Strange tales of the first Euros

How Ireland and Hungary blazed a trail in the Cold War

Qualifying games for the very first Euros involved bizarre trips behind the Iron Curtain

The first Euros of 1960 was played out in the bitterest depths of the Cold War, putting its pioneering participants through a logistical nightmare of missing planes and Czechoslovak heatwaves.

On paper, the first fixture was the preliminary round tie between the Republic of Ireland and Czechoslovakia at Dalymount Park in Dublin on 5 April 1959, with the return leg in Bratislava a month later – but five Round of 16 matches had already taken place by then.

In fact, the very first game of the Euros was the USSR against Hungary on 28 September 1958, in front of 100,000 spectators in thick overcoats at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

Both these landmark match-ups, Ireland’s with Czechoslovakia and the Soviets against Hungary, set logistical hurdles across a fractured post-war Europe, astride and within the Iron Curtain that now divided it.

Luzhniki Stadium/András Fekete

Much like the European Cup, instigated in 1956, the European Nations’ Cup – today’s Euros – offered players the chance to compete in locations most of their compatriots could never access. Like the European Cup, the city which conceived of the tournament, Paris, would host the first final.

There was also an emotional element involved. The administrator who had proposed a competition between Europe’s national teams back in 1927, Henri Delauney, a colleague of Jules Rimet’s when creating the World Cup, died in 1955. His son Pierre replaced him as General Secretary of UEFA and was determined to see his father’s project through.

The younger Delauney addressed Europe’s administrators, gathered in Sweden for the 1958 World Cup. England, Italy, West Germany, Sweden and Holland had already voted against the idea, leaving an awkward 17 teams to take part in the first tournament. 

For this reason, there would be a preliminary qualifying tie to determine which side would join the other 15 in the Round of 16. Ireland and Czechoslovakia pulled the short straws.

Welcome to Budapest/Peterjon Cresswell

Co-organiser was UEFA vice-president Gusztáv Sebes, who had engineered the development of the all-conquering Mighty Magyars a decade earlier, only to see key players exiled following the 1956 Uprising in Budapest. The Hungarian who stayed behind, Sebes managed to keep his fellow Eastern bloc countries onside for this new European venture.

To set a good example, a now decimated Hungary team would play the first Round of 16 match – against the USSR, whose leaders had sent the tanks into Budapest just two years before.

In fact, exactly one month before the Hungarian Uprising of October 1956, Puskás, Bozsik and the so-called Golden Team, stars of the 1954 World Cup, had gone to Moscow and beaten the Soviets, 1-0. A full house of 100,000 had watched the game, whose commentary by the great radio reporter György Szepesi had boosted morale back in Budapest. Four weeks later, Hungarians were manning the barricades.

It would be the last time the Mighty Magyars would play together in the cherry-red shirts of Hungary. Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and the goalscorer that day in September ’56, Zoltán Czibor, opted for exile in the West following Moscow’s clampdown on Hungary’s attempt to leave the Eastern bloc.

USSR v Hungary, 1958

Two years later, at Moscow’s same Luzhniki, aka the Central Lenin Stadium, a very different Hungary team strode onto the pitch clutching bouquets of flowers to offer their Soviet overlords. Leading them out was a distinctly chunky looking László Budai, controversially dropped for that 1954 World Cup final in favour of a half-fit Puskás. He was the only representative of the side that had dominated world football only too recently.

“A few players from Hungary’s 1954 World Cup final team couldn’t make it to Moscow,” says the Russian commentary on the newsreel film of the 1958 game, which Hungary kicked off – and, by doing so, initiating the Euros.

Behind the scenes, all was not well with the Hungarian squad. On the Friday before the Sunday game, the team had taken the bus to Budapest’s Ferihegy airport only to be left waiting for two hours while the Tupolev plane made its way from Moscow.

The party was then told that their flight would not be leaving for the Soviet capital. Instead, they were forced to go back to Budapest, stay at a hotel in town overnight then fly the next day, on the eve of the game.

Ireland v Czechoslovakia match programme, 1959

In goal, the mainstay of the Golden Team, the politically astute Gyula Grosics, No.1 for Hungary at three World Cups up to 1962, had been strangely left behind. In his place was Béla Bakó, recently banned by his club for being regularly drunk before training.

In this second of only three games he would play for his country, Bakó was picking the ball out of the net after four minutes, then once more after 20. It would be 3-0 just after the half-hour mark. Game over.

Six months later, Ireland were having similar problems behind the Iron Curtain. The Irish had only ventured to Eastern Europe once since the war, to play Poland in the industrial hub of Chorzów in 1957. Though welcomed by their fellow Catholics (‘Footballers of the green island acknowledged by 100,000 Chorzówians’ ran the headline in the local press), this was a baptism of fire in a Socialist superbowl surrounded by slagheaps and heroic statuary.

Ireland fared little better in these parts when it came to the return leg of the preliminary qualifying round for Euro 1960. On 5 April at Dalymount Park in Dublin, a side anchored by a young Charlie Hurley had outplayed visitors Czechoslovakia but, according to S Devlin of the Irish Times, “failed to press home their obvious advantage”. Still, the boys in green took a 2-0 lead with them into the unknown of Czechoslovakia.

Tehelné pole/Peterjon Cresswell

The Irish Times had the laudable foresight to send the same journalist with the team on their six-hour journey to Bratislava a month later, where the city “resounded to marching and military bands celebrating Victory Day”.

While unable to divulge how much sleep his compatriots had enjoyed the night before, Mr Devlin set the scene amid the “flags and bunting” of the Slovak capital: “all tickets sold for over a week,” he reported. “Irish players broiled beneath a tropical sun…. they might have preferred to have cooled themselves in the nearby Danube.”

Playing at Tehelné pole, Bratislava’s Brick Field, at 4pm, the hosts deployed the later stars of the 1962 World Cup, Adolf Scherer and Ladislav Novák, and were ahead within four minutes.

“A superbly fit Czech team that involved eight Slovaks gave the Republic of Ireland a lesson in the arts and crafts of football, and slammed in four goals without reply,” recorded Mr Devlin. “The cheering must have been heard in nearby Austria.”

Slovak match report, Czechoslovakia v Ireland, 1959

The home side took advantage of Ireland’s second-half collapse in the heat to win 4-0, 4-2 on aggregate. According to local sources, in his post-match press conference, Czechoslovakia manager Rudolf Vytlačil made a point of thanking Grimsby Town for providing the opposition in a warm-up friendly in Trnava, allowing him to experiment with his new forward line-up. 

(Grimsby, bizarrely, also played home-and-away friendlies with Prague Dynamo as their chairman, Frederick Would, was developing business interests behind the Iron Curtain.)

Manager of “Free Ireland”, as the team was referred to in the Slovak press in May 1959, Johnny Carey acknowledged the superior play of his opponents when compared with the game in Dublin, where it was “much cooler and wetter”.

Lev Yashin plaque/Andy Potts

Carey would soon manage Everton, where he was famously sacked in the back of a taxi in 1961, inspiring the well-worn phrase, “Taxi for…” whenever a fellow manager was in similar jeopardy.

His compatriots would eventually get their chance to shine at the Euros nearly 30 years later, memorably beating England in Germany.

Looking back at 1960, the Soviets also won the away leg in Budapest, then bypassed a quality Spain side – Franco refused to send the team to Moscow even after the plane tickets had been booked. In the final four in France, USSR beat Czechoslovakia, then needed extra-time to overcome Yugoslavia and lift the trophy.

A crowd of under 18,000 witnessed the final at the Parc des Princes, perhaps justifying the reluctance of leading teams to take part in Europe’s first great adventure.