Match of the century 3

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On November 25, 1953 an international football match was played between Hungary — then the world’s number one ranked team, the Olympic champions and on a run of 24 unbeaten games — and England that became known as the Match of the Century.

In two days time I shall be seven years and two months old. I am glued to the massive radio set in our Budapest apartment as I listen to the live broadcast of the above match from London.
The English feel confident of beating Hungary. For one thing, they are playing in front of an enthusiastic home crowd and they never lost a game at home.

The communist Hungarian regime has its own interest in a possible Hungarian victory: to show the capitalist England, what a small country like Hungary is capable of achieving under the inspiration of Stalinist communism.

But we, the soccer fans, are just enamored by our Golden Team, with its recent triumph at the Helsinki Olympics.

Soccer is our national religion. Made more fervent by the emergence of our once-in-several-life-times, legendary Golden Team. In the face of the dreary greyness of Hungarian communism, they bring excitement, pride and color into our lives. The regime is anxious to provide bread and circus for the masses to keep our resentment at bay. On the circus side, the Golden Team is the regime’s star attraction with their bedazzling soccer skills. Every bit of what the Harlem Globe Trotters have been to basketball, was the Golden Team to soccer magic.

Recently when I was loitering in front of this international hotel at the corner of my street block, I had the good fortune of coming across one member of the Golden Team staying at the Hotel. While they were waiting for their bus to take them to the National Stadium for training, he got a coin out of his pocket, the size of an Australian 20 cent coin. He threw it up in the air and let it land on the tip of his shoe. He kicked the coin overhead, to land on his upraised back heal, which he used, to kick the coin back over his head to the tip of his shoe again. I cannot even begin to imagine how much ball skill this guy must have had to be able to control a flat and round coin with such accuracy.

Right now I am listening to the famous Hungarian soccer reporter, Szepesi, conjuring up graphic word pictures on the radio as he is reporting live the historic match between England and Hungary. This broadcaster lives and breathes soccer so much, that according to his loving wife, he has a ball, instead of brain, inside his skull. As he describes the Hungarian team’s building up of an attack from the kick off, till the goal, he gets ever more enthusiastic and loud until at last, he shouts at the top of his voice: “Goal! Go-o-al! Go-o-o-o-oal!” Every time he does so, I jump up in front of our gigantic radio, dancing and shouting deliriously: “Go-o-o-oal!”

By the time this game finishes, both the broadcaster and I are completely hoarse, as Hungary wins the game with the staggering score of six goals to three!

Almost exactly three years later I witnessed the outbreak of the Hungarian uprising against Stalinist communism. The national pride was palpable. I could not help feeling that the foundation of the newly found Hungarian pride and nationalistic fervor was this huge soccer victory against the English. A stunned England thought this was a fluke; a one off event and demanded an urgent rematch in Budapest. They got it. This time the score was: Hungary — 7, England — 1! To this day, this remains England’s ever highest soccer defeat score.

But the euphoria turned sour when Hungary, the undisputed favorite to win the 1954 Soccer World Cup, lost it to West Germany two points to three in the final, after having emphatically beaten the Germans in the qualifiers, eight points to three.

This resulted in a soccer riot in Budapest. I watched the angry fans marching through my street, demanding the Hungarian soccer team trainer’s scalp. The false rumour was that he fixed the defeat in return for a Mercedes-Benz car from the West Germans for every Hungarian player.

As it turned out, the World Cup Final loss was the Golden Team’s single defeat right through their illustrious history from 1950 till 1956. They achieved a World Record of 42 victories, seven draws and only that one defeat, as well as another 10 World Records including: ‘longest time undefeated in the 20th and 21st centuries’.

One month before the Hungarian anti-Soviet Revolution of 1956, Hungary played against the Soviet soccer team in Moscow. The Soviet team was expected to win not only because they were excellent and once again never beaten at home, but also because it went against the protocol that a captive nation should upstage its master. It testifies to the gutsy, defiant spirit of the Golden Team that they not only stopped the Soviets from scoring but actually won the game against them one to nil. This David versus Goliath triumph on the sports field against the Soviets helped to further heighten the national confidence and anti-Soviet feeling in Hungary, adding fuel to the fire of the Hungarian Revolution a month later.

Although every member of the Golden Team was a virtuoso soccer player, the undisputed face of the team was its Captain, Ferenc Puskás. He achieved the distinction of holding the 20th century record as the highest scorer in international soccer games: 84.

Puskás’ name has become so well known around the world, that many years after the disappearance of the Golden Team it was still remembered. Many a times, since I came to Australia in 1964 till the present, as soon as people found out that I was from Hungary, the word that came to their mind and which they pronounced with a smile and reverence was: ‘Puskás!’

The Soviet’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 also resulted in the demise of the Golden Team. Most of its members together with an exodus of some 200,000 Hungarians then defected to the West as refugees rather then continuing to live under the yoke of the Soviet re-imposed dictatorship in Hungary.

For those of us who stayed in Hungary, the tragedy was twofold. Not only did we loose our fight for freedom we also lost our Golden Team that was previously our major inspiration during the dreary years of Stalinist Communism. Hungary since then has never re-emerged as a outstanding soccer nation. The members of the Golden Team scattered around the world and most of them never played again in Hungary. Puskás edged out a distinguished international career for himself that included years of play with Real Madrid. He eventually returned to Hungary as an old man, to a hero’s welcome.

The Hungarian National Football Stadium now bears his name.

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Andris Heks

Andris is a former journalist, working on 'This Day Tonight' and 'Four Corners' -- ABC television's top rating current affairs programs. He has been a social worker, psychodramatist and yoga therapist, and enjoys singing and playing music, especially Hungarian Gypsy Music. He also enjoys swimming, cycling and writing. Andris is currently working on his memoirs. He welcomes feedback and comments on the opinion pieces published at Starts at 60.

  1. Nice article on remembering the great Hungarian soccer team, and the sad day of the Hungarian revolution, deserted by the West. Interesting pairing. Thank you, Andris.

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  2. Sorry, Andris, I missed this at the time so I hope you’ll forgive a belated response. There was another potential ‘match of the century’ that included a Hungarian team: The Water polo final at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. I was there and saw it (as a 16-y.o.) and will never forget the intensity, the latent anger in the match, coming as it did so soon after the Russians overran Hungary. They were elite sportsmen but inevitably affected by political events back home. It was a hard match with heavy physical contact, including the eye of the Hungarian goalshooter (?) split open. I think everyone who attended the event – except for Russian officials) was thrilled when Hungary took the gold. I remember shouting myself hoarse, while my young friend Anton Szabo cried his heart out.

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