The Golden Age Forever Marked by Inexplicable Loss

The Painful Facts

The downside of conceiving of a golden age, so crucial for national histories, is that a sense of downfall has to accompany it as its negative correlate. Inexplicable, tragic defeats in decisive moments, massive bad luck, if not worse, and generally an unjust fate simply have to be involved, all helping a sense of betrayal and a plethora of wild rumors to emerge. Few cases I know provide better illustration of the story of downfall, the ultimate inexplicable defeat and the accompanying wild rumors, than that of Hungarian football.

When Ferenc Puskás, the (consensually agreed) greatest player of the (see previous bracket) greatest team of the 1950s simply called az aranycsapat (the Golden Team) passed away towards the end of 2006, just weeks after Malta’s very first victory in 24 years scored against the once magical Magyars, the story written by a great number of consecutive results and by large forces of history and society (that, indeed, all seem to have an impact on football results) seemed perfect: the ultimate decline of the nation on the most popular field of battle of late modern society.

And yes, it all started with the most inexplicable defeat in a World Cup final ever. The team with the longest unbeaten international record (of thirty-three games, and yes, it still holds), the first one ever to win against England in the motherland of football (sorry, but it really was not the Chinese who invented the game, after all), the reigning Olympic champions (even if this only meant victory over fellow communist countries where players were similarly considered amateurs) had to play against a team in the final they already defeated 8-3 in the same tournament. On top of it, they needed only eight minutes to be two goals up against them again.

They lost it.

And it was the Germans, on top of it all, who still celebrate this least expected victory of theirs as the rebirth of their sense of national identification, which must mean something in this all-time number one country of unexpected, undeserved victories (at least this is how I understand Gary Lineker who famously claimed the Germans somehow always happen to win). And it all took place in 1954, one of the darkest times in Hungarian history – and I am saying this without meaning to challenge the (otherwise frighteningly crumbling) anti-fascist consensus and even if Imre Nagy happened to be Prime Minister at the time.

Popular Democracy and Political Control

Football has often provided excellent material for mythmaking. Add to the complex combination of individual brilliance and team strategy, of creative play and ruthless efficiency the general unpredictability of plots that can incorporate any number of insane twists and turns and of final results that sometimes depend on the smallest of details, and you get the most popular game in the world and give the interested public endless interpretative possibilities. Any explanation is as good as any other, or so everyone believes about his/her own – it is, for lack of a better word, the unalienated form of democracy: one voice, one voice.

What is more, football was one of the few areas of life that was of great interest to many in both halves of the continent, and was not divided along lines of the global Cold War (which incidentally was the period of Hot Peace in Europe). National and club competitions were organized with the teams of all countries involved and East-West encounters were the most regular games of extra importance. Only seldom did teams find moral reasons not to compete with a national team from the other side, such as when Franco ordered the Spanish not to go to the Soviet Union, or the Soviet Union itself could not bring itself to accept the Chilean team as a worthy enough opponent when the country was ruled by Pinochet.

This is, of course, not to say that football cultures were the same under communist regimes – competitive football in an environment which does not recognize the legitimacy of free competition within had to be a tricky affair and the manipulations were often all too blatant so that retrospective scandals are not so easy to trigger. Also the way crowds gathered in stadiums, used their voices and even expressed discontent made the occasions of games a question of political relevance in societies where the attempt was made to turn everything political while keeping events under strict control. Obviously not everything was equally readymade for this. In Hungary, one of the legendary moments of political communication was when Ferencváros, the most popular and successful team and a symbol of anti-communism then as now, was allowed to win the championship for the first time under the communist regime, twenty years into it – an unmistakable sign of liberalization (a relaxation of control really) in the eyes of many. The fans suddenly started to chant not how they were champions, but how cool Kádár was. The irony was perfect, their anti-communism was wrapped in a pro-communist garb and they expressed how they had to depend on his decisions even here – and they were probably right.

Direct and Potential Consequences

But we are considering the most notorious and painful defeat here, not strange and significant politically influenced sporting victories.

This most notorious and painful of defeats in 1954 gave rise to a wave of various stories and some at least slightly paranoid accusations. There are the most mundane versions concerning the referee’s decisions, eternally the most constant source of complaint of people affiliated with the losing side. A fair goal denied as supposedly scored from offside and a well-deserved penalty that was not given both serve as elements of the standard repertoire and require no stretch of the imagination, especially since they are meant to be, and often are, justifiable.

A less frequent and altogether more serious accusation concerns the possible doping of the German side whose members admit to having received injections but deny the illegality of the substance given. Even on the 50th anniversary of the game this rumor led to newly offered witnesses and official denials by the German federation. So was it Vitamin C, the new miraculous “dope” of the 1950s? Still, rather suspiciously eight of the German team fell ill subsequently. For one, David Goldblatt, the most judicious and trustworthy chronicler of global football history trusts the accusation more than the defense, and who are the interested and frustrated masses to know better than him?

A second rumor concerns the most important player on the Hungarian team, Ferenc Puskás. That he was injured and only asked to play since he wanted to be there to win and thought this would happen even if he could not perform at his usual level makes the defeat accountable to his (otherwise highly unusual) irresponsible hubris – and by the irresponsible stupidity of the coach, Gusztáv Sebes, who was known to be a committed communist much more than he needed to be. That Puskás was handicapped because a German defender purposefully aimed at causing him an injury in the earlier encounter between the two teams makes the defeat seem that the cynical Germans (sorry for replacing the Italians this time, the primary targets of the worst allegations on the pitch, let along outside of it) could have never won it fair.

Rumors of an altogether different order, revealing a simple and all-too-meaningful version of history, are the constructions circulated even in the form of historical monographs nowadays that link those first public expressions of protest, lasting for days following the arrival of news of the defeat, to the outbreak of revolution just two year later, in 1956. Where you burn sport newspapers first, a glorious but hopeless revolution might be around the corner, you know. Moderate and judicious scholars claim that the link between the two events is not necessarily very strong, but the disappointment felt in 1954 could be seen as one of the many factors without which, etc. – your scholarly imagination can fill in the rest here. 

The direct link justifying rumors that the national team’s massive bad luck and otherwise inexplicable, tragic defeat was due to them being sold on the altar of communist comfort was provided by the luxurious cars used by top communists (evidently more equal than others) that happened to be not from Sweden, but altogether more suspiciously from, you guessed it right, Germany. This idea of a surreal deal strikes you as the ultimate proof of how wild suspicions could get and how powerful rumors can prove when the lack of accountability and open discussion met with what appeared not only in retrospect as the ultimate inexplicable defeat, the perfect illustration of the unjust fate of the nation.

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