1953 England: Hungary
In the 21st century it is difficult to understand how much this match damaged the national psyche. Generations have passed since 1953 and indeed since 1966 and the majority of English people now approach national football outings with a sense of foreboding: we’ll do well but not as well as we should, and we’ll probably go out on penalties to Germany or Portugal.
But it wasn’t always like that. In the Fifties, the world was very different; England ruled the world at football and this was an indisputable fact. It was a fact that had remained indisputable largely because the national FA’s of the British Isles had embodied the island spirit and refused to join FIFA and recognise the World Cup. And although the Jules Rimet trophy had been contested every four years since 1930, England would often invite the winners to Wembley and beat them, thus prolonging the illusion.
World Cup FiascoThat the sands of time could not be held back any longer was demonstrated by England’s first World Cup appearance, having finally deigned to join in, in 1950. Sir Walter Winterbottom had been appointed coach and manager of the English side in 1946 but did not have complete control over team selection. This was a short-sighted move by the FA that flew against the practice employed by the overseas countries that had been beginning to beat them, or at least severely trouble them, in the period running up to the Second World War.
It would appear that the FA hadn’t taken the competition too seriously because, once in Brazil, England lost their match not only against Spain, but against the USA, the also-rans, as well, and came home after failing to get past the group stage. They continued to focus on the Home Championship as the major international competition, with the odd friendly thrown in. The match on November 25th 1953 against Hungarian captain Ferenc Puskas and his Mighty Magyars was one such friendly.
Olympic ChampionsThe Hungarians were the reigning Olympic Champions; as their players were largely from the state’s forces teams they were considered amateur, while the World Cup was for professionals. They had not been beaten for three years and had fitness regimes as well as football training, running the team in a manner not unlike a club side. England were still selecting the most talented individuals by committee then putting them on the pitch after a few training sessions together.
In the first minute of this keenly anticipated match Nándor Hidegkuti sold the English defence a dummy to shoot and score from 15 yards. Jackie Sewell equalised on 13 minutes, but Hungary scored another three goals before half-time. For one goal the legendary Puskas completely dummied Billy Wright with a drag-back on the edge of the area and then chipped the English keeper, Merrick. It was quite possibly the first time the drag-back had ever been seen in England.
The End of an Unbeaten Home RecordThe score was 4-2 at the beginning of the second half, as Stan Mortensen had scored just before the interval, but the onslaught continued with a goal from Bozsic, then Hidegkuti met a delightful Puskas lob with a volley to complete his hat-trick. England quickly pulled one back with penalty but at 3-6 the game was over.
The nature of the defeat was bad in itself, with England being played off the park, but being the first home defeat by a country from outside the British Isles compounded it. One hundred thousand people had seen the game and with football in a boom period at home this went to the heart of the nation.
Post MortemThe Hungarians notched up 35 shots during the game, while England managed five. Contemporary commentators decried England’s shot-shy tactics, always wanting to make sure before having a go. More fundamental errors were the relative lack of ball-playing skills; although Stan Mortensen (in his last match for England) and Stanley Matthews were in the same league, the overall level across the team was lower then the Hungarians and they were fitter too.
Tactics were completely different, the Hungarians adopting a free-flowing, short, quick passing game dubbed ‘the Whirl’ which simply over-whelmed the English defence. England expected attacks to come through, or at least target, the centre-forward, whereas Bozsik, who had scored the fifth on 54 minutes with a shot from the edge of the box, was a central defender! Even the outfits were different, the Hungarians in lightweight shirts and shorts and low cut boots with shorter studs, all of which contributed to quick turns and swift movement. In short, the Hungarians had progressed, and England had not.
Portent of the FutureIn terms of future results the match proved to be yardstick as England went on to lose the return match 7-1, still England’s worst ever defeat. They then made an early exit from the 1954 World Cup in Belgium, drawing with the hosts 4-4, beating Switzerland 2-0 and then losing 2-4 to Uruguay to go out at the quarter-final stage.
The underlying reasons behind the defeat were the out-of-date methods and administration employed by the FA, but unfortunately nothing changed. It would be another ten years before one man would stand up to the FA enough to demand complete control over selection and start building a team atmosphere around the national side. That man had seen what was possible because he had been there, scoring the last goal from the penalty spot against Hungary in that devastating defeat. His name was Alf Ramsey.