Hungary’s Thrashing of England Evokes Memories of Even Mightier Magyars

To misquote Mario Balotelli, “Why is it always Hungary?” More specifically, in the wake of England’s 4-0 home loss in the Nations League this week, why is it always Hungary who seem to inflict the most shattering, even historic, defeats on England? Well, it might just be that Hungary are arguably the most important country in the history of football, or at the very least the most important country in the development of football tactics.

Hungary’s Defeat of England Evokes Memories of Mightier Magyars

Middling Magyars?

The nationwide sense of astonishment that accompanied England’s Molineux mauling, which came less than a year after Gareth Southgate’s side had reached the final of the European Championship and lost on penalties to Italy, was largely because the current Hungary side are undoubtedly not a patch on their most famous forebears.

It is true that this Hungary side had excelled in the Euros themselves – in the traditional ‘Group of Death’ no less with Germany, Portugal and France – as they nearly qualified for the knockout stages.

Nevertheless, only a few months later they suffered their own four-goal home defeat to England in a World Cup qualifier and although they had beaten England by a single goal in Budapest in the first Nations League game between the two countries, there was little if any thought that they were capable of thrashing England on their own turf. And yet that is precisely what they did.

However, in retrospect, it is perhaps not so surprising, because if any footballing nation can draw on its historic achievements to inspire current performances, it is Hungary. Indeed, Hungary has played a unique role in the history of football, one that is not measured in Continental Championships like the Euros, let alone World Cups, but in the arguably more important currency of influence on the development of the global game.

The Mighty Magyars

In the wake of England’s latest thrashing by Hungary, football commentators and even many football fans inevitably harked back to the original thrashing of England by Hungary, at Wembley in 1953, which remains arguably the single most important result in the history of English football – yes, even more than the 1966 World Cup win, because the latter probably would not have been possible without the former.

The most important, indeed astonishing games, in football history, are so momentous that they are known only by their scoreline. In the 21st century so far, perhaps only Germany’s evisceration of hosts Brazil in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup ranks alongside the scoreline in the 1966 World Cup Final, and the scoreline at Hampden Park when Real Madrid won their fifth European Cup in a row, which were the first five European Cups ever played, against Eintracht Frankfurt.

Yet in the history of English football at least, the most historically resonant scoreline is still “The 6-3”, which refers, of course, to Hungary’s 1953 defeat of England at Wembley. It was the first time that a non-British side had won at Wembley (Scotland’s Wembley Wizards had already inflicted another famous scoreline in “The 5-1” game of 1928). But even more importantly the remarkable inter-passing, technical brilliance and sublime teamwork of Puskás, Hidegkuti, Czibor et al had made Walter Winterbottom and Billy Wright’s England side look like carthorses trying to keep up with thoroughbreds – and failing spectacularly.

The fact that “The 6-3” was then followed up soon afterwards by “The 7-1”, the scoreline in the return fixture in Budapest in 1954, only confirmed that Hungary was arguably the finest in the history of football up to that point. And although they would fail to win the World Cup later that year, which was a combination of the injury to star player Puskás early in the tournament and the questionable decisions in the final that led many in Hungary to believe that in the original Cold War-era the West wanted a nascent West Germany to win the biggest prize in sport rather than then-Communist Hungary, that has done little, if anything, to diminish the hallowed reputation that they still possess.

It certainly exceeds that of the actual World Cup winners of 1954, the West Germany of Fritz Walter. Indeed, along with the great Dutch side of 1974 that also lost a World Cup Final to West Germany (albeit far less controversially), Hungary ’54 give the lie to the oft-spouted theory that only winners are remembered. If you lose with as much glory as Hungary did, you will be remembered forever.

The Mightiest Magyars

That great Hungary side, of course, came to an end with Russia’s crushing of the Hungary uprising in 1956, while many of the country’s best players, including Puskás, were on tour in Western Europe with their club side, Honved. Rather than return to a newly repressive regime at home, many of them, including Puskás, chose to remain in the West, bringing to an end a truly golden age.

However, even if subsequent Hungary sides, including the one that humbled England this week, have failed to live up to the majesty of those “Mighty Magyars”, as they were dubbed in England after their thrashing of England at Wembley, there has been an enormous revival in interest in Hungarian football in recent years, only not so much in its present and recent past but in its remarkable history, one that predates the team of Puskás and Hidegkuti by several decades. Arguably, those Hungarian footballing pioneers were “The Mightiest Magyars” of them all, and mainly they were managers and not players.

In the last decade or so, the truly astonishing early history of Hungarian football, from the end of the 19th century to the first stirrings of the great side of Puskás and Hidegkuti, has begun to come to light. In large part, that was because of the final opening-up of old Soviet-era archives. However, it is also partly down to a remarkable group of English football writers and historians, centred around The Blizzard magazine and website, who have unearthed the almost unbelievable story of how a dozen or so brilliant Hungarian managers took their revolutionary ideas about football, all centred on the simple but still powerful idea that football is above all a team sport and not a sport for individuals, to the rest of the world, from Western Europe to South America, where those ideas took root and led to the flowering of so many distinctive footballing cultures, from Portugal to Brazil.

Those books include The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide To Football Glory – The Story of Béla Guttman, who was the manager of the Benfica side who ended Real Madrid’s domination of the European Cup in the early 1960s, by David Bolchover; Erbstein: The triumph and tragedy of football’s forgotten pioneer, by Dominic Bliss, which is an account of the man who created ‘Il Grande Torino’, the great Torino side that won five Scudetti in a row after WW2, before they, and Erbstein himself, perished in the Superga aircrash of 1949; and, perhaps above all, The Names Heard Long Ago, by Jonathan Wilson, tactics guru and editor of The Blizzard, which brings together all the disparate stories of Guttman, Erbstein and others into a comprehensive account of Hungary’s crucial role in the development of world football.

As Wilson himself puts it at the start of his book, “It seems reasonable to say that, with the possible exception of the astonishing group of coaches and future coaches who came together at Barcelona in the late 1990s, there’s never been a more influential school than that which emerged from Budapest in the late 1920s and early 1920s”.

That is why Hungary is arguably the most important country in the history of football, or at the very least in the global development of football tactics. And that is why it is perhaps not so surprising, after all, that it is the Mighty Magyars who keep on inflicting the most historic defeats in English football history.