Between 1950-56, Hungary won an incredible 42 times in 50 games, drawing seven times, and losing just once. This legendary side is still heralded across the footballing world, and been bestowed several epithets, including: The Mighty Magyars, the Magnificent Magyars, The Marvellous Magyars and the Magical Magyars.
Others simply refer to them as The Golden Team – a testament to their talent and their footballing dominance. It is emblematic that the Hungarian team shone, while their country suffered under the ruling Soviet communism regime. For the Hungarian people, expressing their joy for The Magyars was one of the few opportunites they were allowed to openly display their national pride. The Mighty Magyars during the early 1950's: one of the most formidable teams in history (FIFA / Getty)
What made the team so successful?
Firstly, Hungary were blessed with a golden generation of 6 key players. The team were spearheaded in attack by the formidable threat of Puskas, Kocsis, Czibor, Hidegkuti, while their midfield was marhsalled by Jozsef Bozsik, and the athletic Gyula Grosics stood in goal.
These players were not just some of the finest players in their era, but in footballing history. Indeed, Puskas, Bozsik, Czibor and Kocsis are ranked in the all-time Soccerjury top 10 list for their respective positions; while Ferenc Puskas is rated the 5th greatest player in history (~87%).
Secondly, the team was coached by a true pioneer in football innovation. Gusztav Sebes, a former trade union officer, introduced ideas that were so forward-thinking that they are now considered revolutionary in their approach.
The teams in his era would often employ a rigid formation consisting of 2 wingers and 3 central forwards, and whose role was simply to attack. But Sebes adopted a flexible 2-3-3-2 formation pulling one of the centre forwards (the number 9) into ‘the hole’. This tactic confused opposition defenders who were instructed to mark the Hungarian number 9 - Nandor Hidegkuti - who would essentially play as an attacking midfielder instead of a conventional centre forward. Therefore, the opposition defence would be pulled out of position, leaving space for both Puskas and Kocsis to exploit. Another innovation was to ensure his wingers would fall back to support the defence.
Puskas was the jewel in the Hungarian crown (Soccerjury)
Sebes also trained his players so that they were comfortable across the field. These changes allowed his team to easily switch from attack and defence, while each player was able to deputise in other positions. This tactical practice is more commonly known as Total Football.
Moreover, Sebes adopted a rigorous training regime for his players that conditioned them to perform at their peak physical fitness. He also chose choosing players primarily from just two clubs (Honved and MTK Budapest), which offered his players a greater understanding of each other’s game. This deviated from the international norm of simply choosing the best players from their clubs.
And like most great managers he was renowned for his meticulous planning, leaving nothing to chance. While preparing for a match against England in 1953, billed as the “Match of the Century” he changed the size of the training pitch to match the dimensions of Wembley, using a heavier ball that would be used by the English side for the game. Two weeks before this hugely significant game, he prepared his team against Sweden, who were coached by an English manager; and arranged several practice games in Hungary against teams ordered to play in the “English” style.
Wright and Puskas lead out their nations for "The Match of the Century": Hungary won 6-3 (FIFA / Getty)
The nucleus of world class players and managerial innovations delivered spectacular results. The Hungarians won the 1952 Olympic Games gold medal thrashing defending champions Sweden 6-0 in the semi-finals and defeating Yugoslavia 2-0 in the final. The team scored 20 goals and conceded just twice in the 6 games they won. In 1953, Sebes's Hungary also claimed the Central European International tournament beating Italy 3-0 in the final at the San Siro.
Moreover, the Mighty Magyars humbled England in the “Match of the Century”, winning 6-3. This English team consisted of several legends including Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright, Stanley Mortensen and Alf Ramsey and inflicted England their first ever defeat at home by a country outside the British Isles. In the return match in Budapest a year later, the Hungarians provide this result was no fluke routing England to their greatest ever defeat (which still stands), this time winning 7-1. These results sent shockwaves throughout the football world.
In 1954, Hungary went into their World Cup in Switzerland as firm favourites. They defeated South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3 in two of their three group games, easily qualifying from their group. However, cynical fouling on Puskas, left their talisman with a hair-line ankle fracture, forcing him to miss their quarter-final. In the quarter-finals they played Brazil in one of the ugliest games in world cup history referred to as the “Battle of Bern”. They won 4-2, in a game remembered for fouling, free-kicks, and fighting that eventually led to 3 dismissals. In the semi-final, Hungary played Uruguay – a team that had never lost in the World Cup. Still without Puskas, they triumphed again 4-2, this time in a game noted for its quality and open football.
The heroes of Hungary line-up for the World Cup 1954 final
The final would be against West Germany – a team they had defeated easily in the group stage, and consisted of a team of amateurs with no recognised national league. Despite his injury, Puskas was selected for the game. Hungary led 2-0 through Puskas and Czibor, but the Germans incredibly rallied to win the game 3-2 against all the odds. This game is often referred to as the “Miracle of Bern”.
But despite this great disappointment, the 1954 Hungarian team achieved an Elo rating of 2166 points during their World Cup campaign. (The Elo ranking compares the relative strength of national teams over a period of 30 matches. Interestingly, a 2009 study concluded that the Elo rating has high predictive powers while conversely the FIFA rankings do not.) This Hungarian Elo rating is higher than the legendary Brazilian 1960’s teams, and a record they held for nearly 60 years. It was only recently that this record rating was surpassed - by Germany after their World Cup final victory against Argentina (2200 points).
Highest all-time Elo Rankings: Hungary held the record for 60 years (Wikipedia)
However, the Hungarian domination continued after the World Cup where they remained undefeated until February 1956, winning 16 of their next 19 games. However, Sebes was inexplicably sacked from his position in June 1956 by the governing Soviet authorities. But without their legendary manager, the Mighty Magyars played in one final memorable game against a strong USSR team in Moscow in front of 102,000 spectators. They won 1-0 ending the USSR's unbeaten home record. This result is seen as significant, as it was attributed as being a factor which led to the Hungarian revolution against the Soviet rule.
The Hungarian revolution led to the demise of this great team. Puskas eventually moved to Real Madrid, and Czibor and Kocsis to Barcelona. These 3 legends of football never played again for their homeland, and without Sebes they had lost a great manager.
Sandor Kocsis has the highest strike rate in international history: 75 goals in just 68 games. Puskas is third with 83 goals in 84 games. (UEFA / Getty)
Great national teams are often purely judged on World Cup triumphs. But the ultimate footballing accolade has a history of eluding truly great teams - the Dutch sides from 1974/78, and the Brazilian 1982 team are testament to this. And should the Mighty Magyars be judged on a single game? If so, we must ignore the brilliance of their invention and creativity, their destruction of the footballing superpowers from their era, bringing joy to an oppressed homeland, and captivating the football world through their utter dominance.