The last charge of Hungary’s Magical Magyars

Hungary football team photo from the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo
Hungary football team photo from the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo

Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the latest part of our series, we look back at the Hungarian men’s football team who dominated the 1960s.

How it started

Younger fans out there might not believe it, but once upon a time, in the middle of the last century, Hungary were the toast of the football world. Their national team, nicknamed the Magical Magyars after the ninth century settlers of the country, changed the way the game was played. They produced some of the most entertaining and intuitive football ever seen up to that point – and the country’s biggest victories came on Olympic stages in the 1950s and 1960s.

The legend of the greatest Hungarian team was born at the Helsinki 1952 Games. Ferenc Puskas – whose name adorns the award given out for the best goal scored every year in world football – led a team of future legends like Zoltan Czibor, József Bozsik, Sandor Kocsis and Nandor Hidegkuti to the Olympic crown that year with five straight wins in which the team scored 20 goals and conceded just two.

The 1952 run was a rout by any measure and it should have stood as a warning to England’s national team when they hosted the Hungarians in a friendly at London’s Wembley Stadium in November of 1953. Hidegkuti scored in the first 60 seconds of the game and finished with a hat-trick while Puskas scored twice. The English fell 6-3 on that day. It was only the second home loss in their history and it has come to be considered The Match of the Century.

Rumour has it that an unidentified English player, while warming up and spotting the short and round-bellied Puskas, quipped to a teammate: “Look at that fat little chap [referring to Puskas]. We’ll murder this lot.”

Between 1950 and 1956, Hungary amassed a record of 42 victories, seven draws and just one loss – and that one came famously in the 1954 World Cup Final in Bern, Switzerland where they fell 2-3 to heavy underdogs West Germany.

Hungary player Ferenc Bene runs at England defender Jack Charlton as Zoltan Varga of Hungary (l) and Terry Paine of England look on during an International Friendly match at Wembley Stadium on 5 May 1965 (Photo by Don Morley/Allsport/Getty Images)
Hungary player Ferenc Bene runs at England defender Jack Charlton as Zoltan Varga of Hungary (l) and Terry Paine of England look on during an International Friendly match at Wembley Stadium on 5 May 1965 (Photo by Don Morley/Allsport/Getty Images)
2018 Getty Images

The biggest wins

It’s a cruel truth that the best Hungarian team of all time didn’t win any titles beyond that 1952 gold. By the time the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne rolled around, political violence kept them from defending their crown. That year’s Hungarian Revolution sparked a Soviet crackdown that resulted in the 1956 Olympic Football Tournament being the smallest field since 1912, with only 11 participating teams.

That particular vintage of the Hungarian Magyars ended then, with most of the team’s stars emigrating to western Europe, where they went on to electrify new nations and stages. Kocsis and Czibor joined Ladislav Kubala, an earlier émigré to Spain, at Barcelona, while Puskas became the stuff of legend at Real Madrid.

That’s not to say that the team that remained – one with a core of hungry youngsters who’d trained and learned in the shadows of the stars who’d left – didn’t have something to prove. This new squad sent a message to the world that Hungary’s talent pool ran deep when they scooped bronze at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games.

The podium finish kicked off a new phase of Hungarian dominance at Olympic level. In 1964, after reaching the semi-finals of the second-ever European Nations Cup (now the UEFA European Championship), the youthful Hungarians ran roughshod over the competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games to pick up a second gold medal for the country. One of the highlights of the competition was when Ferenc Bene, captain at just 19, scored all six goals in a rout of Morocco and then four more against the United Arab Republic (now Egypt). En route to a 2-1 win over the Czechs in the Final, Bene scored an outrageous 12 goals in the space of five games.

Four years later in 1968, Hungary won another Olympic gold in Mexico City with largely the same team that inspired John Arlott of The Observer to write in England in 1966: “If the World Cup were awarded for entertainment, it would go to Hungary.”

The Hungarians of that time were playing some of the most attack-minded and stylish football anywhere in the world.

Their opponents at Mexico 1968 wouldn’t argue the assertion, either, as the Hungarians fairly strolled to the gold. A 2-2 draw with Ghana was the only blot on their copybook. In six games, they conceded just three goals and scored 18, including a 4-1 win over Bulgaria in the final. That victory saw the Hungarians line up behind Great Britain and Uruguay as only the third team in Olympic Football history to win two consecutive gold medals (Argentina would join the trio in 2008).

Hungarian footballers relaxing at the Palace Hotel, Southport, where the national team are staying during the 1966 World Cup. From left to right, Ferenc Bene, Imre Mathesz and Beno Kaposzta. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hungarian footballers relaxing at the Palace Hotel, Southport, where the national team are staying during the 1966 World Cup. From left to right, Ferenc Bene, Imre Mathesz and Beno Kaposzta. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
2005 Getty Images

The key players

Nicknamed ‘The Emperor,’ Florian Albert was the undisputed star of the Hungarian national team through the 1960s (making his first cap in 1959). The regard in which he’s held at Ferencvaros – the club where he scored 256 goals in 351 games – is hinted at by the fact that their Budapest stadium has been named after him since 2007.

A striker who liked to drop deep and create from midfield, Albert was, among the Hungarian players of the 1960s, the most direct successor of pre-Revolution heroes like Czibor and Puskas, who was described by his teammate Hidegkuti as “…The best. Puskas had a sixth sense for football! If there were 1,000 solutions, he would pick the 1,001st.”

When Albert was named the 1967 Ballon d'Or winner as Europe’s top player, East Germany’s voting representative, Horst Braunlich, said of him: “He [Albert] made the new Hungarian team and even developed all the qualities of a world-class footballer. He is both Bozsik and Puskas simultaneously.”

Captain Bene, Janos Farkas and Zoltan Varga (A teammate of Albert in the Ferencvaros team that beat Italian giants Juventus in the final of the 1965 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup) were outstanding lieutenants in the Hungarian team of the 1960s. They guided the side ably through the loss of some of the world’s best players and did so, according to most observers, with a panache that would go on to inspire for decades to come.

Hungary (white) national team in the final of the 1964 Olympic Football Tournament

What happened next

After a last hurrah in the 1972 Olympic Football Tournament in Munich – where they won silver after losing the final to Poland – Hungary never reached such dizzying heights again. In fact, the country’s fall from international prominence was as sudden as its emergence.

Their last trip to the World Cup was in 1986, where they went out in the group stages like they had during the two previous tournaments. And at the Olympics, where they showed the world a new way to play all those years ago, they’ve only made one appearance since the 1972 final – at Atlanta 1996, where they lost all three of their games.

Hungary may have been a shooting star in the football firmament, but without the Magical Magyars of the 1950s and 1960s, we would have never seen the Clockwork Oranje Netherlands teams or their thrilling Total Football in the 1970s. We may never have been graced by the Tiki-Taka, possession-obsessed sides of Spain and FC Barcelona earlier this century either.

Those Hungarians of old remain a strong link in a chain that made the beautiful game that much more beautiful.