1953. One game, which everyone remembers as the “Match of the Century”. England, the well prepared team had lost for 3-6 from Hungary, in front of 105 000 people at Empire Wembley Stadium. The previously underestimated “Mighty Magyars” thought a lesson on modern football, according to this term in the 1950s. The Hungarian Golden Team, whose game was also considered as the symbol of the rebellion of an oppressed nation against the communist regime, had beaten England again, 7-1 in Budapest, six months later.
Who was this “Puskás Ferenc”, the legendary captain who is an example for every second Hungarian who plays football? This short, overweight player, who was more resembling a barrel of sweet Hungarian Tokaji wine than a footballer. “Look at that fat little chap” one of the English players is said to have commented just before kick-off. Fifty-seven seconds later the ball was in the back of the English net, and after only 28 minutes Hungary were ahead 4-1. His second goal, later referred to as the “drag-back goal”, was to become legendary. This short man later was the famous player of real Madrid, also known as “Pancho”.
25th November 1953. This day would have meant a lot more than winning a game for England. After conquering Mount Everest and the Queen’s coronation, the empire was considered as world power, still having parts in Africa and South East Asia. Football was Britain’s biggest contribution to the new global popular culture with technological innovations such as radio and TV. (Until 1950 England did not even participate in the World Cup, partly because the English thought playing non British-sides would mean something beneath their dignity.) Stanley Matthews, Alf Ramsey and the other English players were filled with self-confidence as playing for the country that was at the height of its power.
We cannot say that the fall of the British Empire was caused by the loss of a football game, but the crowds at Wembley had certainly had their view of the world rudely shaken. And things got even worse a few months later when Hungary had beaten England again for 7-1 at the newly built Népstadion (the People’s Stadium) in Budapest, thereby realizing the heaviest defeat ever on England.
Hungary was a country that was still suffering after World War II, being occupied first by German, then by Russian troops. Sports in general, and football in particular, had become part of the wider ideological struggle. The Hungarian government not only nationalised farmlands and factories, but they also tried to take over the football clubs. The national team coach, Gusztáv Sebes, was also a member of the government. He was leading strikes at the Renault factory in Paris in the 1930s, did nothing to conceal his views: “The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch” he stated bluntly.
The match of the century was not only about football, a game between East and West, it was also a symbolic showdown between two rival ideologies – capitalist imperialism versus communism. After the game, the Hungarian regime tried to own as much as possible out of the victory. Nevertheless, it couldn’t have been more than mere illusion since the success was rather based on the individual skills of players such as Puskás. After Hungary lost a game against Czechoslovakia, for example, Puskás was suspended for life by the National Football Association, for “laziness on the pitch”. He was pardoned a couple of months later since Stalin and his proteges, like Rákosi, needed him to prove the superiority of the system. They were willing even to compromise on one of the system’s most important tenets – the collective above and before the individual. An ideological paradox was thus turned into fact, on the football field.
The leader of the Golden Team was really a curiosity. He did not know how to head and he never used his right foot. Apart from that he was brilliant. Scoring a total of 83 goals in 84 internationals he was to set a record in international football that players like Pele and Maradona never even came close to. “Puskás became the hero of the fairy-tale, who triumphs where ordinary men cannot” says writer Péter Esterházy, who named him as the most important personality of the 20th Century. A film, 6-3 (directed by Péter Timár in 1999) draws a direct link between the game and the Hungarian revolution of 1956 (eg. the guards in a penal camp embrace political prisoners after the referee´s final whistle).
Hungary has a respectable football history, by winning three Olympic titles, finishing runners-up in the 1938 and 1954 World Cups, and third in the 1964 European Football Championship. In the early 1950s Hungary revolutionised the international football, laying the tactical fundamentals of Total Football with the Golden Team which has one of the longest undefeated runs in football history, remaining unbeaten in 31 games, spanning over 4 years.
In present-day Hungary the memory of Puskás “Öcsi” and the Golden Team is still strongly alive, naming stadiums and sport venues after team (eg. Puskás Ferenc Stadion, Hidegkúti Nándor Stadion), and football academies (Puskás Ferenc Akadémia) after the big player, not to mention the many commemorating statues he has around all over the country. We can even have a beer at 6-3 Bar in Downtown Budapest, while cheering for Hungary in the European Champions League, which is a long awaited achievement of the country’s football team.