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12 W/C recalls: World War, Walter’s tale and how moment of mercy altered Hungary’s fate

“[…] Let us begin with Fritz Walter, who would lead the Germans into battle in the final in the Swiss capital in 1954. A decade and a half earlier, the Germans had won the early battles and the Hungarians had been made to suffer after the outbreak of  World War II. But the Germans had not won the war and, after its end, an imprisoned German soldier was set for a one-way trip to Russia.

“Impressed by his footballing skill, a Hungarian guard saved him from that fate by swearing that the prisoner was his countryman. He could scarce have suspected—how could he?—that this single act of kindness would one day cost his country a World Cup…”

Veteran sports journalist Ashford Jackman recalls his most striking World Cup tales, as we inch towards the 2022 Fifa World Cup:

Photo: Germany captain Fritz Walter (centre) celebrates leading his team to the 1954 World Cup title.

One defeat, seven draws, 42 wins.

Between June 1950 and February 1957, that impressive performance record, reminiscent of Clive Lloyd’s Caribbean Cavaliers’ stellar achievements of a few decades later, was racked up by the “Magnificent Magyars”.

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Who on earth are they? Two names that are perhaps familiar to La Liga fans: Ferenc Puskas, already 34 when he joined Real Madrid in 1961, who scored 512 goals in 528 matches and won three European Cups with Los Galácticos. And Sandor Kocsis, Golden Boot winner in 1954 with a fantastic 11 goals, who would quietly slip out of his home country after the start of the Revolution and eventually join Spain’s Barcelona. 

Did you catch England’s 4-0 Nations League humiliation at Wembley last June? The margin matched their heaviest ever home defeat, 1-5 to Scotland back in 1928. Know who beat them? Then you know who the Magnificent Magyars are.

Photo: Hungary forward Ferenc Puskas (second from left) and teammate Sandor Kocsis (far right) were two of the best players in their era.

For me, that unexpected Hungarian win temporarily revived the cautionary tale of the overwhelming World Cup favourites who, like Lloyd’s West Indies in 1983, met their Waterloo on a rainy July evening in Switzerland almost seven decades ago.

No serious debate about football’s greatest national sides can omit Hungary’s great team of the 1950s from the conversation. Today, I hope to help you understand the multiple and complex contributory factors that ultimately led to their demise at football’s fifth World Cup.

Let us begin with Fritz Walter, who would lead the Germans into battle in the final in the Swiss capital in 1954. A decade and a half earlier, the Germans had won the early battles and the Hungarians had been made to suffer after the outbreak of  World War II. But the Germans had not won the war and, after its end, an imprisoned German soldier was set for a one-way trip to Russia.

Impressed by his footballing skill, a Hungarian guard saved him from that fate by swearing that the prisoner was his countryman. He could scarce have suspected—how could he?—that this single act of kindness would one day cost his country a World Cup.

Photo: Germany attacker and 1954 World Cup final captain Fritz Walter.

Just 24 when released, at 33, Walter would lead his 10 West German teammates onto the field at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern with 60,000 pairs of eyes trained on the group.

And the heady hopes of a broken nation of some 52 million souls sitting heavily on his shoulders.

Back in the 1950s, much of the world’s club football was still amateur and pros earned nothing like the eye-popping weekly and monthly sums we see and hear mentioned nowadays in discussions about transfers.

So when Hungary were trashed 5-2 by Czechoslovakia in 1949, it was easy for the newly introduced coach, Gusztav Sebes, to replace the ageing squad with a group of indisputably talented players. Led by the diminutive maestro, Puskas, they included Kocsis, goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, half-back Josef Bozsik and forwards Zoltan Czibor and Nandor Hidegkuti.

Photo: Hungary coach Gusztav Sebes (left, crouching) keeps a close eye on his players.

Hidegkuti’s role, as conceived by Sebes, was to create spaces in attack for Kocsis and Puskas to exploit, thus giving football its first deep-lying centre-forward or “false number nine”. It pioneered an inspired change from the then virtually universally employed WM formation. 

The core of Sebes’ squad played for champion club Honved, an army team, and were “soldiers” whose training was exclusively for football war. This ensured that, even in the heat of battle on the field, they enjoyed an understanding bordering at times on the telepathic.

Back in those days, the World Cup was still contested on invitation only—footballing Lilliputians USA were among the participating teams in 1930, 1938 and 1950—and football’s ultimate prize was still seen as the Olympic title. 

So, when Hungary won gold at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, scoring 20 goals and conceding just two, English FA boss Stanley Rous invited them for a friendly at their London fortress.

Photo: Former England captain Billy Wright.
(Copyright PA)

England, in their minds, the inventors and the masters of the game, had not reached the medal round since copping gold in Stockholm in 1912. And they had not exactly distinguished themselves in their World Cup debut in Brazil in 1950, going under 0-1 to the USA. They were therefore eager to humble the East European upstarts and thus restore themselves to their proper place in the hierarchy.

The date was 25 November, 1953. An ebullient, confident Wembley full house fell suddenly silent as Hidegkuti fired a rocket into the top right-hand corner of Gil Merrick’s goal. The game was only a minute old.

By the 27th minute, Hungary were 4-1 up, threatening a rout. 

For the fourth goal, England captain Billy Wright made the wrong move. He came rushing in. Niftily, with the sole of his boot, Puskas dragged the ball back. The defender was left on his backside. In a flash, Puskas’ mighty hammer of a left foot had thumped the ball into the net past Merrick’s near post.

Photo: Iconic Hungary football star Ferenc Puskas takes a crack at goal.

The Hungarian star notched a double, Hidegkuti completed a hat-trick and the visitors’  memorable 6-3 victory ended England’s enviable unbeaten home record.

Vengeance, they say, is to be had cold. Humiliated, the English plotted revenge for half a year. The following May, they flew to Budapest. 

It finished 7-1. Scoring all seven goals before easing off the pedal, the Magyars allowed their dumbfounded guests a late consolation item.

One month after drubbing England, Puskas, Kocsis, Hidegkuti and their teammates arrived in Zurich as prohibitive favourites to earn their first world title by walking away with the fifth World Cup trophy and title. 

Photo: Hungary’s Sandor Kocsis (left) stretches for the ball as England goalkeeper Gil Merrick comes out to block during a memorable international friendly at Wembley in 1953.
Hungary won 6-2.

It would be some kind of consolation for the failure to get the better of the Italians in that very forgettable 2-4 defeat against Italy in the 1938 final in Paris.

Editor’s Note: Click HERE for part two on the 1954 World Cup final on Sunday 21 August 2022.

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About Ashford Jackman

Ashford Jackman spent 29 of his 38 years in journalism at Trinidad and Tobago Television where he was sports editor, anchor and producer. He owns and draws from a considerable collection of books on the World Cup and, in his teens, studied every film in TTT’s library on the subject. His 12 W/C Recalls series seeks to bring to life the golden years of football, its drama and the players who made the World Cup the greatest sporting event the world has known.

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