The Hungarian football team who were Olympic champions in 1952 in Helsinki were known as the “Golden Team” who revolutionised the sport, introducing the notion of players playing in multiple positions and pioneering a new formation, which gave rise to what we call “total football”. Their dazzling rise to stardom on the pitches of Europe ended with an unexpected defeat in Bern in the FIFA World Cup final in 1954 against West Germany.
Their names were József Bozsik, Zoltán Czibor, Gyula Grosics, Nándor Hidegkuti, Sándor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskás, and they were key players in a legendary team, some with revealing nicknames such as “Golden Head” for Kocsis, “Old Man” for Hidegkuti, the “Black Panther” for goalkeeper Grosics and the “Galloping Major” for the captain, Puskás. In the early 1950s they formed the best football team on the planet – 11 players who revolutionised the game and were introduced to the world at the Olympic Games in 1952 in Helsinki. That is where they earned the legendary nickname “Golden Team”, to go along with the “Magical Magyars”, “Magnificent Magyars” “Mighty Magyars” and “Marvellous Magyars”.
This team was put together by Gustav Sebes, the coach and manager of the Budapest Honvéd team and the national team, who was able to convince the Hungarian political authorities, then under Soviet control, to enter a team for the Olympic Games, arguing for its potential. “There were some great sides around at the time – the Soviet Union, Austria, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Italy – but I felt we had the players and tactics to compete with anyone,” he told FIFA.
Goodbye “WM”, hello 4-2-4
At that time, the formation that was generally used was “WM”. At the front were two wingers and a centre-forward, while the base of the W was formed of two “inside forwards”. Further down, the top points of the M were occupied by two “halfbacks”, and the three-man defence featured two players at the side and one in the middle. As manager of the Budapest Honvéd club where many Hungarian international footballers played, Sebes devised a tactical plan whereby the players could swap positions, in a 2-3-3-2 formation, which developed into 4-2-4, the precursor to the 4-4-2 as we know it today. Sweeping aside every team in its path between 1950 and 1956, the Hungarian Golden Team racked up 42 victories, 7 draws and only 1 defeat… which we will come back to later.
As Puskás explained: “We were already a great side, but it was during the Olympics that our football began to flow with real exhilaration. It was a proto-type of the ‘total football’ played by the Dutch [in the 1970s]. We had positional freedom and when we attacked, everyone attacked, from the defenders to the strikers.” In short, “when we attacked, everyone attacked, from the defenders to the strikers.”
On 15 July 1952 in the Turku stadium for the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament, which comprised 25 teams, Hungary got off to an uneventful start, beating Romania 2-1 with goals by Czibor (21 minutes) and Kocsis (73). Then it took off, beating Italy 3-0 in the round of 16 (with two goals by Péter Palotás), then pulverising Turkey 7-1 in the quarter-final (Kocsis and Puskás scored twice) and Sweden 6-0 in the semi-final (Puskás scored in the first minute and Kocsis scored twice).
Gold medal and triumphant return
On 2 August in front of 59,000 spectators in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, the Mighty Magyars played against Yugoslavia in the final. Although they dominated the play, Sebes’ team came up against goalkeeper Vladimir Beara, and the two teams were level 20 minutes from the final whistle. Then Puskás unleashed an unstoppable left-footed shot to give his team the advantage. In the 88th minute, Czibor cut in from the left and added to the margin of the victory. “I felt an overwhelming sense of relief,” said Sebes to FIFA. “We had done what we had to do, and we had done it in style. All of a sudden the international press was showering us in praise. Those Olympics put us on the map.”
Puskás recalled: “On the train home, once we left Prague, the train kept stopping at every station to allow crowds to greet us. The scenes at Keleti station when we arrived in Budapest were unbelievable. There were around 100,000 people crammed into the surrounding streets to celebrate! We were ecstatic. That was our first great victory and our hearts were still so young.”
The achievement in Wembley and the Miracle of Bern
Another Hungarian Golden Team victory that made its mark on the history of football was on 25 November 1953 at Wembley Stadium, where the English team had never lost. The 110,000 spectators who crowded into the stands witnessed a real show by the “Mighty Magyars”, who raced into a 4-1 lead by half-time, and beat the “Three Lions” with a tennis-like score: 6-3! This was a victory that sent shockwaves across Europe and beyond.
Then the 1954 World Cup staged in Switzerland arrived. Nothing could stop the Olympic champions in the first round, sitting in group 2 – they crushed South Korea 9-0, followed by West Germany 8-3. In the quarter-final, they eliminated Brazil 4-2. In the semi-final, they drew 2-2 at the end of normal time, with Uruguay storming back in the last few minutes, but two goals by Kocsis in extra time put an end to South American hopes. It was a sure-fire bet that Puskás’ men would be crowned world champions after their Olympic gold. West Germany, who they met in the final in Bern on 4 July 1954, thought they had no chance. And yet… the Germans won 3-2, with Helmut Rahn scoring the winning goal six minutes before the end. This victory is known as the “Miracle of Bern”. It brought to an end the legend of the Hungarian Golden Team.