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Hungary’s “Golden Team” was so good it took Russian tanks to stop it.

Illustration by Ben Kirchner

Illustration by Ben Kirchner

Certain football teams can linger in memories as vivid and bittersweet as any love affair, claiming a lifelong hold on the emotions. And when the club is Hungary’s legendary national team of the 1950s—the “Golden Team,” which lifted the hope and pride of a shattered and suffering nation—the memories are all the more indelible. I never understood how meaningful someone’s abiding fondness for a team and its glory days could be until I discussed the subject with the father of my wife, Vera.

Handsome, soft-spoken, and humble, István Szombathelyi (or Szombathelyi István, as Hungarians, who put the family name first, call him) looks improbably youthful for 73. Much of this youthfulness most likely comes from all the fishing he enjoys on the vast Lake Balaton. Like the rest of his family, István has welcomed me warmly into his life, treating me more like a son than a son-in-law. The only catch is that we speak no common language, hence we’ve been limited to polite small talk translated by Vera, who speaks fluent English and Hungarian. During a recent visit to his home near Balaton, however, it dawned on me one afternoon that if I got István talking about football, especially the Golden Team’s place in football history, it would bring us closer. So talk we did.

Sport is highly valued in Hungary; as of 2012, the nation ranked eighth in the world for medals at the Summer Olympics. But the Golden Team is special. Called “Aranycsapat” in the native tongue, the club astounded not just its homeland but the whole world, on either side of the Iron Curtain, from 1952 to 1956. Energized by the iconic striker Ferenc “Junior” Puskás, who scored 84 goals in 85 international matches, the team became known as the “Magnificent Magyars,” and for good reason. (Other alliterative nicknames were, take your pick, the “Mighty/Magical/Marvelous Magyars.”) Their record of 43 wins and seven draws, broken only by one (controversial) loss, still astonishes.

For many observers, the club’s zenith was the 1953 “Match of the Century” win (6-3) against England, who hadn’t lost to a non-British team on their home turf in 90 years. One English player coined a new term for the Magyars: “men from Mars.” The following year’s rematch, in Hungary, saw an even greater trouncing of the English, 7-1. That year, 1954, also saw stunning Golden Team triumphs at the FIFA World Cup, with a quarterfinal 4-2 win over Brazil (the violent “Battle of Berne”) and a 4-2 victory in the semifinal against Uruguay. Only the loss to West Germany by 3-2 in that World Cup’s final (the “Miracle of Berne”) ended the Golden Team’s hot streak. (Doping allegations later surfaced against the Germans.) The Magyars played on gloriously for two more years before the Hungarian Revolution tore them apart.

At the start of the Golden Team era, Vera’s father was an adolescent in an impoverished village in southeastern Hungary without parents or siblings. His father had been drafted by the Germans in World War II and killed in combat with the Russians. Just after that, István’s older brother died of encephalitis. These tragic losses left his mother temporarily too troubled to raise her surviving child on her own, so she put István in the care of her own father and traveled by train across the nation to take work in a factory, visiting her boy whenever she could.

“I enjoy any sport with a ball in it,” István told me the afternoon we spoke, “and especially anything where Hungarians have success or the possibility of success. My first experience with football was kicking balls around the schoolyard with friends, but these balls were actually old clothes folded together and tied up with rope. There were some rubber balls around, but these were less popular—too bouncy. When a leather ball finally appeared on the scene, the lucky boy who owned it got to pick the kids he wanted on his team. Leather balls posed their own distinctive problem—whenever it rained, the leather would get so thick and heavy from moisture that if you headed the ball, that meant a concussion for you.” He grinned. “You can see even now that I was one of those headers,” he said.

The Golden Team entered István’s life via the radio. There was just one official station in Hungary in the early ’50s, and only wealthy people owned wireless sets to receive that station’s signal, so when the Golden Team’s matches were broadcast, radio speakers were bolted to poles in the village square for everyone to listen.

“I’ve since watched footage of the Match of the Century rerun on TV,” István explained to me, “yet nothing could match the excitement I felt when I heard the radio broadcast of it the day it was played. The announcer, György Szepesi, was extremely knowledgeable about the sport and able to describe matches so vividly, talking in pictures, that even old peasants, who were caught up in the excitement and listening with the rest of us, could envision what the action at Wembley Stadium looked like. Still, radios were not exactly harmless in those days. The penalty was a prison term if anyone got caught listening to illegal stations from the West, stations like Radio Free Europe and Radio Luxembourg.”

After hesitating for a moment—István had always struck me as a cautious man—I asked if he’d ever listened to Radio Free Europe or Luxembourg. In response, he broke into another grin and said, “Maybe a little.”

Then he went on to tell me more about the Golden Team. “Their victories on the world stage were like fuel for all of us Hungarians who’d endured so many horrors—first during the war and then with the harshly repressive communists in charge. The club’s innovations with the sport were likewise impressive. Their quick passing movements and switching of positions overwhelmed the rigid style of the English at Wembley in ’53; as everyone says, the Golden Team anticipated the Total Football played by Holland 20 years later.”

“Puskás was our most popular player, of course—he had a warm, mischievous, unpretentious personality, and his tricks with a football seemed like sorcery. He could stop a speeding ball with one movement, rendering it motionless. Or just look at his famous feint against Billy Wright at Wembley, how Puskás back-heeled the ball before kicking it into the goal.”

“Was he your favorite Golden Team player?” I asked.

“No, my favorite was Sándor Kocsis, whose nickname was ‘Cube’ because of how precisely he could direct a ball with his head. In fact, a Hungarian comedian back then would joke about Kocsis taking a stroll one day and saying to himself nonchalantly, ‘Hey, how about I leap up above the clouds and see what’s going on there?’ Which he does, and once he’s up there he sees a football coming his way and thinks, ‘Hey, how about if I head this thing? Why not?’ ”

“Kocsis often received passes from László ‘Pupos’ Budai, who was very fast. Nándor Hidegkuti created what was called a middle style, hanging back with the defenders to receive passes from József ‘Cucu’ Bozsik, who was the team’s chief, its intellectual leader. Whoever understood football could understand Bozsik’s importance. Like Puskás, he made impossible situations possible. Gyula Grosics, the goalkeeper, used to come out of the goal amazingly far to catch a ball. His own nickname was the ‘Black Panther’ because of the black jersey he used to wear. We fans always referred to the players by their nicknames. The Black Panther just died this past June. As for Zoltán Czibor (who didn’t have a nickname), his bad luck was that the team’s otherwise brilliant manager, Gusztáv Sebes, didn’t allow him to play in the World Cup final in ’54. If he’d played, I think the Golden Team would have beaten West Germany.”

The Magyars’ 6-3 victory over England was so comprehensive that it inspired a total review of the training and tactics used in English football.

The Magyars’ 6-3 victory over England was so comprehensive that it inspired a total review of the training and tactics used in English football.

István never found the players’ personal lives of much interest. What mattered to him was how a player performed on the field. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but feel awed when one summer evening he came face to face with the Golden Team:

“It was ’55, I was 14, and they were playing an exhibition match, just for fun.” (Exhibition matches were very popular then; the only prize for the winners might be free beer at a local pub.) “Many of the Golden Team’s members were with Honvéd, the army-affiliated club vacationing near Lake Balaton, where I lived by then full time with my mother. I didn’t get to speak with Puskás or any of the others, but my friends and I stood right near them after the match, and I looked at the players as if they were superhuman. I realized that what they did was more than I would ever be able to do. The memory of that has stayed with me so clearly. Had camera phones existed then, it would have been a true selfie moment.”

When István wasn’t following the Golden Team’s fortunes, he was keeping track of Hungary’s regional clubs, all of which were sponsored by government ministries and national industries. For most Magyars, bristling under totalitarian communism, the least popular team was the one connected to the Internal Affairs ministry—the secret police.

The first official match István got to watch in person took place in Budapest, where his football-loving gym teacher had brought István’s eighth-grade class while on a school trip. Playing that day were MTK and Fradi, Budapest’s two great rival teams, though at the time, István’s club of choice was Vasas, which was connected to an ironsmiths’ guild from his own part of Hungary.

While following football and other sports from stadium stands, in newspapers and magazines, and on radios (television didn’t arrive in his own home until his mother could afford a TV set in 1961), István was an avid athlete, playing basketball as well as football, and flying rudimentary exhibition airplanes that he built himself. As he recalled, though, a competitive-wrestling injury when he was 17 changed everything.

“The cast that doctors put on my leg didn’t help at all. The knee was bending both ways. So the doctors proposed a surgery that would permanently stiffen my knee, giving me a limp for life. My mother wouldn’t hear of this. Luckily, she soon found out about a certain doctor who himself had a surgically stiffened knee and had dedicated himself to creating procedures that would correct knees like mine without leaving a limp. Thanks to this Dr. Fabien, my knee was repaired, and I went back to playing sports. But a second injury at football again blew out my bad knee. I knew I couldn’t put my mother through that misery anymore, so I swore I was finished kicking footballs. Except for when I did a bit of it with my son, Szilard, and daughter, Vera, when they were kids, I’ve honored that vow.”

By the time of István’s knee problems, the ill-fated revolution of 1956 had transformed Hungary, not to mention its vaunted national team, profoundly. “It was just after the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne,” István said. “When the Soviets intervened to help the regime put down the revolution, most of the Golden Team players were touring abroad. An official order was sent for them to come home, but all of the players refused except for, eventually, Bozsik, Hidegkuti, and Jenö Buzánszky. Kocsis and Puskás defected to Vienna, and most of the others went to West Germany. Needless to say, the communist leadership branded the defectors traitors.

“Czibor and Kocsis wound up in Barcelona. In Vienna, Puskás got fat and distressed, but ultimately he was found by a Portugal-based Magyar sports agent. This agent, Béla Guttman, took Puskás under his wing and persuaded him to play for Real Madrid. The players there were outraged by Puskás’s bad physical condition, but he had so much self-discipline and willpower that he got back in shape, and Real Madrid’s star player, Alfredo Di Stéfano, became his pal and teamed up with him. Most of the Hungarians continued playing football internationally and then became managers.”

How did István feel about the defections at the time they happened?

Even six decades later, he looked pained when he spoke of this. “We were so brainwashed by the communists then—brainwashed in schools, over the radio, everywhere. This brainwashing was serious, extreme, constant. And with it our leaders tried to turn all of us, the entire country, against the Golden Team. The players went from being viewed as gods to being viewed as scoundrels, and then—no news of them at all. Me, I didn’t quite know how to respond. Puskás had a high rank with the army, for instance, thus he was labeled a deserter, and the idea that such a high-ranking officer had deserted seemed odious to me.”

Making matters more difficult to comprehend was the public’s awareness of how coddled by the communists the Golden Team had been before the revolution. At that time, according to István, “Hungarians were not allowed to approach within 50 kilometers inside our national borders, whereas the players could go to the West, and from there they smuggled back nylons and windbreaker jackets and such to give as gifts or else to sell on the black market. Then again, it came to light after democracy arrived in ’89 that the Golden Team had pressures on it we didn’t know about. Some of the players were blackmailed by the secret police into informing on the other players; if they didn’t cooperate, the punishment would be severe.”

“Even Puskás?” I asked.

“No. Puskás, and only Puskás, was immune from such treatment. Because he was perceived as a national treasure, he was even allowed to intervene with the secret police on behalf of imperiled friends and relatives.”

During the revolution, my wife’s father had great personal conflicts of his own. On one hand, he rightly blamed the Hungarian regime’s puppet master, the Soviet Union, for his father’s combat death during the war. The travails of living under communism were enormous too. On the other hand, he still felt patriotic about his native land. He stood up against the communists in the end, but after the Soviets directly invaded and cracked down, hard, to end the revolution, István decided to stay in Hungary rather than flee abroad with so many others when the borders were briefly open. He even did military service in Hungary when he was called up, and after that came university—but with a hitch.

“Because of my opposition to the communists in ’56, I was prevented from enrolling in any university’s engineering program. Courses were either declared too full for me when they really weren’t, or else the administration would lie that I had cheated on my applications. Nevertheless, I audited enough high-level courses to qualify as an engineer, and ultimately I was made the safety manager of a chemical factory here near Lake Balaton, responsible for six thousand employees.”

“By that time, I had married a beautiful local girl named Marika. Before the wedding, Marika and I went to see a lot of football matches together, and she would get so excited by the action that she would jump all over my feet with her high heels. The moment we got married, though, she stopped coming to see football with me.”

“Were there still pleasures for Hungarian football fans after the dissolution of the Golden Team?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” István said. “Lajos Baróti, the national team’s coach, kept high standards for a while, and another coach, György Mezey, was good too. As for my favorite players, I could name them until the sun sets: Flórián Albert, who won the Golden Ball, and András Törőcsik. Fans used to yell, ‘Dance, Toro, dance,’ because of Törőcsik’s nimble moves. A high point was the 1966 World Cup match when Hungary beat Brazil, 3-1. It was almost like the Golden Team days again. When the Soviets beat us in the next match, it was obvious that the judges had favored them. Pure politics. Still, that victory over Brazil in ’66 was probably my favorite football match ever.”

Puskás scored a staggering 592 goals for club and country, before managing over a dozen teams on five continents.

Puskás scored a staggering 592 goals for club and country, before managing over a dozen teams on five continents.

Like many committed football fans, István has never limited his attention to his own nation’s teams, so he has savored the splendors of Manchester United (“Until he retired, the coach Ferguson kept the team to a high standard”), the initially innovative short passes of Barcelona, and the “creative, quick, very active” plays of the current German national team.

With Hungary’s loss to the Soviet Union, 6-0, in the 1978 World Cup in Mexico, the quality of Magyar football slid into a long, excruciating decline. The nation’s last appearance in a World Cup competition saw them lose to the Soviets again in 1986. When István’s beloved team Vasas dropped from first-tier to second-tier status, he continued to follow the team, as well as other Hungarian teams, but over time he lost heart, and interest. A series of match-fixing scandals during the late ’80s and early ’90s only made matters worse.

“You can’t toy with fans’ feelings that way,” István said with palpable anger about the scandals. “With the system change in ’89 came more TV stations broadcasting football in Hungary, which led to higher salaries for the players—making it less a sport now than a business—and new corruption scandals nationwide. They’re still happening now.Criminal prosecutions are under way, involving football gambling and cheating by Singaporean tycoons. Some top players and judges have been suspended. And now that our president, Viktor Orbán, is such a professed football fan, high officials in his Fidesz Party have started buying teams for themselves, blurring the line between sport and politics. This is what happened with the Budapest club MTK.”

I asked István if hooliganism is a problem in Hungary.

“A very serious problem. The fan base of MTK’s rival team Fradi is a hotbed of hooligans, but then Fradi has had fascistic ruffians supporting it since even before World War II. I’ve read that efforts are being made now in Hungary, with new technologies in use, to identify the hooligans and keep them out of games. But hooliganism is a major reason I go to stadiums far less frequently than I used to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as those thugs.”

“And the Golden Team, István? What became of Kocsis, your favorite ‘Magnificent Magyar,’ and ‘Junior’ Puskás?”

My father-in-law’s expression turned grim. “What happened to Kocsis was horrible, downright horrible. He got ill with leukemia in Barcelona, and the doctors had to amputate his leg. Imagine, a football wizard losing a leg. This caused him to despair so much that he killed himself by jumping out his hospital room window. At least that’s the rumor—his death has never been fully explained. Puskás’s ending was much less tragic. He returned to Hungary in 1991 with a barrel belly and a full pardon. He’d come home to coach the national team, and the crowds almost ate him alive, they were so happy to see him. He suffered from Alzheimer’s before he died. He’s buried beneath the dome in Budapest’s Basilica of St. Stephen—or ‘St. István,’ like me. The government declared a national day of mourning for Puskás, and our football stadium in Budapest was re-named for him. The last Golden Team player, Jenő Buzánszky, died in January.”

Goalkeeper Gyula Grosics’s penchant for donning all black on the pitch quickly earned him the nickname “Black Panther.”

Goalkeeper Gyula Grosics’s penchant for donning all black on the pitch quickly earned him the nickname “Black Panther.”

 

In 2000, István retired early, because of his work with dangerous chemicals, but he has served as a consultant with various companies since then. These days, when he’s not fishing or spending time with his family, he devours sports periodicals, chats about sports with friends, and follows games of all sorts on TV.

“If you love athletics,” he told me, “watching them as well as playing them, it gives you so many riches. Years or decades later, you can smile and feel terrific when you remember in detail a great match or a great play, reliving your emotions. And the better you can understand, or think you understand, the strategies, tactics, and their executions, the greater your pleasure.”

The afternoon at Lake Balaton was edging into evening. Recalling the Golden Team at its peak, István said, “The hormones of happiness flowed freely through one’s body then. The team’s success felt like our success, my success. They allowed us to feel we could move on in our lives with pride. I was realistic, though—I knew that if I had a problem, the Golden Team wouldn’t solve it for me. Even as a boy, I knew I’d have to solve my problems for myself.”

István looked at his watch and realized how long we’d been speaking. “Actually,” he said, “there’s a game between MTK and Fradi on television starting soon, and I’d like to watch some of it before dinner. Care to join me?”

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