BY CHRIS SMITH
In the history of modern life, the years 1956-58 can certainly be considered important. Britain invaded Egypt over Suez Canal access, NASA was founded, the European Economic Community was created, and of course Heartbreak Hotel, the first single of Elvis Presley, was released. In purely football terms, however, those years mark some of the most influential circumstances of all time. 1956-58 denotes the specific point in footballing time when the tactical tricks of the great 1950s Hungarian team were transferred to the bottomless talent pool of Brazil thanks largely to the temperamental, globetrotting exploits of one masterful, mythical manager named Bela Guttman.
The story begins in 1947 when Guttman extended his post-Hungarian title celebrations with Ujpesti by joining notable league rivals, Kispest. Not only did he now have under his tutelage the legendary Hungarian striker Ferenc Puskás, two years into a prolific international career, but he had unenviably inherited that opportunity from Puskás Sr. Accustomed to the favour of a justifiably nepotistic father, young Puskás had little time for Guttman’s brash, demanding, meticulous style. Soon enough, the situation became untenable. During one game, Guttman was unable to curtail the thuggish instincts of centre-back Mihály Patyi, and so ordered the player off at half-time, leaving the remaining ten players to carry on without him. When Puskás Jr convinced Patyi to defy his manager’s instructions, one man had to walk and in the life of Bela Guttman, he was forever that man.
In typical style, Bela the Ghost had vanished. Seven years of nomadic, semi-successful coaching followed in the sunshine of Argentina, Cyprus and mainly Italy. For Hungary, however, the years 1949-56 represent much darker times. Shortly after Guttman’s exit, the country fell to post-Second World War Soviet pressure and became a Communist state. The regime is remembered for the oppression of professionals and intellectuals, exporting huge amounts of the country’s natural resources to the Soviet Union, and crucially for Hungarian football, nationalisation. Gusztáv Sebes, a man employed as both Deputy Minister for Sport and national team manager, seized the opportunity to pursue a long-held personal conviction. Influenced by recent champions (the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s and the Italian double World Cup winners of that decade), Sebes had unearthed the time-honoured revelation that one/two-club dominated national teams had the greatest chance of success.
One club, MTK Hungaria, were led by Sebes’ right-hand man Márton Bukovi, whilst Kispest, boasting Puskás as they did, were garnished with several of the Hungarian league’s best home-grown talents and taken under the control of Sebes. Renamed Budapest Honvéd, the club was henceforth operated as a nucleus training base for the national side. The successful period which followed for Honvéd is marked by a 1954 clash with English league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers in the sort of outreaching friendly that laid the competitive blueprint for the European Cup, founded just one year later. Communism, a destructive force in Hungary’s recent past, bears ironically golden resonance for its catalytic role in bringing about the undisputed heyday of the national side. Through Sebes, via Honvéd, The Mighty Magyars were born.
Shout ‘What about ‘Brazil ’82? Holland ’74?’ all you like but as far as I’m concerned, the best team never to win the World Cup was Hungary in ’54 (the Mighty Magyars). 1952 Olympic champions, 1953 Central European Inter-Continental champions, Hungary prepared for the 1954 World Cup by walloping England 6-3 at Wembley before duly destroying their existentially despairing opponents 7-1 in a hastily arranged rematch, and that’s not even the half of it. Hungary scored 17 group stage goals in the 1954 World Cup finals despite that constituting just two games; a 9-0 win over South Korea and an 8-3 victory against Germany. Sebes’ revolutionary 4-2-4 formation enabled an attack of Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik, Nándor Hidegkuti and above all else, Puskás, to flourish spectacularly. Hungary scored 27 goals in a five-game World Cup that faltered only at the final hurdle. 2-0 up after eight minutes, all was going to plan until those undying Germans unfathomably came back to nick it 3-2. The Miracle of Bern sealed Germany’s first ever international triumph and the seeds of one particularly memorable Gary Lineker quote were well and truly sewn.
The ghost returns
Two years after the Magyars’ heroic failure, Honvéd qualified for the European Cup. But before they could barely begin to dream, domestic politics pulled the rug from beneath their feet. Following the resignation of Mátyás Rákosi, the oppressive leader of the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party, previously marginalised members of society – students, journalists, artists – began to organise, eventually leading to widespread uprising. Just as Honvéd lost 3-2 away at Athletic Bilbao in the second round, Soviet-strengthened government troops suppressed the revolt to recondemn Hungary into Communism. Unable to return for fear of their own safety let alone the second leg, Honvéd’s players were left stranded. Re-enter stage left the mysterious Guttman.
As a young player driven out of Hungary by General Horthy’s anti-Semitic regime, Guttman found solace in Austria’s all-Jewish SC Hakoah Wien, and later their American reincarnation as the Hakoah All-Stars. During his time at the latter, Guttman embarked on a fundraising tour of South America. It was a throwback to this tour that delivered Honvéd’s newly homeless players from limbo, though that is not to imply it was a success. A few games in, FIFA bowed to pressure from the Hungarian Football Federation and declared the team illegal. Forbidding the use of the name Honvéd, FIFA even threatened to ban any team who faced them. However, some contracts could not be broken. Crucially, Flamengo’s refusal to pull out of a pre-arranged tournament brought Guttman’s Honvéd one final pay day and welcomed the Magyars’ irrepressible 4-2-4 formation to Brazil just in time for the 1958 World Cup.
Flamengo’s defiance temporarily threatened Brazil’s appearance at those finals until the Confederação Brasileira de Desportos (CBD) informed FIFA they would not be held responsible for individual judgements. Flamengo turned to other Brazilian clubs in a plea for co-participation, but only Botafogo agreed. The tournament brought mixed results for Honvéd. An opening defeat to Flamengo was followed by two reversals either side of a win against Botafogo, before finally the Hungarians lost 6-2 against a combined eleven. The Brazilians’ first goal scorer that day, indeed their brightest spark throughout the tournament, was a young man named Garrincha. As he opened the scoring, the lights went off at the Maracanã – both a glimpse at the dramatic future that awaited Brazil and a foreboding, foreshadowing of Honvéd’s fate. Shortly after the game, the players disbanded. The Hungarians’ flame extinguished as Brazil’s star was born. Puskás led the gold rush to Europe’s top clubs, signing on to form arguably the best strike-force of all time with Alfredo Di Stefano at Real Madrid, by now winners of the first two European Cups.
Guttman stayed in Brazil and took up an offer from São Paulo. Captivating the whole country as he perfected the 4-2-4 formation, he steered the Tricolor to the 1957 Campeonato Paulista. With a year to go until the World Cup, Brazil began to copy. A system that demanded teamwork but allowed for individual profligacy brought the very best out of the Seleção, especially when, a few months later, a 16-year-old kid from Santos, fresh from topping the league scoring charts in his first season, was given a debut. Brazil found their Puskás and his name was Pele. Alongside Garrincha, the prodigious youngster spearheaded Brazil to World Cup glory in 1958, scoring six goals in the final three games to begin a lifelong synonymy with football’s biggest prize.
Though this was the first time Brazil had laid hands upon the Jules Rimet Trophy, they were able to retain it in two of the next three tournaments. Triumph sustained and preserved in time yielded a golden legacy that has accompanied Brazil ever since. Through Guttman’s Honvéd, Sebes’ Magyars had provided the tactical framework for the most boundlessly creative force in international football. The greatest team never to win the World Cup can be consoled in their influence of the greatest nation ever to grace the competition. From Budapest to Sao Paulo and back around the world forever.