The phrase was not a mere marketing strategy: the friendly between England and Hungary held at Wembley during that gray afternoon of November 25, 1953 was the game of the century, a schism in the history of football. The creators, jealous, arrogant and in frank decline, challenged the best team in the world in search of a victory that would claim them as the dominant force.
But the battle exceeded sportsmanship: It was a tactical duel between the past and the future, between the rigidity of an anachronistic system and the flexibility of a budding revolution that would lay the foundations for total football that Rinus Michels designed, later adopted Johan Cruyff and perfected Pep Guardiola in Barcelona with Lionel Messi as epicenter.
In London, in front of more than 100,000 fans and broadcast by the BBC around the world, English and Hungarians staged a memorable day. It was ninety minutes of absolute brilliance from one of the best teams of all time, a lesson for the founders humiliated in their own home before their public.
Sir Bobby Robson, a myth of English football first as a player and later as a coach, later humbly analyzed that crossing: “We saw a new style that we did not know, we had never seen it. None of those players meant anything to us, they were from Mars to us. England had never lost at Wembley and we thought we were the masters against the pupils, but it was the other way around ”.
The first meeting of The Football Association, on October 26, 1863, is recognized worldwide as the founding date of modern football. Nine years later, England starred in the first official match between teams in a goalless draw against Scotland. The British had been champions of the Paris 1900, London 1908 and Stockholm 1912 Olympics. The title, forerunner of the World Cup, was the most important on the football planet. Practically simultaneously, Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal popularized the iconic WM (3-2-2-3) as a formation.
England decided to boycott and not participate in the first three World Cups, in permanent dispute with FIFA and with the absolute conviction that they were the undisputed best team on the globe.. As soccer evolved in South America and the rest of Europe, England’s arrogance weighed her team as an unbeatable team – she had suffered no defeats on her territory against non-British rivals since 1863 and he had scarcely fallen to Ireland at Goodison Park in 1949 – who did not even need to prove himself.
The first shake to the spirit of the kings of football was in Brazil 1950. England returned home in the first round with just the initial victory against Chile as the only joy. Not even the adverse results managed to undermine the confidence and the superior superiority of the Three Lions. Nothing changed in the English structure after the debacle on Brazilian soil.
The fall of English football was evident and Argentina undressed its problems in a friendly match held at the Monumental on May 14, 1953. The team from Alicante led by Guillermo Stábile won 3-1 with two goals by Ernesto Grillo and a little by Rodolfo Micheli. Before more than 80,000 fans, Grillo immortalized his name as the author of an impossible goal that instantly became an iconic moment and from there emerged on May 14 as the day of the Argentine Soccer Player.
Although Grillo’s name stayed in the books, that afternoon it was Carlos Lacasia who drove the British fund crazy. Independiente figure, in his debut with the Albiceleste shirt he held the position of false nine and confused the rival fund, used to the personal brand, pulling back to join the midfield. At that time, the hegemonic WM had unshakable highs: since the number defined the position, the defense assignments were linear and the central defender (2) defended the classic center-forward hand-to-hand (9). Months later, England would face a similar challenge and suffer one of the biggest slaps in its history.
SOCIALIST FOOTBALL RUINS THE WORLD
Gusztáv Sebes He was born in Budapest on January 22, 1906 and his first contact with football was during his youth, in the lower classes of Vasas SC. Union leader in Budapest, he moved to Paris to work as an editor at Renault while his football hobby was emerging. After four years he returned to his country and rounded off his discreet professional career. It was as a coach, inspired by the influence of Jimmy Hogan and Hugo Meisl’s Austrian Wunderteam, that he shone by building an unbeatable Hungary and fueled a revolution that changed football forever.
Hungarian sports commissioner general, he also took over as technical director of the national team in 1949. From his charisma and protective character he built his leadership: months after Ladislao Kubala escaped hidden in a Soviet-registered truck, the central Gyula Lóránt was captured while trying to cross the border. Sebes, a close friend of the Hungarian leader Mátyás Rákosi who had been anointed by Stalin as Secretary General of the Hungarian Communist Party at the end of World War II, promised with his life that Lóránt would not leave. And Lóránt, who found refuge in Sebes, never left.
Strengthened his leadership thanks to his fatherly image, Sebes installed three unprecedented measures in the sports field. The first was a four-day-a-week training regimen of four to six hours each session. The players trained with the national team and at the weekend they played in their respective clubs.
To comply with the routine, the brand-new DT proposed two non-negotiable measures: Eligible players should live in Budapest and play on one of the four capital teams: Honvéd, Ferencvaros, Vasas or MTK. The Honvéd, whose name means “defender of the fatherland”, belonged to the national army and the MTK was owned by the army.
Between both clubs they nucleated the foundations of a selection that was built around six names: Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, Nándor Hidegkuti, Zoltán Czibor, József Bozsik and Gyula Grosics. Consequently, the Hungarian players completed a four-year cycle playing permanently together to strengthen their identity, naturalize their style, enhance their strengths and hide their shortcomings.
A decade ahead, the innovative coach transformed football by investing in WM. The brand new tactical system, original, flexible and versatile, moved the rigidity of the classic 3-2-2-3. “When we attacked, we all attacked. When we defended, we defended everyone. We were the prototype of total football ”, retrospectively analyzed by Ferenc Puskás. The players did not have a fixed position, they rotated according to the needs of the process and all fulfilled a dual function.
Sebes was the maximum person in charge of an imperial Hungary, the Magical Magyars, who tyrannized soccer between 1950 and 1956: he was Olympic champion in Helsinki in 1952, champion of Central Europe in 1953, runner-up of the world in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, He achieved resounding triumphs against several of the main powers and lost just one of the 50 official matches he played.
Although Puskás was the most popular star, Hidegkuti was the key man in the Sebes structure: “He was a fantastic player and a great reader of the game. He was perfect for the role, placing himself at the front of the midfield, making forceful passes, dragging the opposing defense and making fantastic runs to score himself ”, Puskás himself praised him.
Hidegkuti played with number nine stamped on his back but his movements were practically indecipherable for confused rivals: the center-back lived with the permanent doubt of following the nine rival or maintaining his position. With each decision, Hidegkuti had an answer: if the two rival pursued him, his companions attacked the liberated area; if they let him play without a brand, he punished from the creative area thanks to his talent, his vision and his associative capacity.
Hidegkuti perfected the function of false nine powered by the advanced structure built by Sebes. The ordered Hungarian chaos, which started from an ideal 2-3-3-2, highly effective in its defense-attack transitions in which it became a 4-2-4, was the revolution before the revolution.
It all started at the arch. Gyula Grosics represented the prototype of the modern archer: exceptionally agile, with a privileged physique, he fulfilled the functions of libero to cover the spaces of an advanced defense and he shone thanks to his footwork when no archer stood out in that field.
Mihály Lantos and Jenő Buzánszky occupied the flanks and Gyula Lóránt was delayed until he became the team’s libero while József Zakariás, the defensive midfielder, positioned himself as second central.
József Bozsik was the organizing midfielder, in charge of controlling the rhythm of the match and marking the paths of his team thanks to his impressive vision and panorama that he executed with identical effectiveness with both legs. Bozsik was the best in the world at his post, as well as a physical prodigy.
Hidegkuti, in partnership with Zakariás and Bozsik, formed a midfield with three different profiles. With nine on his back, he retreated to the Zakariás area to receive and combine while Bozsik freed himself on the other side. Between the three of them they supplied Ferenc Puskás – an implacable scorer with a sublime left-hander consolidated as the team’s driving force – and Sándor Kocsis – a classic gunner with indefensible air power.
The wingers, Zoltán Czibor and László Budai, were required to return to assist in defense and receive passes from Bozsik and Hidegkuti. Czibor, on the left, was an elusive hand-to-hand gambeteador who also drew diagonals without the ball. On the right, more technically limited but just as effective, Budai eliminated rivals stuck to the lime line.
Hungary was a soccer machine.
Sebes meticulously planned a party that represented a declaration of intent: in training he arranged for the playing field to have exactly the same size as the legendary Wembley, he got the same balls that the Federation used – heavier than usual – and even arranged for the Hungarian clubs used as sparring during the preparation to adopt the English tactical system.
The clash between two antagonistic styles was finally celebrated in London’s cloudy and gray afternoon. The world’s best team, with seven of its eleven Honvéd players, delivered an open class in front of the founding fathers.
Hidegkuti, the key man of the system, received his back on the front of the area before the first minute of play and, without a mark, dominated with his left foot, turned in solitude and hit Gil Merrick with a right hand to the angle to overtake the visitors .
Although England reacted and got the tie at the feet of Jackie Sewell, Hungary sentenced the match in seven minutes with Hidegkuti’s second goal and a double by Puskás. Puskás’ first goal was anthological: with a footstep, his patented move, left Billy Wright, one of the best central defenders in the world, on the road and scored the third of the six goals of the Magical Magi. The last one, Hidegkuti’s hattrick, came after a combination of 10 passes in a process of abysmal superiority in which the Sebes team shot 35 times at the British goal.
“There are no words to adequately write the feelings of the 100,000 people at Wembley on this gray November afternoon. England’s proud record was shattered. They were defeated in all aspects of the game and the story must be rewritten. Hungary had it all and their game consisted of long and short passes with an absolutely deadly ending. The public will never forget them ”wrote journalist Mike Payne.
It was a nightmare for Harry Johnston, the center back of the English three-defender line who could never stop Hidegkuti, who scored three goals. “For me the tragedy was my total helplessness. Being unable to do anything to defend it”, he later wrote in his autobiography. The BBC rapporteurs also suffered those ninety minutes: they could not identify the numbering or the tactical system of Hungary. The 9 was no longer the center-forward, the 3 played center, the 4 left-back and the 8 forward.
Jackie Sewell, who had starred in the most expensive transfer in British football history when he joined Sheffield Wednesday from Notts County, was blunt about that performance: “People thought that we were going to win but we received a lesson that day. I don’t think we would have played that badly, but they were wonderful, easily the best team I have ever seen. ”
Stanley Matthews wrote in the autobiography published before his death in 2000: “Hungary combined two styles: the British cut and push and the game of short passes to test the infiltration, much favored at that time by the South Americans. It was an imaginative combination of exact control of the ball, speed of movements and esoteric vision that They came together to formulate a style of football as innovative as it was productive. Long before the final whistle, the glory of our footballing past had been cast aside. England was outmatched and maneuvered. Wembley witnessed the history of football. “
England assimilated the coup but insisted on their stubbornness and traveled to Budapest seeking revenge in preparation for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. That crash at Wembley had been the end point for the international careers of six players who never again wore the Three Lions jersey: William Eckersley, Alfred Ramsey, George Robb, Stanley Mortensen, Ernest Taylor and Harry Johnston were the victims. main from 6-3. On May 23, 1954, en route to the World Cup, the British traveled to Budapest and the setback was even more thunderous: Hungary won 7-1 with goals from Mihály Lantos, Puskás (x2), Kocsis (x2), Hidegkuti and József Tóth. Syd Owen, who faced the daunting task of replacing Johnston, acknowledged with resignation: “It was like playing with people from another planet.”
With an undefeated 31 games in tow, Hungary landed in Switzerland as the top candidate to conquer the World Cup. The Magical Magicians debuted with a forceful 9-0 against South Korea and on the second date they backed their scrolls with an impressive 8-3 against Federal Germany in a pyrrhic victory in which Puskás suffered an injury that marginalized him until the final .
On their way to the decisive match, Hungary beat Brazil 4-2 in the memorable and violent Battle of Bern in the rain. “It was a battle, a wild and brutal game”, reflected Sebes post-match, who should have received four points for a cut in the face as a result of the fight between the two teams once the match ended.
Uruguay – which eliminated England in the quarterfinals – was its victim in the semifinals, a 4-2 that the Hungarians achieved in overtime thanks to a double by Kocsis. La Celeste, who had traced a two-goal deficit during the regulation ninety minutes, surrendered their World Cup undefeated after winning the World Cup titles in 1930 and 1950.
Hungary rejoined Federal Germany in the final. With the antecedent of 8-3 of the first round and with Puskás recovered, Hungary caressed the Jules Rimet trophy. Under a deluge, he went ahead in duplicate and after eight minutes he was already winning 2-0.
However, Federal Germany discounted at 10 ′, tied at 18 ′ and sentenced their miracle, the famous miracle of Bern, at 84 ′ with the agonizing goal of Helmut Rahn. The Teutons took advantage of the benefits of their unknown Adidas boots, capable of adapting to any weather condition, and they kept the trophy after the referee’s shortlist annulled the tie to Puskás.
After the defeat, Sebes continued to lead the national team and put together another streak of games without losing with significant wins against Scotland and the Soviet Union, the first defeat of the USSR in its territory.
The Hungarian revolution caused the dissolution of the Gold Team in October 1956. Also of the legendary Honvéd who in December 1954 unknowingly laid the foundations for the European Cup after his 3-2 defeat to Wolverhampton that the press English labeled as the “world champion”.
After the social outbreak of the Hungarian revolution and the defeat of Honvéd in Spain against Athletic Bilbao for the first round of the European Cup, the main figures of the Magical Magicians decided not to return to their country. The team was about to receive asylum from Mexico but finally traveled in its entirety to a tour of Brazil in which he faced Botafogo de Garrincha and Nilton Santos. After the tour and with FIFA pressuring Brazil to prevent those friendlies, Czibor and Kocsis moved to Barcelona, while Puskás traveled to the White House to wear the Real Madrid shirt.
“What would have become of our selection, of our Honved, if none of this had happened?”, asked himself after a while Puskás, already become a star of Real Madrid. Czibor and Kocsis returned to the Swiss Wankdorfstadion in which their national team lost the final to Federal Germany. His Barcelona fell in the final of the 1961 European Cup against Benfica and Czibor was lapidary: “This stadium is cursed for any Hungarian who steps on it.”
Champion without crown, Hungary left an indelible mark on football and Sebes’ legacy penetrated even English football: Matt Busby adopted his foundations at Manchester United, Don Revie traced Hidegkuti’s movements for his Manchester City, Bill Nicholson replied at Tottenham that he got the first double in English football and Ron Greenwood installed him in the West Ham champion of the European Cup. He also laid the foundations of the Brazilian team of Vicente Feola who with a stellar Pele was champion in Sweden 1958, of the total football of Rinus Michels and even traveled in time as the first gene of Barcelona by Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi