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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Whatever happened to Hungarian football?

video: BuffONgigi.

So the long wait continues. Last night's 3-0 defeat in Portugal means that once again Hungary have missed out on playing in the finals of a major football tournament. It's now 23 years since Hungary competed in the finals of a World Cup or European Championships. And all this from a country that used to be one of the greatest footballing nations in the world. What's gone wrong?

Below you can read my Observer piece from 2003 enitled 'Do you remember when Hungary ruled the world?'- looking back on the golden age of Hungarian football and attempting to find the reasons for the sad decline. And above you can watch 'The Magnificent Magyars' (Ferenc Puskas and co) in their heyday-beating England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. All football romantics must hope that Hungary will once again be a force in world football. But at least there's one piece of good news from last night's World Cup qualifiers: Serbia will be going to South Africa to compete in their first ever World Cup finals (Serbia and Montenegro competed in 2006), after their stunning 5-0 win over Romania.

Do you remember when Hungary ruled the world?
Neil Clark.
The Observer, November 2003.

While England's heroics in Turkey grabbed the headlines after the final round of Euro 2004 qualifiers, little attention was given to the significance of a match played the same night, 700 miles away in Budapest. A 2-1 home defeat by Poland meant that Hungary had failed to qualify for the latter stages of a major international tournament for the ninth consecutive occasion.

To anyone under 35, it must be hard to believe that there was a time when Hungary had the best football team in the world. Yet 50 years ago they unquestionably did. In fact, three great judges - Sir Bobby Robson, the late Billy Wright and my dad - have rated the Hungarian Arany csapat (Golden Team) as the greatest football team ever. 'The Magnificent Magyars' were so sexy that they made Johan Cruyff's Dutch side of 1974 look positively frigid.

Hungary walked away with the 1952 Olympic title in the middle of a three-and-a-half-year unbeaten run. Between June 1950 and November 1955 they scored 220 goals in 51 matches, an astonishing average of more than four goals a game. The side's greatest moment came in 1953, when England's Wembley invincibility was finally breached in a thrilling 6-3 victory. It is difficult to exaggerate the impact that result had on world football. The revolutionary use of a deep-lying centre-forward, Nandor Hidegkuti, with inside-forwards Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas acting as spearheads, had England's defence in tatters and coaches all over the world rewriting their manuals. There seemed no doubt that the Hungarians - who repeated the mauling of England in a 7-1 win in Budapest the following spring - would be crowned world champions in 1954. But everyone had overlooked the Germans, about to embark on what became their habit of denying sexy football its rightful reward. The Hungarians swept their way to the final, racking up an 8-3 victory against the Germans in the group stage. But Germany, with the aid of a visually impaired British linesman, triumphed at the last. Hungarian football never reached the same heights again. Two years later, the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and Puskas and co (taking with them half the youth team, too) jumped ship, preferring the lure of Spain to the challenge of building a socialist utopia at home.

Even after the exodus, Hungary continued to produce decent enough international teams (the 1966 World Cup side defeated Pelé's Brazil, 3-1), but from the mid-1980s the decline went from relative to absolute. In 1997,, there was a glimmer of hope - a play-off against Yugoslavia for a place in the 1998 World Cup. But after just nine minutes of the first leg, at home, Hungary were three goals down; the Yugoslavs won 7-1 (12-1 overall).

Speak to most people over 50 and they will blame the new democracy for the decline. Under communism, football in Hungary was collectivised and most of the Golden Team played week in, week out for the same club, the army team Honved. The fall of communism cannot wholly explain the demise: countries such as the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria have continued to produce good international sides since the Iron Curtain came down. Whatever the source of the malaise, the once football-mad Hungarians now seem to be past caring; they've been through the pain barrier too many times.

The national team has become a taboo subject. Football is as unfashionable in Hungary today as it was in England back in the mid-1980s. For traditionalists the world over, brought up from childhood on tales of 'The Magnificent Magyars', that surely is the saddest thing of all.


Czarny Kot said...

I don't know what has happened to Hungarian football but it is probably the same, or similar, to what has happened to the game in Poland.

3rd place in '74 and '82 and now what? OK, they've qualified for a few finals but have always been a big let-down.

The population of Hungary is much smaller than that of Poland, yet at the same time it is more or less the same as the Czech Republic and they have maintained their position as one of Europe's best.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Czarny Kot:
Yes, Poland had a great team in the 70s and early 80s.(I don't think England fans will ever forget the early 70s team!)
I wrote in the 2003 article that the fall of communism cannot wholly explain the demise in Hungarian football, but six years on the case that the political changes of 1989 are a major factor looks even stronger.
Hungary and Poland are both a shadow of their former selves- even Romania look to be in decline now after the 'golden generation' has retired. The Czechs have continued to do well- but even that looks to be coming to an end.
Against that of course, Slovakia look to be on the up and the former Yugoslav Republics still have good sides.

Robin Carmody said...

It's quite possible (Slovenia could even snatch automatic qualification from Slovakia, seeing how they've only got San Marino while Slovakia still have to play Poland) that three former Yugoslav republics will go to the World Cup but Croatia won't - indeed, Ukraine only have to win in Andorra, as everyone else has, to deny Croatia even a play-off place. Who would have predicted that two years ago?

Of course, Ukraine has done pretty well for itself in recent years (and I thought they'd beat England if only because they had something to play for), but it's always been a strong area for football - the Soviet national side relied massively on Ukrainians from Dynamo Kiev, who themselves managed to win two European trophies in the Soviet era, something no team from Russia itself would do until 2005.

England kept on getting Poland in qualifying groups, over and over again, through the late 80s and 90s, but the Polish teams broadly kept getting weaker, and though they played a role in England's failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and could have kept them out of even the play-offs for Euro 2000, this was when England were under tactically naive and, at this level, incompetent managers such as Graham Taylor and (sorry Neil!) Kevin Keegan. But there was the 0-0 in October 1989, on the edge of *those* political changes, when Poland could have knocked England out with that shot on the crossbar in the last minute, and had that gone in, and had Hull kept their lead against Liverpool in the FA Cup in February that year, it's entirely conceivable that American football could be more popular than soccer in England now. Destinies are shaped by such tiny chances ...

Robin Carmody said...

Of course, countries that never had Communist rule can also decline. Look at Austria, Hungary's former imperial partner from which the Iron Curtain long separated it - still good enough in 1965 to become, I think, only the third continental country to beat England at Wembley (after Hungary of course, and Sweden in 1959) but, leaving aside Euro 2008 for which they qualified as hosts, they barely qualify for anything now, and leave no mark when they do.

Conversely, Switzerland - who were on the margins for decades before Roy Hodgson turned them round in the 1990s - are pretty certain to qualify.

Anonymous said...

Dear Neil,

I think this is a hope for Hungary:

Czarny Kot said...

Some possible reasons for the malaise in Poland, and perhaps Hungary:

1) A dire domestic league which cannot compete on or off the pitch with not only the big leagues (England, Spain etc.) but also the likes of Belgium, Scotland, Greece. Players at Legia Warsaw and Wisla Krakow look good in Poland but do not have any experience at higher levels.

2) Any half-decent players go abroad as soon as possible due to reason 1. Unfortunately, they go too early and end up sitting on the bench, changing club and league every season or so, never settling down.

3) Because of reason 2, it is a hard job for a manager to keep tabs on everyone and choose his best XI. When he does pick a side, they play like strangers.

4) Outdated coaching and training techniques.

5) Corruption at all levels and general incompetence of the FA.

Still, at least Poland has volleyball to maintain national pride. Are Hungary still good at waterpolo?

olching said...

The demise of Hungarian football is a tragedy to watch. I suppose it was a long, drawn-out decline from their 3:2 defeat in 1954 until their 6:0 drubbing at the hands of the Soviet Union in 1986 (talk to Hungarians and they will see this as an irreversible low point).

I think Czarny has mentioned a few important issues (the overriding theme being money).

They actually did a bit better this time round and, but for Zlatan's 93rd minute winner a month ago, might have sneaked into the playoffs.

But in general, they cannot compete. The academy system is poor, the money isn't there, and the persistent problem of (fascist) hooliganism (Ferencvaros, Ujpest etc...) deters good players from joining the league or staying there (if Hungarians) and upping the level.

Poland suffers from similar problems. Who in their right mind would want to endure the bile Wisla fans come up with week in week out (especially if not white, Polish, Catholic)?

olching said...

By the way, Romania 1994: Probably the greatest side ever to have faltered (unluckily so) in the quarter finals.

And you know my opinion on Belgium. That referee sealed their fate of decline in the 2002 world cup when Belgium should have knocked Brazil the way Anderlecht, Antwerp, Club Brugge: all used to be serious contenders for European a mere footnote.

Football is becoming less diverse and thus less interesting. I've got to the stage where I am against English clubs in Europe on principle, because it's so predictable. Neoliberalism ruins everything.

Robin Carmody said...

Good posts by olching. Pretty much all black English players to have begun their careers in the last 15-20 years, and who have played for England or for clubs in European competition, will tell you that the worst racism they have endured has been in eastern Europe (though getting back to our own racism for a moment, that Stoke fan who racially abused a Blackpool player *must* have been among the people to have put the BNP in such a position where Labour seriously fear they could get Stoke's elected mayor).

But that does not excuse the process olching describes so well in his second post. Like him, I feel no connection with the 'England' the 'big four' embody - a culturally denuded place where only money counts, and fuck the "losers" - so I don't want them to win either. I don't feel I can endorse the economic, political and cultural process of which they are so much a part, and what I really hate is the idea (beloved of Football365 and other apologists) that if you are against that, you must be in favour of squalid stadia and racism - the football equivalent, endorsed by most of the same people, of the argument that if you're against neoliberalism you must want piles of rubbish in Leicester Square. There's something uniquely sickening about seeing people who practically live their lives on American pop culture, who have no real sense of who and where they actually are, moaning that their fellow Europeans may resent their power, a case I argued here:

The worst thing of all is when John Nicholson and others at Football365 - a site full of nasty anti-BBC jibes - pretty much suggest that the takeover by unaccountable plutocrats has been in the name of those who died at Hillsborough and Bradford, that they would have been pleased to see it. That makes me genuinely angry - they were working-class people from Old Labour heartlands, for God's sake. They might well have wanted the provincial gentlemanly capitalism of old-school English football to be dismantled, but just as they wouldn't have wanted that school of capitalism *as a whole* to merely be replaced by a much nastier, global version, they wouldn't have wanted billionaires to replace the aldermen - they'd have wanted true, democratic ownership: what *should* have happened after Hillsborough, and probably would have done in that tantalising world where just a few things in the 1970s went differently and we never had Thatcherism.

Czarny Kot said...

@Olching: What sort of stuff do Wisla Krakow fans come out with? I stoppped following the Polish game completely a couple of years ago but I remember Legia and Arka fans being the real bad boys.

Polish football is like English football in the 1980s only worse. Matches are played at a snail's pace in front of a small gang of hooligans.

The only ray of hope would appear to be Lech Poznan who at least try to play good football, in a half-decent stadium with a good atmosphere and who have been the only Polish team not to completely humilate themselves in European competition the last couple of years.

Robin Carmody said...

Thinking again re. my previous post, it's very much like the argument that, because they felt Britain in the 1970s was stagnating and they challenged the orthodox socialist view of the nobility of industrial work (c.f. The Clash's first Melody Maker interview), the exponents of punk - often the same people who led the football fanzine movement a decade later - therefore would or should have supported Thatcherism, which most of them were equally repulsed by. You can feel something is stagnating and needs major changes without approving of the changes that actually happen. It isn't either-or - and that's what the apologists for football plutocracy always miss.

I'd be interested in any further thoughts from olching on this matter.

olching said...


Yes, you are right about Legia fans, but I've been to a couple of Wisla games and the booing of black players and the constant proto-militarist jibes were pretty annoying (I gather they were the 'police club' at one that right?)


Thanks for your comments.

I'm a bit careful to endorse the punk movement as a change to stagnation, as this is often the post-Thatcherist years view we get. I very much see punk (at least that mainstream version of punk) as being more in agreement with Thatcherism than not (the focus on the individual; the rejection of society etc...).

It's difficult to say how to really change the status quo of the neoliberal consensus in football. I simply don't know. I don't think it's a matter of 'going back', because that isn't going to happen. At the same time, many people agree that football is stagnating and there is very little to support.

I tend to agree with you on your assessment of rejecting the either/or paradigm (which is why the notion of 'going back' doesn't work for me).

But this is such a difficult question: How do you reject the new brand-making in football without rejecting football itself and have some effect on potential changes?

Perhaps by changing the very rules of football? By limiting the competitions to a more logical and spread out inclusion of clubs? But that too is impossible, as marketing dictates...

Really, Robin, I do not know and I find it awfully depressing.

Robin Carmody said...

Well, I had that in mind and, yes, punk did state that there was no such thing as society, refuse the idea that every citizen played a role in a half-conservative, half-redistributive structure (but it didn't start there, c.f. Mick "straight John Stuart Mill" Jagger: rock and Butskellism were in conflict from the start, it was just that punk happened at the time that Butskellism was in sufficient crisis for other reasons to be seriously vulnerable).

But I think that, while punk refused the Attlee settlement, it also called for something wildly different - far more based around genuine freedom and a rollback of censorship and insularity, far less based around nationalism and triumphalism and abuse of state power in all the wrong areas while cutting it back in all the areas where it can do some good - from what we actually ended up with, in a way that is directly comparable to 80s fanzines calling for football to be reformed without wanting Murdoch to buy it all up (I am sensitive to accusations of naivety in both cases, but when you call for your own sort of change you don't always know what others are planning).

As I say, it isn't either-or - it is true that mainstream late-punk became a dispiriting, cartoon-aggressive affair, but the real thing led to a huge burst of creativity in British music which took influences from all sorts of directions and was in no way neoliberal (although deceptively quiet and understated, Young Marble Giants' 'Colossal Youth' *is* a political statement against the British state, and without punk it simply wouldn't have been possible). I don't think the true spirit of punk was as right-wing - in that tantalisingly, ultimately misleadingly libertarian way - as the Stones, Free (*obviously*) and most metal and hard rock, and it certainly didn't present a 100% Thatcherite/consumerist agenda in the way people like Duran Duran did - it may have been aggressive-individualist, but it didn't support the full neoliberal package either. Obviously, mainstream pop after 1983 rapidly became nothing more than a tool for the consumerist remaking of Conservatism, and it really hasn't been anything else since (as we can now see, Britpop - like New Labour itself - reinforced rather than challenged this).

In my view, the most radical pop music of, let's say, 1975-83 was the aesthetic refusal of the "special relationship" put forward by Japan, Visage, Associates etc., who in the immediate pre-Falklands period challenged the most troubling aspect of British pop - its reinforcement of US-dependency status - more than anyone else over the last half-century, and in its way that sort of music was a byproduct of punk's upheavals. It's not as if "Billy Idol and photoshoots with Dutch tourists", to quote a wonderful putdown I once read in Melody Maker, is punk's only legacy - though regrettably it became the most obvious (because easiest to assimilate into consumerism).

To be honest I find myself sharing your despair and disillusion - that sense (in all fields) that there is no way out, no parallel method of organisation. I remember an email to, of all places, Football365 with the headline "Football: either love it or hate it now". I would tend to feel the same - that football maybe *has* to be abandoned, has to be given up as a bad job if you believe in social and economic equality. I certainly feel that way about pop music, now nothing more than a tool of the NuTories - I still like it, theoretically, but I've lost any emotional attachment I ever had to it. I can see it for what it is. Those older than me who can remember when it was less bound up with the ruling class, and therefore had more of a romantic relationship with pop, find that harder, and I think that probably also applies to football. In fact, the histories of football and pop have much in common - from the illusion of egalitarianism to the seemingly unshakeable neoliberal trap they're both in now.

PJD said...

It is worth noting that in both 1982 and 1986 there was 14 UEFA teams in the World Cup and that was when UEFA had circa 32 members. Now there are 53 teams competing for 13 places.

Robin Carmody said...

Yes, quite.

Inevitably the epicentre of football has shifted away from Europe, or at least widened across the world, and with the growth of "new" nations since the demise of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, some of the "old" ones will inevitably find it harder to qualify. Hence the (further) expansion of the European Championship.