NEUER, VALDÉS, MENZO, GATTI AND JONGBLOED all mastered the art of the sweeper keeper; proactive goalkeepers that charge out of their box to intercept through balls from attacking teams, clearing the ball before the opposition form their attack. They’re ‘keepers who are just as adept with the ball at their feet as outfield players, capable of building up play from deep and doing the job that an old fashioned sweeper would have done. Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer is the modern evolution of this style, with his performance against Algeria in the 2014 World Cup perhaps the best example of a sweeper keeper football has ever seen.
The man who developed the sweeper keeper style – and indeed innovated the goalkeeper position itself – is often forgotten in history, despite playing in one of the most fabled teams in football, the Mighty Magyars of Hungary. His story is as unique as any in the history of football, and is typical of the hardships and political pressure faced by many players in the former Eastern Bloc under communist rule. This man is Gyula Grosics, the first genuine sweeper keeper.
Born into a mining family on 4 February 1926 in Dorog, Hungary, Gyula Grosics’ upbringing did not look like the kind that would produce a goalkeeping prodigy. In fact, it didn’t look to have anything to do with football whatsoever. At the behest of his mother, Grosics spent his younger years training to be a Catholic priest, and only pursued football when local team Dorogi Bányász called him up to play, with the normal goalkeeper called up to war.
It would be a decision that would alter Grosics’ life forever. Grosics himself would later serve in World War Two, fighting for the Axis powers, with Hungary officially joining them in 1940. Hungarians in World War Two largely fought against the Soviet Union, but Grosics was actually captured by US forces. Grosics had little love for the ideology of communism and the Soviet Union, and was captured while attempting to flee and defect to the West in 1949.
Grosics was put under house arrest, charged with treason and espionage, and was banned from playing for the national team for two years, having made his debut in 1947. The charges against the goalkeeper were eventually dropped, but the ban remained, eventually being reduced to one year.
During this time Grosics moved from club to club – as was customary in the Eastern Bloc – transferring from his local side Dorogi Bányász to MATEOSZ Budapest in 1947, then to Teherfuvar in 1949, before joining the state-favoured Budapest Honvéd in 1950, along with Ferenc Puskás, József Bozsik, Sándor Kocsis, Zoltán Czibor, László Budai and Gyula Lóránt as the Hungarian Sports Ministry concentrated its national team into as small a number of teams as possible, in order to improve cohesion at international level.
It was around this time that the Hungarian national team became the most dominant team in the world, with Grosics a key component. Effectively playing an attacking 3-2-1-4, with the back three spread wide, an increasingly mobile goalkeeper was needed, and Grosics was perfect for the role.
The Mighty Magyars arrived at the 1952 Olympic Games unbeaten for two years and continued their run, defeating Yugoslavia 2-0 in the final. The following year, the Aranycsapat took part in the Central European Championship, an early forerunner of the European Championship, and won the competition, defeating Italy 3-0 in the final with two goals from Puskás and one from deep-lying forward Nándor Hidegkuti.
This run set up what was billed in the press as the ‘Game of the Century’ in November 1953. The Magyars would face England at Wembley, where they had never been beaten by foreign opposition. In reality, England were a waning force, but the English didn’t know that. It would be Grosics’ coming out party.
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Most know that the Hungarians embarrassed England at Wembley in 1953 – both technically and tactically – winning 6-3 and bamboozling England’s outdated W-M formation, with the deployment of Hidegkuti as a deep-lying forward – effectively a modern attacking midfielder – leaving the English defence with the classic conundrum of whether to step up and leave a gap in defence, or retain shape and allow Hidegkuti the freedom of the Wembley pitch.
Many also remember the classic goal scored by Puskás where he collects the ball in the area, evades England captain Billy Wright’s slide tackle by rapidly dragging the ball back, before firing past Birmingham City’s Gil Merrick. However, what is forgotten is the performance of Grosics; he introduced England to a new style of goalkeeping, one that was proactive and more about judgment than about getting your angles right. It couldn’t have been more different to the approach of Merrick and other British goalkeepers at the time.
The English confusion towards Grosics is best exemplified by the response of commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme when Grosics charges out of his box to meet a pass by England’s Jimmy Dickinson and clears the ball with impeccable timing. Unsure of what he’s just seen, Wolstenholme simply says, “Unorthodox, but effective.”
When discussing his own style Grosics was a little vague, highlighting the importance of timing and the relationship between the goalkeeper and the defence, perhaps because his ability to read passes and step up to meet them before the opposition attackers was simply something inherent in him, something that is difficult to explain.
The Hungarian was an odd character. As brilliant as his performance at Wembley was, he asked to be substituted nine minutes before the final whistle, blaming an injury that he had suffered 15 minutes earlier. It is highly possible that this injury never existed – Grosics was a self-confessed hypochondriac.
The 6-3 defeat led to a rematch in Budapest in May 1954, mere weeks before the World Cup. England would yet again be embarrassed by Hungary, with the score finishing 7-1. It remains the Three Lions’ heaviest ever defeat. There was no need for another rematch – Hungary were the dominant team in the world, heading into the tournament that many believed would officially crown them as such.
As the best team in world football, unbeaten in four years, it was difficult for them to be anything other than favourites. They eased through their first game match against South Korea 9-0, before demolishing West Germany 8-3 in their second game – although the West Germans played a significantly weaker team and repeatedly fouled Ferenc Puskás, leaving him with an injury that would keep him out until the final.
The quarter-final was played against Brazil in what ended up being a brutal 4-2 win by the Hungarians, with many cynical fouls being perpetrated by both teams. The referee commented that both teams had behaved “like animals”. Still, Hungary were through to the semis to face Uruguay, the defending champions from 1950. The match finished 4-2 and, in direct contrast to the previous round, has since been labelled one of the best World Cup games of all time, with both sides playing flowing, attacking football. This put the Magyars through to the final, where they would again face West Germany in Bern.
To place perspective on the relative standings of both teams, it must be remembered that the Hungarians were unbeaten for four years and were the undoubted best team in the world. The West Germans didn’t even have their own league yet. Hungary also had their best player back – Ferenc Puskás would play, although he clearly wasn’t fully fit.
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It was Puskás who opened the scoring in the sixth minute. Two minutes later, Hungary were two up through Zoltán Czibor. It looked as if the coronation was merely a formality. However by the 18th minute, West Germany had drawn level at 2-2, with Grosics claiming he had been fouled for the equaliser. In the 84th minute, West Germany scored again to lead 3-2. Puskás then scored what he, and indeed many other people, felt was the equaliser minutes later, but it was ruled out for offside, a decision that Grosics insisted was incorrect. The final whistle blew and the “unbeatable” Magyars had lost. West Germany had won the World Cup.
It remains one of the biggest shocks in football history, told in Germany as the ‘Miracle of Bern’. The Aranycsapat, the Golden Team, who had been the pride of Hungary and an outlet for national pride, were stunned. The communist leader of Hungary Mátyás Rákosi, who had indicated in no uncertain terms that Hungary must win the World Cup, was furious.
The Hungarians would travel back from Switzerland by train. However this would be no normal train journey. The train was stopped and the players were all taken to a dinner with the leaders of the country, and Rákosi in particular. Rákosi said that the players needn’t worry, that there would be no consequences as a result of the defeat. Grosics knew what this meant: there would be consequences, and it would tear the team apart.
Being the goalkeeper and therefore the scapegoat in football history, Grosics was blamed for the defeat having been beaten three times. The debatable decisions were not taken into account, and Grosics bore the full brunt of communist tyranny. On his return to Hungary, he was detained, interrogated, and taken to a military hearing, where he was told that he was under suspicion for espionage, a charge which carried the death penalty.
There was no evidence whatsoever to charge Grosics with espionage but he remained under house arrest and was exiled to Tatabánya, a mining town. Grosics had come full circle. Weekly, he was taken away for interrogation by the authorities. When the Honvéd players such as Puskás, Czibor and Kocsis managed to escape in 1956 as the country descended into chaos and attempted revolution, Grosics was left behind, having been transferred to Tatabánya Bányász.
Grosics was active in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution – he was right there with the protestors when the Soviet Union forces opened fire on them in the counter-revolution, and he allowed rebel forces to use his house in order to store arms.
Grosics continued to play for the national team, representing Hungary at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups, but by then, the Mighty Magyars had fallen apart, declined or defected, and Hungary were no longer the force they had been from 1950 to 1954. He attempted to move to Ferencvárosi, a club renowned for their Hungarian nationalism, in 1962, but the move was blocked by the Sports Ministry. In protest, Grosics retired as a player and football lost a true pioneer. In total, the stopper made 86 appearances for the national team and 390 in Hungary’s First Division.
In 2008, Grosics was finally given the chance to play for Ferencvárosi, taking the kick-off at 82 in a local league match. FC Tatabánya – the modern name for Tatabánya Bányász – have since named their stadium after him. He was a respected figure and featured in many interviews about the Aranycsapat and teammates such as Puskás.
Gyula Grosics died in 2014 aged 88, a rebel both in terms of his politics and his play on the pitch. He revolutionised the position of goalkeeper and set in motion a chain of events that would lead to goalkeepers such as Manuel Neuer and Hugo Lloris playing higher up the pitch than many of their peers.
By Jonathon Aspey. Follow @JLAspey