Gusztáv Sebes: the pioneering brain behind Hungary’s Magical Magyars

Gusztáv Sebes: the pioneering brain behind Hungary’s Magical Magyars

Gusztáv Sebes couldn’t have asked for a better start. The 1954 World Cup final was only eight minutes old yet his Hungary team already held a 2-0 advantage over a Germany side who they had thrashed 8-3 in the group stage. The Magical Magyars, it seemed, had one hand on the trophy.

Part of the joy of football is the fact that the best team doesn’t always win. This is particularly pronounced in knockout competitions such as the World Cup, where a single error or piece of misfortune can have devastating consequences. The result doesn’t always reflect the performance.

Hungary created numerous opportunities to add to their two goals on that rainy evening in Bern, but their profligacy in the opposition penalty area proved costly. Their lead had been wiped out by the 17th minute, strikes from Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn restoring parity. Hungary continued to probe but couldn’t find a way past the inspired German goalkeeper, Toni Turek, and the game’s decisive fifth goal was scored by a player wearing white rather than red, as Rahn’s 84th-minute effort sealed a historic victory for die Mannschaft.    

“It’s over! Over! Over! Germany are the world champions!” bellowed the jubilant German commentator, Herbert Zimmerman, unable and unwilling to contain his excitement. This was his country’s first such triumph and undoubtedly its most significant of all time, helping as it did to ease the national feelings of humiliation and hardship after the war and subsequent occupation.

As the journalist Joachim Fest later wrote: “It was a kind of liberation for the Germans from all the things that weighed down upon them after the Second World War …  July 4, 1954 is in certain aspects the founding day of the German Republic.”

For Hungary, the strongest side on the planet since the start of the decade, this was a missed opportunity like no other. It was also the last World Cup match Gusztáv Sebes would ever manage.

 

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Sebes was born in Budapest, then part of Austria-Hungary, in 1906. He represented three other clubs between World War One and World War Two, but most of his playing career was spent with Hungaria FC, with whom he won three league titles between 1929 and 1940. He also won a solitary cap for the national team, representing his country in an interwar encounter in 1936.

At the stage it was Austria – World Cup semi-finalists in 1934, having previously scored 101 goals in 31 games over a three-year period – who led the way in the region. They had beaten neighbours Hungary 2-1 in the last eight of that tournament, before narrowly losing to hosts and eventual winners Italy. Hungary weren’t far behind, though, as they proved when they reached the final in 1938. A 4-2 defeat by the holders in the Paris showpiece was far from a disgrace, but football was about to take a back seat due to the imminent breakout of war.

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Initially hesitant to involve themselves in the conflict, Hungary eventually joined the Axis powers’ Tripartite Pact in November 1940. The government later considered switching its allegiance, which didn’t please Adolf Hitler when he found out in 1944; the Führer reacted by installing Nazi officials into positions of power within the Hungarian system.

By mid-February 1945, the Germans had been ousted by the Soviet Union – but only after the 50-day Siege of Budapest had claimed the lives of 38,000 civilians. Eighty percent of the capital’s buildings were destroyed or damaged, as were all seven of the Danube’s bridges. The Soviets’ occupation of the country continued even after the expulsion of the last German troops in April, and by the end of the decade, Hungary had become a fully-fledged member of the communist movement.

A wave of nationalisation quickly spread across the nation, and football was no exception. The FA was made to answer to the Ministry of Sport. Honvéd were taken over by the army, and MTK became controlled by the secret police. Ferencváros, one of Hungary’s biggest and most popular clubs, were harmed because of their wartime association with fascism.

Like many regimes before and after, the ruling party realised that football could be used to their benefit. This was good news for Sebes, who possessed strong communist credentials. He had organised a strike calling for fairer pay at a factory in which he’d worked in the 1920s; the following decade, he led demonstrations at Renault in Paris. Having been involved in the restructuring of the FA, Sebes was appointed deputy minister of sport and later became president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee. 

In purely footballing terms, Béla Guttmann and Márton Bukovi were the two leading candidates to succeed national team boss Tibor Gallowich in 1948, but Sebes was always likely to be the Communist Party’s first choice. As the man himself once said: “The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch.”

Sebes never attempted to hide his political beliefs, and his players acknowledged the clear link between his managerial approach and his broader outlook on life. “Sebes was deeply committed to socialist ideology and you could feel it in everything he said,” said Gyula Grosics, an outstanding goalkeeper who won 86 caps for Hungary. “He made a political issue of every important match or competition; he often said that the fierce struggle between capitalism and socialism took place as much on the football field as anywhere else.”

 

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Given their proximity and success in the 1930s, it was only natural that Austrian football would have a huge influence on the Hungarian game. The key figure, though, was an Englishman by the name of Jimmy Hogan. An intelligent and open-minded man, Hogan was a forward-thinking coach who did much for the development of the sport across Europe. 

His first managerial job came with the Netherlands national team, which preceded a brief spell in Austria with Amateure SV. Between 1914 and 1921 Hogan was at the helm of MTK in Hungary, spreading a gospel which consisted of three main tenets: short passing, constant movement and the interchanging of positions. He then spent a few years working in Switzerland but returned to MTK in the mid-1920s, before partnering with Hugo Meisl to lead Austria through their golden period the following decade.

Read  |  Jimmy Hogan: the English pioneer who set Hungary up for greatness

Ajax managers Jack Reynolds and Rinus Michels both considered Hogan a major influence on their thinking, as did a host of Hungarian coaches who were able to observe his work up close and personal. The aforementioned Bukovi was another who took his ideas on board and, crucially, shared his pioneering spirit. 

Hogan may have ended his association with MTK in 1927 but the club continued to practice his football long after his departure. Bukovi was responsible for the development of the 4-2-4 formation, which would later be taken to Brazil by Guttmann, while he also experimented with Péter Palotás as a deep-lying centre-forward. Players were encouraged to swap positions and move around the pitch to keep opponents guessing. 

With power and control increasingly centralised, the domestic league was reorganised to give the national team the greatest possible chance of success. Recognising that Meisl (Austria) and Vittorio Pozzo (Italy) had tended to draw players from one or two clubs, Sebes was the driving force behind the army’s takeover of Kispest, who were promptly renamed Honvéd.

From the late 1940s onwards, they and MTK would supply the vast majority of the national team’s players, as well as providing a sphere in which tactics and team chemistry could be developed. Of those who would become the most prominent members of the Magical Magyars, only Nándor Hidegkuti plied his trade elsewhere.

Sebes and his staff – which included Bukovi and Gyula Mándi, the team’s nominal manager who was nonetheless subordinate to Sebes as the deputy minister of sport – also set up a nationwide scouting network and explained their objectives to Hungarian coaches, bringing them on board and consequently making it easier for the national team to play friendlies and hold training sessions on a weekly basis. Ahead of international fixtures, Sebes would routinely organise warm-up games against local club sides and instruct them to adopt the tactics of their upcoming opponents.

Of course, his ability to do so depended heavily upon the power of the Communist Party and his position within it, but Sebes was also a genuine innovator. He introduced frequent swimming sessions into Hungary’s training regime to increase players’ lung power. Medical experts were brought in to explain the negative effects of cigarettes and alcohol. Instead of drinking sessions, the squad visited museums and art galleries, while trips to factories across the country were viewed favourably by the powers that be. Sebes saw his role as a holistic one, which is why he persuaded the government to build a central sports complex to aid preparations for the 1952 Olympic Games. 

Hungary were determined to give a good account of themselves on the football field in Helsinki that summer, particularly as they had missed out on the World Cup in Brazil two years prior due to a lack of funds. Sebes’ side kicked off their campaign with a 2-1 win against Romania, before victories over Italy (3-0), Turkey (7-1) and Sweden (6-0) set up a politically-charged final against Yugoslavia.  

Defeat was not an option. The split between Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Yugoslav supremo Josip Tito had occurred just four years earlier; when the two countries met in the first round, it was Yugoslavia who came out on top. Hungary’s Communist Party knew that they simply had to prevail in the final – and prevail they did, winning 2-0 thanks to goals from Ferenc Puskás and Zoltán Czibor. In the eyes of both the Hungarian and Soviet regimes, communist pride had been restored.

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It was a significant moment on the pitch too, providing tangible proof of the team’s progress. In tactical terms, though, perhaps the 4-2 triumph over Switzerland in the Central European International Cup six weeks after the Olympic final was more important. With Hungary two goals down and on the verge of losing their 14-game unbeaten record, Sebes replaced Palotás with Hidegkuti in the false nine role. It worked a treat, and Hungary rarely deviated from the new arrangement thereafter. 

 

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In May 1953, Sebes masterminded a brilliant 3-0 victory over Italy in Rome to secure top spot in the five-team Central European International Cup table. By now, Hungary’s first-choice starting XI was well established: Grosics, Jenő Buzánszky, Gyula Lóránt, Mihály Lantos, József Bozsik, József Zakarias, László Budai, Hidegkuti, Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis and Puskás.

As well as the use of a withdrawn centre-forward, Hungary innovated by employing three full-backs and two half-backs, a diversion from the more traditional WM formation which paired two full-backs with three half-backs. Zakarias regularly dropped back into defence, while Grosics was encouraged to leave his penalty area and sweep up behind the backline. When the ball was in his possession, Puskás and Hidegkuti moved towards rather than away from their goalkeeper – the exact opposite of what was commonplace at the time.

A committed socialist, Sebes continually emphasised that, in his team, the system always trumped the individual. “Instead of the magic square of half-backs and inside-forwards playing themselves into a state of exhaustion, it was decided the work should be shared out amongst the team,” Puskas explained. “Attack and defence should work harmoniously as one.”

At the same time, though, Sebes fostered a spirit of collaboration, and he certainly wasn’t afraid to take on board the ideas of those he worked with; Bukovi and Mándi, for instance, were much more than mere yes-men. The players were afforded plenty of agency too, with Buzanszky revealing that Puskás, Hidegkuti and Bozsik – “our computers”, as he called them – would routinely read the pattern of the game in the opening 15 minutes, deciphering the opposition’s weaknesses and then devising a strategy to exploit them.

“Though all six of us [Bozsik, Czibor, Budai, Puskás, Kocsis and himself] could attack, we never played in a line formation,” said Hidegkuti. “If I went forward, Puskás dropped back. If Kocsis drifted wide, Bozsik moved into middle. There was always space to play the ball into… we constantly changed positions, so where we lined up at kick-off was irrelevant.”

 

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Six months after that Italy clash, Hungary faced what most experts at the time considered their biggest test yet. England hadn’t exactly covered themselves in glory at the 1950 World Cup, going down 1-0 to the United States in what is still one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history, but they had lost only two of their 24 subsequent assignments. Moreover, the Three Lions had never been defeated at home by a team from outside the British Isles. Hungary may not have suffered a single defeat in three and a half years, but winning at Wembley would surely prove a step too far.

In typically meticulous fashion, Sebes began preparations immediately after the win in Rome. Hungary began playing with the heavier type of ball that was used in England at the time, while training camps were held near Lake Balaton and a warm-weather retreat to Egypt arranged. Before the game Sebes held a four-hour-long tactical team talk – more, it seems safe to say, than opposite number Walter Winterbottom. 

What followed was one of the most astonishing performances in the history of international football. Hungary won 6-3 but the margin of victory could easily have been larger; had the visitors got into double figures it wouldn’t have been an inaccurate reflection of their dominance. Hungary’s innovations baffled their English opponents, with Hidegkuti’s between-the-lines positioning, Grosics’ proactive goalkeeping, Bozsik’s forwards runs from midfield and Zakarias’ retreats into the backline all moves to which the hosts had no answer. 

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Perhaps the best example of Hungary’s intoxicating fluidity was the third, scored by Puskás in the 24th minute. The goal is best remembered for the journalist Geoffrey Green’s wonderful description of defender Billy Wright hopelessly charging past Puskás “like a fire engine going to the wrong fire” after the forward’s brilliant drag-back, but the most interesting element of the move is that Czibor, the outside left, provided the assist via a cut-back from the right flank.

“Hungary were combining two styles – the British all-running cut and thrust and the short passing game of probing infiltration much favoured at the time by the South Americans,” Stanley Matthews, England’s right-winger that day, wrote in his autobiography. “It was an imaginative combination of exacting ball control, speed of movement and esoteric vision that knitted together to formulate a style of football that was as innovative as it was productive. Long before the final whistle, the glory of our footballing past had been laid to rest.”

 

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After qualifying for the 1954 World Cup without playing a game due to Poland’s withdrawal, Hungary’s final pre-tournament game confirmed their superiority over England. The Three Lions headed to Budapest determined to prove that the previous year’s shellacking was a one-off; instead, they departed with their tails firmly between their legs after a 7-1 thrashing.

Sebes and his squad, unbeaten since 1950, arrived in Switzerland as heavy favourites to claim the trophy. The competition followed a curious format: each group of four contained two seeded and two unseeded teams, and there would be no meetings between sides of the same ranking. Each country, therefore, played just two group games, with the top two finishers advancing to the quarter-finals.

Hungary sauntered to a 9-0 victory over South Korea in their maiden outing, before inflicting an 8-3 defeat on West Germany. It was a comfortable afternoon in Basel for the Magyars, although their opponents had rotated their team to keep players fresh for a probable play-off against Turkey. The gamble paid off, with the West Germans running out 7-2 winners in Zürich to advance to the knockout phase.

That 8-3 triumph was overshadowed by an injury to Puskás, who suffered a hairline fracture of the ankle after a tackle by Werner Liebrich – “the foul that won the World Cup,” as Brian Glanville later put it. It didn’t affect Hungary in the short-term – the score was 5-1 when they were forced down to ten men with 32 minutes left to play – but the loss of their star man was patently a major blow going forward. Puskás admitted to crying bitterly every night as he attempted to race back to full fitness, drying his bedding each morning so his team-mates didn’t see the tear-stained pillow.

Hungary were pitted against Brazil in the last eight – and, with Puskás absent, there was cause for concern. The Seleção had come within minutes of winning the 1950 tournament on home soil, and in the likes of Didi, Djalma Santos, Nílton Santos and Julinho they had a host of top-class players determined to lead the country to its first World Cup triumph.

The bruising encounter that followed wasn’t what anyone expected, with the match becoming known as the Battle of Berne. Nílton Santos and Bozsik were sent off after coming to blows. Brazil forward Humberto also saw red late on for kicking out at Lorant. There were a further four yellow cards administered by English referee Arthur Ellis, who called the game “horrible” and “a disgrace”.

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Before all the violence, Hungary had taken charge of the contest with two goals from Hidegkuti and Kocsis inside the first seven minutes. Djalma Santos halved the deficit from the penalty spot in the 18th minute, before Lantos made no mistake from 12 yards on the hour mark. Julinho again brought Brazil back to within a goal of parity, but Kocsis’ late effort gave Hungary some much-needed breathing space and wrapped up a 4-2 triumph.

The drama wasn’t over at the final whistle, though, as angry Brazil supporters rushed onto the field and fighting broke out in the tunnel. Pinheiro accused Puskás of bottling him, while Sebes required four stitches for a facial wound. FIFA promptly decided that they could do without the hassle, so delegated the task of doling out punishments to the respective nations.

Hungary had no time to dwell on events at the Wankdorf Stadium, with holders Uruguay – who had never lost a World Cup game at this point – waiting in the wings in the semi-final. Bozsik was given clearance to play despite his red card against Brazil, while Sebes opted to deploy Palotás as his deep-lying centre-forward, with Hidegkuti moving to outside left. There was no space in the XI for Puskás, despite the fact that Hungary’s medical staff tried to persuade Sebes that he was fit to play.

Czibor’s early goal put Hungary ahead at the break, with Hidegkuti doubling their advantage less than two minutes after the restart. Uruguay showed characteristic resilience to hit back with two strikes of their own, both of which were scored by Juan Hohberg to send the match to extra time. 

It was Hungary’s superior fitness that allowed them to wrestle back the momentum in the additional half-hour, although they had to wait until the 109th minute before their lead was restored through Kocsis, who soon added his second and his team’s fourth to put the game out of the reach of the defending champions. The Magical Magyars had done it. A place in the World Cup final was theirs. All that stood between them and the Jules Rimet trophy was a team they had soundly beaten in the group stage.

 

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There was no doubt who the favourites were. Hungary had reiterated their credentials by beating the best South America had to offer in the knockout stage, and the return to the side of Puskás represented a major boost to a team who had nonetheless scored eight goals without him.

Yet things didn’t go to plan. Having in effect placed one hand on the trophy by sprinting into a 2-0 lead, Hungary somehow threw it all away. On a heavy, rain-sodden pitch, West Germany – who benefited from revolutionary Adidas boots with screw-in studs – were driven on by the indefatigable Fritz Walter, a brilliant box-to-box midfielder. Hungary ended the match with 26 shots to their opponents’ 16, but it wasn’t to be. After going four years without defeat, Sebes’ side had lost the game that mattered most.

“The Hungarians, after that swift start of theirs, struck one as being decoyed into a false sense of security,” read The Times’ match report. “In fact one felt at times that they were taking things rather too much for granted. There seemed a little bit too much assurance about their play, even an overweening superiority, for which they had to pay, together with all the bad luck that was going, at the last.”

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The contention that Hungary took their foot off the gas when further acceleration would have killed West Germany off is a credible one. However, the above account is right to mention their misfortune. Hungary missed several good chances, with goalkeeper Toni Turek doing a superb job of thwarting the Hungarian attack. Puskás wasn’t fully fit. The players were visibly fatigued late on, worn down by their gruelling clashes with Brazil and Uruguay.

With the final scheduled for Sunday, the squad didn’t arrive back to their hotel until 4am in the early hours of Saturday morning following the semi-final, and were then kept awake by a band on the street the following night. More sinisterly, allegations of German doping later emerged – a Leipzig University study in 2010 claimed that the players had been injected with methamphetamine, a banned substance.

As is often the way, the architect of Hungary’s rise over the last four years bore the brunt of the post-match criticism. Sebes was scolded for playing Puskás; for flying the players’ families over but forbidding them to see their loved ones until after the final; for dropping Budai; for selecting Tóth on the left and Czibor on the right; for overcomplicating matters and attempting to surprise West Germany, rather than sticking with the Plan A that had worked so well up to that point. 

The scapegoated manager struggled to recover. His standing within the regime, which was poised to celebrate World Cup glory as an ideological and political victory, was never the same again. He and his players, who flew back to Tata to avoid the angry crowds in Budapest, were advised to remain at home in the days after the defeat, and Sebes’ son was even beaten up at school. 

Between the World Cup final loss and February 1956, Hungary went on an 18-game unbeaten run. In ordinary circumstances this may have led to optimism about a redemptive victory at the next World Cup, but the political situation was far too volatile for such positivity.

Sebes was replaced by Bukovi in June, four months before the Hungarian Uprising which had claimed the lives of more than 2,500 citizens by the time it was brutally crushed by Soviet forces a few weeks later. In some ways, the revolution had its roots in 1954, when ordinary people were sufficiently emboldened to publicly voice their dissatisfaction at the failure to bring the World Cup home. 

Around 200,000 Hungarians fled the country as refugees, with several high-profile footballers among their number. Czibor, Kocsis and Puskás all defected, although Bozsik’s position as a deputy in parliament compelled him to return. The entire under-21 national team, who were playing in Belgium when the fighting broke out, also stayed away. There would be no second shot at glory in 1958; Hungary, one of the best teams the world has ever seen, had had their chance and were unable to take it.

“I felt – and still feel – an enormous, personal sense of loss; that something went out of my life that has never been restored in the decades that followed,” Grosics later reflected. “It’s more than 40 years ago now, but if someone was to wake me up tomorrow morning and remind me of that match, I’d burst into tears.”

Puskás, an all-time great who went on to represent Spain at the 1962 World Cup, agreed. “Unfortunately it was no dream or nightmare from which one could awake. This,” he said, “was a sad reality.”

By Greg Lea @GregLeaFootball

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