It was 60 years ago this week that Hungary’s Golden Team of Puskás, Bozsik and Kocsis lost the World Cup Final everyone expected them to win. Peterjon Cresswell looks back at the Miracle of Berne, West Germany’s shock 3-2 defeat of the Mighty Magyars in 1954 – and meets historian Tibor Takács, whose recent book ‘Szoros Emberfogás’ (‘Tight Marking’) lifts the lid on the role of Hungary’s Secret Service in football during the Communist era.
‘Why did we lose?’ These are said to be the last words of Gustáv Sebes, manager of the Hungary team who suffered a shock defeat in the World Cup Final of 1954. Lying on his deathbed in 1986, Sebes was thinking back to Berne. He wasn’t to know that soon there would be another infamous Hungarian defeat, the 6-0 thrashing by the USSR – nor that this would be Hungary’s last appearance at the World Cup finals to date.
For Sebes, the fateful 90 minutes in the rain of Berne clouded his whole career and the four-year, 32-match unbeaten run of the ‘Golden Team’. Led by Ferenc Puskás and his team-mate since boyhood, József Bozsik, Hungary had swept all before them, famously beating England 6-3, then 7-1, and winning Olympic gold in 1952. But, on July 4, 1954, Hungary succumbed 3-2 to West Germany, a team they had beaten 8-3 in a previous group match.
The circumstances surrounding the team and their travels are the subject of a recent book written by historian and football fan Tibor Takács, ‘Szoros emberfogás’ (‘Tight Marking’), the result of several years’ research in the archives of the pre-1989 Hungarian State Security Service.
‘So many myths surround the Golden Team, and World Cup campaigns in the Socialist era,’ explained Takács. ‘Rumours, blogs, forums, ridiculous terrace talk.’
Most tales surround the defeat of ’54, known in Germany as the Miracle of Berne, and the 6-0 annihilation of 1986.
‘They say that in ’86 the Hungarians were bribed by the promise of 300 Moskvitch cars, that the players were feeling a strange kind of tiredness, as if something had been put in their food. They were playing at high noon, 1,700 metres above sea level!’
Two early goals also helped the Soviets – though not the Hungarians in 1954. As goalkeeper Gyula Grosics later said, ‘We thought the cup was already won’. West Germany struck back almost immediately, drawing level 2-2, then rode out waves of Hungarian attacks to take the lead six minutes from time.
That night, angry Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest, in scenes that would be repeated two years later during the Uprising against the Soviet-backed authorities.
In his book, Takács describes the Communist restructure of football from 1948, and the establishment of the National Committee for Sport (OTSB) under Gyula Hegyi. Clubs had to change names and star players were sent to join Puskás and Bozsik at army club Honvéd.
When Hungary started playing (and winning) on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Secret Service men would travel with them, listening in, assessing who might pose a threat to the authorities. ‘Puskás and Czibor famously hated each other,’ says Takács. ‘Puskás was focused on football, Czibor liked the nightlife.’
Players, as well as legendary radio reporter György Szepesi, a kind of fifth Beatle to the Mighty Magyars, were given code names in authorities’ files.
‘No-one dared challenge Puskás,’ says Takács. ‘Everyone smuggled stuff back from the West, especially Puskás.’ After the 6-3 defeat of England the previous November, Puskás was simply untouchable. He led the greatest team in the world – it just needed the World Cup to prove it. It never happened.
Tangible reasons for the 1954 defeat are both legendary and little-known. There was the muddy pitch. There was the injury caused by a suspicious kick to Puskás by West Germany’s Werner Liebrich during the previous group match. There was the fatigue after Hungary’s two demanding games against 1950 runners-up and champions Brazil and Uruguay.
The World Cup Final was not the only event scheduled for July 4. The Swiss national young brass band competition was to take place in Solothurn where the Hungarian squad was staying. In fact, the local ensemble had decided to practise, loudly, right outside the Hungarians’ Hotel Krone until 2am. Few players got much sleep. Ironically, the Germans had originally chosen the same hotel, only for wily manager Sepp Herberger to notice a nearby clock that chimed on the hour. The Nationalelf moved to the Bellevue in Spiez, where a 60th anniversary exhibition, ‘The Miracle of Berne’, is currently on display.
Even when the Hungarians got to the stadium, the Germans had arrived before them – and, in the pre-match chaos, Puskás and team had to fight through the milling crowd just to get to the changing rooms in time.
Most of all, though, there was the matter of Sebes’ team selection. And not only of Puskás, crocked exactly a fortnight before by Liebrich, who had changed positions on the hour in order to mark him. The Germans were already 5-1 down.
The return of Puskás for the final meant that someone had to make way. Out went Budai and Palotás, in came Puskás and, controversially, Mihály Tóth. This pushed No.11 Zoltán Czibor onto the right instead of the left.
At half-time and 2-2, legend has it that sport boss Hegyi ordered Sebes to have Tóth and Czibor change wings. Nothing on file proves any of this, but Czibor certainly moved to the left as the game started slipping away.
Sebes remained in place after 1954 but the players lost their smuggling privileges. Another unbeaten run ended in 1956, when the October Uprising broke up the Golden Team for good.
Puskás, Czibor and 1954 goal king Sándor Kocsis made their names in Spain. The remains of the ’54 side, Bozsik, Grosics and Nándor Hidegkúti, under-performed in the 1958 World Cup without them. ‘The files indicate that Szepesi was in Madrid that April for the Real Madrid-Vasas match,’ reveals Takács. ‘He met Czibor, who tried to have him take a letter to Budapest to persuade the Hungarian FA to include him in the squad. It hurt him to be excluded.’
Puskás would meet Bozsik at the 1962 World Cup in Chile. Bozsik was with the Hungarian delegation, Puskás playing for Spain. The Galloping Major would only return to Budapest in 1981.
‘Szoros emberfogás’ (‘Tight Marking’) is published by Jaffa Kiadó.