England v Hungary - a football match that started a revolution
- 23 November 2013
- From the section Magazine
Sixty years ago, a football match shook the foundations of the British Empire and encouraged a previously unthinkable dream of freedom in Hungary, says Gellert Tamas.
The time was exactly 16:45. Wembley hosted a sold-out crowd. One hundred and twenty thousand spectators had gathered to see England play Hungary. The "Marvellous Magyars" had remained unbeaten for three years and England had never lost an international at Wembley.
The two captains, Billy Wright and Ferenc Puskas, shook hands. The referee blew his whistle. The game, dubbed the "match of the century" by media all over the world, had started.
Stanley Matthews, Alf Ramsey and the other English players were filled with self-confidence, and rightly so. England was at the height of its power, literally as well as figuratively.
Just a few months earlier a British-led expedition had conquered Mount Everest and shortly afterwards, when the Queen was crowned, the royalist fervour sweeping the country seemed boundless.
Although England had left India, the British Empire still included large parts of Africa and South East Asia. England was not just any old country, it was a world power and had no intention whatsoever of giving up that position.
The situation for Hungary was rather different. The country had suffered badly as a result of World War Two, being occupied first by German and then by Russian troops. The new communist leader, Rakosi, had built a police state second only to that of his great teacher and role model - Stalin.
Tens of thousands of Hungarians had been sent to camps and prisons.
Sports in general, and football in particular, had become part of the wider ideological struggle. The Hungarian government not only nationalised farmlands and factories, they also took over the football clubs. The national team coach, Gusztav Sebes, was also a member of the government.
And Sebes, who was leading strikes at the Renault factory in Paris in the 1930s, did nothing to conceal his views: "The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch," he stated bluntly.
Football was not only seen as a battle between East and West, it was also used to define the correct interpretation of the ideological theses of Marx and Lenin. The defeat of the Soviet football team by Tito's renegade Yugoslavia in the Olympic games in 1952, for example, was treated as a state secret and was not mentioned by the Soviet media until after the death of Stalin in March 1953.
The match of the century was not only about football, then, it was also an integral element of a symbolic showdown between two rival ideologies - capitalist imperialism versus communism.
Ferenc Puskas, the captain of the Hungarian side, was short and overweight, more resembling a barrel of sweet Hungarian Tokaji wine than a footballer. He did not know how to head and he never used his right foot. Apart from that he was brilliant. Scoring a total of 83 goals in 84 internationals he was to set a record in international football that players like Pele and Maradona never even came close to. But this was of course still unknown either to the English players or the expectant Wembley crowd that day.
"Look at that fat little chap," one of the English players is said to have commented just before kick-off. Fifty-seven seconds later the ball was in the back of the English net, and after only 28 minutes Hungary were ahead 4-1.
Puskas' second goal - later referred to as the "drag-back goal", was to become legendary.
According to The Times match report Puskas bamboozled England's captain Billy Wright by dragging the ball back with the sole of his left boot and, after a whirling pirouette, smashing it into the roof of the net, leaving Wright resembling "a fire engine rushing to the wrong fire".
Hungary won 3-6. They could easily have scored another six. The England centre-half Syd Owen later complained that it "was like playing people from outer space".
While it would certainly be an exaggeration to claim that the fall of the British Empire was caused by the loss of a football game, the silent, gloomy-looking crowds at Wembley had certainly had their view of the world rudely shaken. And things got even worse a few months later when Hungary demolished England 7-1 at the newly built Nepstadion - the People's Stadium - in Budapest, thereby inflicting the heaviest defeat ever on England.
Football had been an integral part of the building of the British Empire, or to use the words of British historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his bestselling The Age of Extremes: "The sport the world made its own was association soccer, the child of Britain's global economic presence, which had introduced teams named after British firms or composed of expatriate Britons from the polar ice to the Equator."
Football was imperial Britain's biggest contribution to the new global popular culture, made possible through technological innovations such as radio and TV. And England was of course its undisputed master. Until 1950 England did not even participate in the World Cup, partly because the English regarded it as being beneath their dignity to even play non-British sides.
Empires fall when their citizens no longer believe in their superiority and invincibility. Hobsbawm traces the beginning of the fall of the British Empire to precisely these early years in the 1950s, and he sees the process ending with the futile attempt to overthrow Egypt´s then leader Nasser in connection with the 1956 Suez crisis.
While England tried to comprehend what had actually hit them at Wembley, the Hungarian regime duly attempted to squeeze as much mileage as possible out of the victory. Their claim that the game demonstrated the triumph of the communist system was, however, mere illusion. The Hungarian success was based less on collective effort than the individual skills and qualities of players such as Puskas. He was the cheeky rebel, the individualist magician who, in an otherwise closed and rigid system, did everything exactly the way he wanted to.
After Hungary lost a game against Czechoslovakia, for example, Puskas was suspended for life by the National Football Association, for "laziness on the pitch". He was pardoned just a couple of months later.
Stalin and his proteges, like Rakosi in Hungary, needed Puskas to prove the superiority of the communist system. In order to allow Puskas uninhibited individuality they were therefore willing to compromise even on one of the system's most important tenets - the collective above and before the individual. An ideological paradox was thus turned into a fact - on the football field.
But the match of the century not only struck at the idea and concept of empire: it also rebounded forcefully on communism.
In 3-6, a wildly popular Hungarian film in 1999 by the director Peter Timar, the guards in a penal camp blissfully embrace political prisoners after the referee´s final whistle. Timar draws a direct link between the game and the Hungarian revolution of 1956. The victory at Wembley not only created a new sense of social cohesiveness in an ideologically divided country, it also made it clear for all to see that it was actually possible to achieve "the impossible". If England could be beaten at Wembley, then maybe the Soviet occupiers could also be… like wildfire, a previously unthinkable idea thus began to fan out across the country.
In present-day Hungary the memory of the game remains vivid: it is still regularly discussed in literature and film, and the truly nostalgic can take a pint - or two - at the 6-3 bar in downtown Budapest.
When the renowned Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy was asked to name the most important personality of the 20th Century he chose Puskas. It might sound a little unsophisticated to place a footballer next to intellectual giants such as Proust, Esterhazy admitted, while also reassuring that this was not a question of his adopting a postmodern "anything goes" approach.
According to Esterhazy the success of the Hungarian national team can be seen as a symbol of the rebellion of an oppressed population against their masters. Puskas became the "hero of the fairy-tale, who triumphs where ordinary men cannot". By transgressing "the limitations of the personality", he argued, "he symbolises me, in the same way as I can symbolise him".
So in the same way that Proust's literary characters live on in our collective memory, despite their never having existed outside the author's imagination, Esterhazy maintains, the idea of Puskas exists beyond the person Puskas.
And in a similar way the metaphor and symbol of 3-6 lives on beyond what actually happened on the green grass of Wembley Stadium on the 25th November 1953.