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How bad a state is Hungarian football in? Well, put it this way: when I hailed a cab outside Ferencvaros’s stadium a fortnight ago, the driver thought I might be a new signing. Two days earlier the national side had lost to Malta, the island’s first victory in a European Championship qualifier in 24 years.
Some – the optimists – saw it as a positive, claiming that this was the slap in the face that Hungarian football needed to make it pull itself together. But the most disconcerting aspect of the defeat in Ta’Qali was the lack of outrage it provoked. The face of Hungarian football has taken so many slaps that it has become numb.
Half a century ago, Hungary were not merely the best in the world but probably the greatest team there had ever been. They are now ranked 59th in the world – a little ahead of Qatar but a little behind Uzbekistan. As Hungarians mark the 50th anniversary of the Uprising, they are also commemorating the death of their nation as a significant footballing power.
Fifty years to the week before the Malta debacle, Hungary beat Austria 2-0 in Vienna, the last game played by the collection of players who in the previous six years had become known as the Aranycsapat – the Golden Squad. They had won Olympic gold in 1952, and twice hammered England during an unbeaten run of 31 games that ended in the most agonising circumstances: a 3-2 defeat to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final.
Back then, they were bright and modern, the enlightened tactical thinking of their coach Gusztav Sebes – one of a number of innovative Hungarian football theorists of the time – encouraging an unprecedented fluidity in which players of the class of Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti, Jozsef Bozsik, Zoltan Czibor and Sandor Kocsis revelled.
So how, can a world-leader collapse so utterly? The easy answer is to blame the effects of the suppression of the Uprising.
As the situation in the capital degenerated, the strongest club side of the era, Honved, set off on a tour initially of Europe and then of Brazil and Venezeula, taking with them several guest players. The Hungarian Football Association and Fifa, the sport’s world governing body, both declared the tour illegal and, facing suspension and possibly worse, Puskas, Kocsis and Czibor decided not to return. All three eventually continued their careers in Spain.
Bela Guttmann, the brilliant but irascible dandy who led the tour, never worked in Hungary again, denying the country of his birth the coaching talent that would win two European Cups for Portugal’s Benfica. The national Under-21 team, who had been playing at a Uefa tournament in Belgium when the Uprising began, defected en masse.
Clearly those events had a significant effect but the problems had probably begun with that defeat to West Germany. “It is as though Hungarian football is frozen at that moment, as though we have never quite moved on from then,” said Tibor Nyilasi, the Hungary striker of the 1970s.
In Budapest after the defeat, disappointment swiftly turned to anger. Players’ apartments were attacked, Puskas was barracked at Honved away games, Sebes’s son was beaten up at school and the goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics, was arrested after being accused of “conduct incompatible with the laws and morals of the Hungarian People’s Republic”.
“The atmosphere was so bitter it could still be felt months later,” Grosics said. “In those demonstrations, I believe, lay the seeds of the 1956 Uprising.”
Sebes, who had allied himself closely to the Communist regime, became a distrusted figure as Hungary underwent a gradual process of de-Stalinisation. His support staff was gradually dismantled and he was eventually sacked after a defeat to Belgium in March 1956. By then, the spirit had gone.
By the 1960s, though, led by Florian Albert, the great centre-forward, Hungarian football had recovered enough twice to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Hungary’s club sides, similarly, flickered towards success. MTK, Ujpest Dozsa and Videoton all lost in European finals and Hungary went to the 1986 World Cup with a young and promising side. Thrashed 6-0 by the USSR in the group phase, they have not qualified for a major tournament since.
There are still those who believe the nationalisation of clubs in the late 1940s stored up problems for later generations. State control allowed Sebes to gather the best players at Honved, where he could mould the national side but, perhaps, in restricting competition it hindered the development of young talent from outside his system.
But, as Pal Varhidy, who won nine league titles as coach of Ujpest, put it, football in Hungary in the final 30 years of communism was not so much different to anywhere else, it just felt worse because of the glories that had gone before.
That at least was true until the 1990s, when financial deprivation and the move to a market economy helped make Hungarian football bad by any standard. It was only in 2002 that Hungary’s gross domestic product returned to the levels of 1989, and private capital does not finance football as the state once did.
The game declined to the point where Victor Orban, a man in his late 30s, could hold his own in the Hungarian third division while at the same time serving as prime minister.
Yet other post-communist countries – Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, even Slovenia – have coped, their promising players moving abroad for better coaching and competition at club level and returning home to play for their national sides.
The problem is not that Hungary is not developing talent; it is that it is not producing any in the first place. Maybe a less chaotic league structure and better facilities would entice children to the game earlier but the biggest problem seems, rather, the pessimism of Hungarian football.
Each generation, it seems, has been burdened with the knowledge that they were not so good as the last and have suffered public resentment as a result. Only 9,000 fans watched Hungary’s 2008 European Championship qualifier against Turkey and most of them spent much of the game protesting against Hungary’s bid to co-host Euro 2012 with Croatia.
“We were always criticised because people compared us with Puskas’s team,” Nyilasi said. “But people would love to go back to our time now.”
But that is impossible, as Puskas’s condition sadly emphasises. His battle with Alzheimer’s almost done, he lies critically ill in a Budapest hospice, waiting, as his friend, the Olympic water-polo champion Gyorgy Karpati puts it, for “the day when his heart will stop and it will be over”.
Then, for fans with a tendency to live in the reflected glow of glories past, the golden age will truly be over.