Hungary at the 1954 World Cup

Hungary had become a force in the European football after World War II. Between 1945 and 1950 they went undefeated, scoring 105 goals in 27 games. They didn’t go to the 1950 World Cup because the Hungarian government couldn’t afford it. We can only guess what might have happened if they had. They did win the 1952 Olympic tournament and, in 1953, famously went to Wembley and gave England the mother of all reality checks, winning 6-3 to leave a nation reeling. A 7-1 win in the Budapest rematch six months later left no doubt; Syd Owen, England’s centre-back, said it was “like playing people from outer space. To this date, that match remains England’s worst defeat in all of their history, a reason for the now fallen Hungarian team to feel more proud and ashamed of their own history. Both at the same time, since the national team’s present outlook is not the best. Let’s talk about Hungary’s best ever performance: reaching the World Cup final in 1954. It’s a story full of controversy.

Hungary were stacked with talent, so much of it redefining and revolutionary to the game. Gyula Grosics was among the first keepers to be thoroughly comfortable with his feet, often coming out to act as a sweeper. Jozsef Bozsik was the Andrea Pirlo of his time, playmaking from just in front of the back four; Sandor Kocsis was the lethal centre-forward who would end his international career with more goals (75) than caps (68); and Zoltan Czibor moved from wide areas with flair and unpredictability. Nandor Hidegkuti was the original “false nine,” retreating from a forward position to create space and befuddle opponents (while still scoring plenty: he had four goals in the 1954 World Cup). And then of course there was Ferenc Puskas, a man who makes just about everyone’s all-time top-10 player list. 

Hungary began by destroying South Korea with a categoric 9-0 and then West Germany with a 8-3. As emphatic as the latter win was — they were 8-1 up with 15 minutes to go — it would have a knock-on effect as a nasty foul on Puskas would force him out until the final. 

Even without their best player, Hungary raced to a 2-0 lead over Brazil, before finally emerging as 4-2 victors in a wide-open, ill-tempered game that would be remembered as “the Battle of Berne.” There were three red cards, a pitch invasion and more fighting in the dressing room. It was ugly and it showed that, for all their talent, Hungary also had a definite edge as well. In the semifinal, still without Puskas, they took on the reigning world champions, Uruguay, who were probably a better team than the one that triumphed at the Maracana four years earlier. Hungary again took early control and with 15 minutes left looked set for a comfortable win, but Uruguay clawed it back to 2-2 and extra time. It only seemed to anger Hungary and they dominated the additional period, eventually winning 4-2 thanks to a brace from Kocsis, who would end up as the World Cup’s top scorer with 11 goals.

It remains a mystery how Hungary managed to lose to a West Germany team it had dominated and beaten by five goals just two weeks earlier. Wear and tear was clearly a factor following the grueling, physical clashes with Brazil and Uruguay, and the inclusion of Puskas — still not fully fit but desperate to play — probably didn’t help either. As they had done in previous games, Hungary blitzed the opposition early, going 2-0 up inside 10 minutes. But this time, rather than wilting, the West Germans hit back straightaway, and by the 20th minute it was 2-2. Hungary unleashed all their fury, creating chance after chance: Czibor hit the woodwork and Puskas missed several sitters he would otherwise have buried. However, the sodden pitch gave the more physical and athletic West Germans the edge. Hungary began to tire and, with six minutes to go, Helmut Rahn beat Grosics. Cruelly, Puskas scored what he thought was the equalizer just before the final whistle, but the English referee, William Ling, disallowed it.

And so, the fairytale has ended. Some claim Hungary was forced to throw the game to the Germans in exchange for some economical favors. However, all it’s known is that it caused a riot when the national team returned to Budapest following the World Cup. 


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