The best teams never to win the World Cup: Hungary 54’

The Hungarian team of the early 50s are largely responsible for the scrutiny that the English game put itself under following two humbling defeats, at home and abroad. The team also signifies tactical progression brought about by a change in personnel, again an example of incrementally reacting to circumstances rather than pre-conceived ideals being implemented by a coach.

The W-M formation had caused significant changes to the role of the striker because, as English coaches of the time were obsessed with, central defenders were desired to be strong, imposing, and brutish. This resulted in a decline in favour of many smaller dribblers and a proliferation of the, now traditional, big and aerially adept number nine. It was coach of MTK, Marton Bukovi, who decided to let his players dictate a progression in system instead of forcing unsuitable candidates to play up front against physical stopper centre halves. Bukovi had lost his target man to Lazio in 1948 and circumstances dictated that the number nine should be employed in a deeper role, sitting back from the relentless attention of a centre half. So, naturally, the formation that MTK and, soon, Hungary would employ resembled very closely a 4-2-4 at times. With the forward playing deep, wingers were then pushed on in attack and gave rise to a fluid four up front.

Hungary had a sparkling record. They hadn’t lost a match in almost three years when they humbled England to a 6-3 defeat at Wembley – the first defeat England had suffered there. Their success lay in the interplay of some of the finest players of their generation: Hidegkuti, Kocsis, Puskas, Czibor and Bozsik. An argument of tactics meeting talent is impossible to dissect; Hungary were so potent in attack because of the individual brilliance of their players but it took a progression in tactics to accommodate these players and, like other notable successes (Ajax of the early 70s the most obvious), the process was organic. Guzstav Sebes, the Hungary coach, voiced the country’s political stance on individual vs. team ideology and probably viewed their output as a microcosm for the successes of socialism. Irrespective of any overarching political or tactical theory, the truth remains that Hungary entered the 1954 World Cup as overwhelming favourites.

Their route to the final was a mixture of one sided talent and memorable matches. Their first three games saw them score twenty one goals, beating West Germany 8-3, South Korea 9-0, and Brazil 4-2 (the match against Brazil lives in infamy as one of the most violent matches in World Cup history, commonly referred to as the ‘Battle of Berne’). If the match against Brazil was fought in distaste, their semi final against Uruguay is remembered as one of the finest matches of the century. Hungary lead by two goals until the mighty Uruguayans drew level, leading to extra time and an eventual 4-2 victory for Hungary. The final would be a repeat of an earlier match up in the tournament with Hungary facing West Germany. Astonishingly, Hungary again relinquished a two goal lead but this time could not recover. The Germans began their jaunt as serial iconoclasts by beating a Hungary side who were undefeated in nearly four years and thirty six matches (this resonates with their victory against Cruyff’s Holland two decades later).

The World Cup of 54’ strangely highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Hungary. Even in their 6-3 demolition of England, it is viewed a shock that they conceded three goals. A porous defence remained their biggest downfall even throughout their amazing winning streak. The 54’ World Cup saw a staggering 140 goals scored (27 of them from Hungary) in 26 matches, with defensive frailty meeting striking potency being a recurring motif. The reason why it is interesting to note that the tactical schema of the Hungarians was not quite 4-2-4 lay in the defensive setup. Lorant played as a sweeper with Lantos and Buzansky as full backs. Both Zakorias and Bozsik sat in front of Lorant (and behind the deep lying Hidegkuti) and fluidly interchanged, either moving forward or laterally to cover/compliment. There was, simply, a lack of defensive soundness (Sebes’ notebook has an arrow-filled diagram of the Hungarian formation) perhaps due to the highly mobile and interchanging positions of Zakorias and Bozsik – but perhaps also due to a dearth in defensive qualities from the players at their disposal.

The defeat in Berne was met with vitriol by the Hungarian fans. The team remains one of the finest never to have won the World Cup and, like the Dutch in 74’, possess a romantic charm solely due to their failing at the last, most vital, moment.

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