Sixty years ago, on November 25, 1953 the complacency and isolation of English soccer was ripped apart at Wembley Stadium by the visiting Hungarian national XI inspired by Ferenc Puskás. It wasn’t just the scoreline, 3-6, that was so humiliating for the hosts, but the manner of England’s first defeat by a continental team on home soil. The English, playing in an old-fashioned rigid formation, had no answer to the quick, short passing and fluid movement of the Hungarians. They had been run ragged chasing shadows well before the end of the game. (Watch Pathé News’ highlights of the game.)
England’s antiquated style of play reflected the country’s belief that as inventors of the game they were inherently the best at it in the world. The Football Association, English football’s governing body, felt there was no conceivable reason to pay attention to the way the game was developing abroad. As the body had no inkling of of the revolutionary changes in technique, tactics and fitness that had been taking place in continental Europe and South America — many, ironically, inspired by the thinking of an exiled English coach, Jimmy Hogan, who even today is a prophet without honor in his own land.
Using Hogan’s ideas the Hungarians were the vanguard for the modern team game. They developed innovative tactics such as playing a deep-lying center forward and withdrawn wingers, and utilizing quick-fire passing movements with which players switched positions to pull opposing defenses out of shape. They were the precursors of Holland’s Total Football that would sweep all before it two decades later and the tiki-taka style of the championship-winning Spain and Barcelona sides of today.
The England team that day were as woefully insular as the English football authorities. “Look at that fat little chap,” one of the England players said just before the kick-off — indicating Puskás, who despite his roly-poly physique was one of the greatest players in the history of the game. The British press was no better, billing the game as the Match of the Century, casting the “magnificent Magyars” in the role of underdog despite being reigning Olympic champions and beyond dispute the best side in continental Europe.
The record of Hungary’s Golden Team during its pomp, 1950-56, was 42 wins, seven draws and a single defeat, an upset loss to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final. Its coach, Hungarian deputy sports minister Gusztáv Sebes, built the team to reflect the superiority of the Communist system, though ironically it relied on the individual brilliance of its stars — Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik and Nándor Hidegkuti — as much as its collective team effort. The side broke up with the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Key players, including Puskás, defected to the West while their club team, Budapest Honved, was playing a European Cup tie in Spain.
Contemporary reports talk of a sense of silent shock falling over the crowd at Wembley at the end of the game against England. As Bobby Robson, one of the young English footballers who would emerge as players and coaches over the next decade looking to the continental game for inspiration and who was in the crowd at Wembley in 1953, observed, “We saw a style of play, a system of play that we had never seen before . . . All these fantastic players, they were men from Mars as far as we were concerned.”
England would be handed an even bigger defeat — 7-1 — in the return match in Budapest the next year, which would remove any lingering doubts that the English game would need a complete overall. One whose international playing career was ended by the men from Mars was Alf Ramsey, a full back who had also played in England’s historic 1-0 loss to the U.S. in a World Cup tie in Belo Horizonte in 1950. He would play a pivotal role in the subsequent transformation of English soccer, first as coach of Ipswich Town and then of the tactically innovative “wingerless” England team that would win the 1966 World Cup.
Yet heading towards next year’s World Cup in Brazil, the England national team, on the 60th anniversary of the game-changing defeat by the Hungarians at Wembley, is yet again looking a pale imitation of the best in the world. The riches of the English Premier League attracting the best players and best coaches may mean England gets to see the best football in the world — but it is not necessarily Englishmen who are playing it.