Sunday, October 11, 2009
Whatever happened to Hungarian football?
So the long wait continues. Last night's 3-0 defeat in Portugal means that once again Hungary have missed out on playing in the finals of a major football tournament. It's now 23 years since Hungary competed in the finals of a World Cup or European Championships. And all this from a country that used to be one of the greatest footballing nations in the world. What's gone wrong?
Below you can read my Observer piece from 2003 enitled 'Do you remember when Hungary ruled the world?'- looking back on the golden age of Hungarian football and attempting to find the reasons for the sad decline. And above you can watch 'The Magnificent Magyars' (Ferenc Puskas and co) in their heyday-beating England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. All football romantics must hope that Hungary will once again be a force in world football. But at least there's one piece of good news from last night's World Cup qualifiers: Serbia will be going to South Africa to compete in their first ever World Cup finals (Serbia and Montenegro competed in 2006), after their stunning 5-0 win over Romania.
Do you remember when Hungary ruled the world?
The Observer, November 2003.
While England's heroics in Turkey grabbed the headlines after the final round of Euro 2004 qualifiers, little attention was given to the significance of a match played the same night, 700 miles away in Budapest. A 2-1 home defeat by Poland meant that Hungary had failed to qualify for the latter stages of a major international tournament for the ninth consecutive occasion.
To anyone under 35, it must be hard to believe that there was a time when Hungary had the best football team in the world. Yet 50 years ago they unquestionably did. In fact, three great judges - Sir Bobby Robson, the late Billy Wright and my dad - have rated the Hungarian Arany csapat (Golden Team) as the greatest football team ever. 'The Magnificent Magyars' were so sexy that they made Johan Cruyff's Dutch side of 1974 look positively frigid.
Hungary walked away with the 1952 Olympic title in the middle of a three-and-a-half-year unbeaten run. Between June 1950 and November 1955 they scored 220 goals in 51 matches, an astonishing average of more than four goals a game. The side's greatest moment came in 1953, when England's Wembley invincibility was finally breached in a thrilling 6-3 victory. It is difficult to exaggerate the impact that result had on world football. The revolutionary use of a deep-lying centre-forward, Nandor Hidegkuti, with inside-forwards Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas acting as spearheads, had England's defence in tatters and coaches all over the world rewriting their manuals. There seemed no doubt that the Hungarians - who repeated the mauling of England in a 7-1 win in Budapest the following spring - would be crowned world champions in 1954. But everyone had overlooked the Germans, about to embark on what became their habit of denying sexy football its rightful reward. The Hungarians swept their way to the final, racking up an 8-3 victory against the Germans in the group stage. But Germany, with the aid of a visually impaired British linesman, triumphed at the last. Hungarian football never reached the same heights again. Two years later, the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and Puskas and co (taking with them half the youth team, too) jumped ship, preferring the lure of Spain to the challenge of building a socialist utopia at home.
Even after the exodus, Hungary continued to produce decent enough international teams (the 1966 World Cup side defeated Pelé's Brazil, 3-1), but from the mid-1980s the decline went from relative to absolute. In 1997,, there was a glimmer of hope - a play-off against Yugoslavia for a place in the 1998 World Cup. But after just nine minutes of the first leg, at home, Hungary were three goals down; the Yugoslavs won 7-1 (12-1 overall).
Speak to most people over 50 and they will blame the new democracy for the decline. Under communism, football in Hungary was collectivised and most of the Golden Team played week in, week out for the same club, the army team Honved. The fall of communism cannot wholly explain the demise: countries such as the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria have continued to produce good international sides since the Iron Curtain came down. Whatever the source of the malaise, the once football-mad Hungarians now seem to be past caring; they've been through the pain barrier too many times.
The national team has become a taboo subject. Football is as unfashionable in Hungary today as it was in England back in the mid-1980s. For traditionalists the world over, brought up from childhood on tales of 'The Magnificent Magyars', that surely is the saddest thing of all.