A walk through Hungary: Once the axis of football, now a distant admirer

Our in-house writer visited Budapest, the focal-point for the best of European football not so long back, and saw signs that clearly portrayed how far Hungary have receded.
Hungary: The heartbeat of European football in its glory days. Art by Akshay Narwekar.
Hungary: The heartbeat of European football in its glory days. Art by Akshay Narwekar.

The World Cup is here. A sporting competition unrivalled by any other. For the better part of a century, nations around our beautiful world have fought tooth and nail just to take part in the prestigious competition. When the World Cup Final rolls around, everyone watches. From Uruguay’s 1950 upset over Brazil, to 1974 when West Germany beat the Netherlands, to last time – in 2014 – when a young Mario Götze came off the bench to down Lionel Messi’s Argentina, the finale always has something to show.

If you had no knowledge of footballing history, the thought of the Hungarian national team in a World Cup Final would never cross your mind. Even the qualification for the tournament itself seems a futile expectation of today’s team; not since the 1980s has Hungary qualified for the World Cup. Yet, tracking all the way back to the 1950s, the Hungarians were the most feared footballing team in all of Europe.

The year is 1953. In preparation for the next year’s World Cup, Hungary travel to London to take on an England side unbeaten at home in nearly a century. Wembley Stadium is filled to the brim, teeming with support for the team representing the home of football. But the Hungarians don’t care. Ferenc Puskás and friends go up 4-2 at halftime and walk out 6-3 winners. Quick, easy, and comfortable, a result that mirrors Uruguay’s victory over Brazil three years prior in its shock value but ultimate predictability.

But that was then, over half a century ago. It’s a different story now.

“Perfect!” My heart skipped a beat when, in a Budapest night club, I peeked over my shoulder. A group of young Hungarian men were all laughing as they stood over a foosball table. I’d grown tired of singing karaoke and became enthralled at the idea of getting to know a few of the city’s natives by talking about a bit of futball.

As I walked over, I quickly realised that the group wasn’t laughing and shouting about a high-stakes match of foosball, but instead about the drinking game they’d placed atop the table. I dejectedly walked back to the dancefloor, knowing full well that it would’ve been a great chance to meet a few fellow football fans. The drinking game – with all respect intended – was an affront, almost offensive, at the time. It’s only foosball, but it was the single greatest representation of the game I’d come across throughout my few days in the city. My one chance to express myself and connect with my host country.  

Walking the streets of Budapest – Hungary’s capital and by far its largest city – you’d never expect it to be a footballing country. Or, at least, they do a pretty darn good job of hiding the fact that the two-sided city is the heartbeat of what was once the world’s greatest football association. During the twentieth century, cafés in Budapest were the intellectual think tanks of writers, politicians, theorists, and, occasionally, football fans. Like in Vienna, patrons of cafés in Budapest were valued for their intellect, not socio-economic status. The minds that created the unbeatable Hungarian national team were likely formed in these very shops.

One of the only times the magnificent city gave away its love of football was immediately upon my arrival. I was becoming mentally drained by both the jet lag and the view of graffitied buildings and abandoned warehouses as I rode along the freeway from the airport. As we got closer to downtown Budapest, a silver, futuristic-looking Groupama Aréna, home of club side Ferencváros, ominously rose above a seemingly depleted part of the city.

Oft-mistaken as a club in the namesake of Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskás, Ferencváros are the most successful club in Hungarian top-flight history. In the 1950s, when the country was on top, however, that spot was reserved for Budapest Honvéd: The Army’s team. Like East Germany’s Berlin-based clubs would thirty years later, Honvéd benefited from the government’s aid, or corrupt activities. They possessed most of the best players on the national team, including Puskás, which led to a hegemony of the league in the early fifties.

The morally questionable dominance by Honvéd under Soviet rule had undeniable benefits for the Magical Magyars – the Hungarian national football team. Five of the most important players were training together at Honvéd during the club season, which made tactical innovation with Hungary that much easier. The 2-3-3-2 that tore apart England at Wembley in 1953 – “The Match of the Century” – wouldn’t have been possible without the conglomeration of world-class stars at Budapest Honvéd.

That 6-3 victory against the creators of the game certainly gave the Hungarian people confidence headed into the 1954 World Cup. The Magyars made it to the 1938 Final, eventually falling short, but this team was unlike anything seen before. Known as the Aranycsapat, the Golden Team, Hungary were undefeated for four years as they kicked off in Switzerland.

After thrashing South Korea 9-0, West Germany succumbed to an 8-3 defeat at the hands of Puskás’ men. Hungary escaped a hell-hole of a fight that was a quarter-final against Brazil, 4-2, that saw three players sent off and countless scraps on and off the pitch. After beating Uruguay 4-2 in extra time, the Hungarians were on their way to what seemed like an easy World Cup championship against familiar foes West Germany.

Everything seemed perfectly lined up for Hungary to become the second European nation to win the World Cup. Nobody could best the Golden Team, especially with the world watching. But, with the hindsight of half a century passed by, we know that some of the best international teams have a tendency to fail at the last hurdle. Even the seemingly unbeatable, undefeatable teams see their veil of superiority pierced.

A view from the Buda Castle. The historic side of the city, Buda, is littered with memorials. On the right, a view of Pest: the flatter, more modern side of Budapest.

Below the streets of Buda, the part of Budapest on the hilly side of the Danube, lies a sprawling cave system. An underground memorial to a caver who passed away in that very cave struck a chord with me. He was, I’m sure, a phenomenal caver, well-drilled and diligent in his work. But a lack of focus, or perhaps lack of luck, led to his demise.

Hungary got off to a great start, but despite going down 2-0, the Germans were able to claw back and take a 3-2 advantage. A last-minute goal by Puskás was unjustly ruled out for offside, condemning the Hungarians to a shocking loss. The Germans had changed personnel and tactics after losing heavily to Hungary in the group stage; the formation in the final resembling somewhat of a lopsided 4-3-3, something even more futuristic than the Golden Team’s setup at the time.

In the blink of an eye, Hungary’s hopes for a World Cup were dashed. Budapest’s dominant club sides and famous players had fallen short in what we now know to be their last shot at global dominance. The successors of the Austrian Wunderteam and predecessors of the Dutch TotaalVoetbal movement would go down in history as no more than runners-up.

Buda is for all intents and purposes the charming side of the city. During a tour of the Hungarian Parliament, a guide made note of his residence in Buda in somewhat of a self-validating statement. However, this part of Budapest is not where the lively night clubs are, or the famous restaurants and gelato shops. Buda is full of history: the city’s castle, cobblestone streets, and large church steeples.

Perhaps the high esteem in which Buda is held is a key into the mindset of the Budapestian, or more broadly the Hungarian. The country’s history is not something to be forgotten, but something to be remembered. Cherished. The early Hungarians’ movement from Asia to the Carpathian Basin in Central Europe, the riches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the atrocities committed against some of its people during WWII are all remembered throughout various locations in the city. Yet, some fans of Hungarian football would argue that their country’s history has been dwelled upon just as much as it has been cherished, in a footballing sense at least.

Hungary made a few more robust attempts at world dominance, but none came as close. Nowadays, a knockout stage berth in the 2016 European Championships is something to celebrate. The Hungarian FA is making strides to resurrect more pitches around the country, pitches that were ignored and built over in the decades following 1954. Strides are being made, but those strides are not very long compared to other European nations.

When walking the streets of Pest, the crowded side of Budapest, the culture of a living, breathing nation is at your feet. The Jewish Quarter is packed with phenomenal food, rundown buildings fashioned into nightclubs, and countless sights like the Parliament are all within walking distance. Budapest is truly a magnificent, global city.

There’s an issue, though, when it comes to sport. It’s not the lack of space; plenty of cities around Europe produce fine footballers despite crowded streets. It’s not the lifestyle of its people either; Budapest is full of young, healthy Hungarians. It seems to be the culture. Football was featured on televisions at the bars, but nowhere else was there a sign of football. No people walking around in kits, no kid walking down the street with a ball at his or her feet. I had to travel to Margitsziget, an island on the Danube, to catch my first pickup footy match.

Perhaps the beauty of football has surpassed the Hungarians. They feel that the Golden Team of the 1950s was their time on the world stage and nothing more can be expected. You wouldn’t blame them, as the shocking loss in 1954 contaminated the brilliant memories of the years prior. In this modern day, though, the turbulent political climate evokes memories of another famous match. It occurred two years later, and while its footballing impact is ultimately nonexistent, its impact on the lives of millions is incalculable.

The Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia will host this year’s World Cup Final. The arena’s original name was the Central Lenin Stadium, and it played host to a match between the Soviet Union and Hungary. In 1956, Hungary was a satellite state of the USSR, a communist state wringing in the grasp of the Soviets’ iron fist. The match was seen as yet another way to assert Soviet dominance over its surrounding countries. Besides, the USSR had never lost a home match.

But the Hungarians had a particular knack of rolling up to world powers’ home turf and — excuse my French — smacking the sh*t out of them in front of their own fans. Over 100,000 Russians had the pleasure of watching Hungary score early and hold on to their one goal advantage for 74 minutes. It was a disaster for Soviet propaganda, but more importantly a match that helped to ignite a fire of Hungarian nationalism. A nationalism that would shortly lead to rebellion.

A month after the famous victory, protestors outside the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest were shot at by the secret police. Hungary was fully discontent with their regime and took action into their own hands. While the revolution could have been predicted in the prior months, the events at the Central Lenin Stadium fueled Hungarians’ sense of pride in themselves. After all, this was only two years after World Cup fever swept the nation.

Alas, Hungarians were unsuccessful in their revolt against Soviet forces, but the state has continuously improved since the fall of the USSR in 1989. Hungary is now a middle-power in the world, not the powerhouse it once was but certainly a strong state in its independence.

But, Hungary’s footballing structure has failed to improve alongside it. We will probably never see a team like the one consisting of the monumental Puskás, the prolific Sándor Kocsis, and the innovative Nándor Hidegkuti. The mastermind behind the Hungarians’ paradigm-shifting tactics, Gusztáv Sebes, was the pivot from football’s rigid school of thought to its modern, fluid style of play.

Sebes was embodied by the Netherlands’ Rinus Michels and Johan Cruijff, whose influence can now be seen with the likes of Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa. But Hungary’s football hasn’t improved alongside these innovations and is now left at the doorstep of the European elite, unable to reach up and knock at the door.

There was absolutely no way I was going to spend 10,000 Hungarian Forint on a replica national team jersey in a crowded Budapest market, but I was glad to see it. The pristine red, green, and white kit was a small reply to my unspoken question, “When will I see anything football-related here, in what was once the capital city of the sport?” But then again, the great team of the 50s donned an all-white uniform, a far cry from the red-covered jersey and green socks today.

The white shorts remain; they’ve always remained. But, just like football in Budapest, the Hungarian kit has largely moved on from its glory days. A history never to be forgotten, but a history never to be replicated.

Alex Dieker

Alex is a fan and writer based in the U.S. with a particular passion for Dutch football. His work outside FP can be found on crossbarpost.nl or on his Twitter, @alex_dieker.