajnokság I, was founded along with the Hungarian Football Federation in 1901. The virgin season only featured teams from the capital Budapest and the first two seasons were taken by Budapesti TC. Soon however Ferencváros would establish themselves early as a giant of Hungarian football winning five titles in the first decade and another five from 1908 to 1912. A legendary and fierce rivalry was born as MTK Budapest then won an astonishing ten consecutive titles from 1913 to 1924, adding to the two they took in the first decade. The pendulum of success would swing back for a short period to Ferencváros until a third suitor entered the battle.
Újpest would be the new kids on the block in the 1930s and 1940s winning five titles and the rest going to the other two heavyweights with little exception. Enter Ferenc Puskás and his team Honvéd to spoil the party and the threesome. Honvéd boasted the core of the 1954 World Cup runners-up national team and took five championships in the 1950s. This foursome would become an all-out football orgy as Vasas Budapest joined the party and shared most of the spoils with Ferencváros, taking four titles each in the 1960s. Famously Honvéd were hugely affected by the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. While playing a European Cup game in Spain against Athletic Bilbao the Revolution was starting back home. Instead of returning they played the second leg in Belgium and despite losing they embarked on a fundraising tour playing teams across Brazil, Italy, Portugal and Spain, their families joining them to tag along. When the adventure was over an exodus occurred with many of the stars joining teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain.
At a time when the national team were mourning the retirement of their ‘Magnificent Magyars’ another gem would emerge. Flórián Albert took the coveted European Footballer of the Year in 1967 and ensured Ferencváros excelled on the continent, only losing to Leeds United in the final of the 1968 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a forerunner for the UEFA Cup and what is now the Europa League. Albert was almost as prolific as Puskás and was lauded as one of the most elegant footballers to ever play the game.
Thirty years after their first era of domination Újpest stormed into the 1970s with nine titles from 1960 to 1979, but would not take another trophy until 1998, their final one to date. Not to be outdone Honvéd surged forward in the next decade also with a second golden age and five titles but a key landmark was made when Gyór became the first non-Budapest team to win the Hungarian League since World War Two. With the national team’s final appearance at a World Cup to date in 1986 the domestic league encountered problems of it’s own. Communism’s demise brought economic instability, but success during the 1990s would return to the traditional powers chipping in with championship wins to ensure Ferencváros are still the most successful team with 28 wins, MTK Budapest following with 23 and Újpest with 20.
As the big three have only won three titles in the last ten years between them a new force has efficiently stamped its authority on the 21st century and put a temporary end to the Budapest dominance. Debrecen won their first league in 2005 and now have six to their name. However the team has not performed so well in Europe and has been beaten comfortably and regularly, suggesting the gradual decline of ability on the domestic scene over the past fifty years. Debrecen has come under criticism along with other recently successful clubs, as has the league’s authorities and government, for accepting money to stay competitive. This has been coupled with the constant change of league sponsorship every couple of years, a sign of instability and an unwanted distraction for a competition that on once stood tall but now is considered the 29th ‘best’ league in Europe.
Hungarian football has been dealt its fair share of setbacks and the majority of these came at the height of their powers. Despite these the nation will never forget this envied history. It’s scary to think how successful they could have been had they won one of their World Cup Final’s and not had to deal with political instability, war and revolution. But as the years pass so does the hope that they will return anywhere near to former glories.