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How Hungary’s Stars Left Their Football Mark With Olympic Success

How Hungary’s Stars Left Their Football Mark With Olympic Success

Tuesday, 20 August, 2019 - 06:30
Ferenc Puskás (left) scores the opening goal in Hungary’s 2-0 win over Yugoslavia in the gold medal match at the Helsinki Olympics in August 1952. Zoltán Czibor scored the other goal at the Olympic Stadium, Helsinki in front of 58,553 fans. Photograph: EPA
London - Jonathan Wilson

It would be wrong to assume that Ferenc Puskás, just because he was cheery and relaxed, did not think about the game or was merely a turner of tricks blessed with an extraordinary left foot.

He was exceptionally technically gifted, of course, but what made him quite so important to the Aranycsapat [Hungary’s Golden Squad] was his tactical brain. “If a good player has the ball, he should have the vision to spot three options,” the right-back Jenő Buzánszky said. “Puskás always saw at least five.”

Perhaps recognising his own lack of tactical nous, in 1949 Hungary’s coach, Gusztáv Sebes, appointed the former MTK full-back Gyula Mándi as his assistant.

Mándi had retired as a player in 1937, with 10 league titles and 32 international caps to his name. That he had survived the war was thanks in no small part to his brother-in-law, György Szomolányi.

Two years later, though, Mándi couldn’t avoid labour service. Finding himself bound for Ukraine, he scribbled a postcard to Szomolányi and threw it from the train taking him east. Somebody found it and posted it but when it arrived, it was torn, and all that could be made out was the word ‘KELPUSZTA’. Szomolányi realised this must be Ekelpuszta, where there was a transit camp.

He put on his officer’s uniform from the first world war, strode into the camp and insisted he needed five men for an essential task. Impressed by his air of authority, the guards told him to take his pick. Szomolányi selected Mándi and four others, including the elderly husband of a sister of Mándi’s wife. He, though, refused to go, nominating instead a young father of four. He was never heard from again.

Having survived the war, Mándi became coach of the lower league side Ganz TE and also set up a shop in Budapest selling shirts. He had been noted as a player for his positional sense and that translated as a manager into tactical acuity. Márton Bukovi, then coaching MTK, was too much his own man to work alongside Sebes but Mándi, aware of the need to support his family and with far less of a coaching pedigree, was happy to operate as Sebes’s assistant.

The partnership worked. Hungary suffered a 5–3 defeat in a friendly against Austria on 14 May 1950, after which they won nine games and drew one in the buildup to the 1952 Olympics. Hungary had competed once in Olympic football since the embarrassment against Egypt in 1924, losing their only game 3–0 against Poland in 1936, but communism had given them a huge advantage: all their players were technically amateur and so they were able to select their strongest possible squad. Between 1952 and 1980, every Olympic gold medallist in men’s football was communist – and after France triumphed in Los Angeles in 1984, the USSR won it again in 1988.

Mándi received his official suit for the Games, but at the last moment he was refused permission to travel after it was decided his shirt shop made him an agent of private enterprise. Nonetheless, Sebes telephoned him every day for tactical advice. Hungary beat Romania, Italy and Turkey before facing the defending champions Sweden in the semi-final. They hammered them 6–0. “It was one of those days,” said Puskás, who
In the final they faced Yugoslavia, who had beaten the USSR after a replay in the first round. Tito’s government had manoeuvred itself into a position of independence from Moscow, inflating the political tension to the extent that, when the USSR had lost to Yugoslavia in the first round, the defeat had so enraged Stalin that he disbanded the CDKA side that had provided the bulk of the squad. Sebes, similarly, on the morning of the final received a telephone call from Mátyás Rákosi, the leader of Hungary’s Communist party, warning him that defeat could not be tolerated.

But Hungary were unstoppable. In front of 58,000 in Helsinki, late goals from Puskás and Zoltán Czibor gave Hungary a 2–0 win. “At that time,” Buzánszky said, “Miss Universe was a Finnish woman. In itself receiving the gold medal was a wonderful feeling but it was a great bonus to have Miss Universe handing over an olive branch and giving us a kiss. I was so overcome with the moment I had to look in the paper the next day to see if she really was as beautiful as I remembered.”

It was the semi-final, though, that stood out. Sir Stanley Rous, president of the Football Association, had been so impressed that he had offered Sebes a friendly against England. That was still regarded as a great honour but, when Sebes reported the approach to the MLSZ [Hungarian football federation], he was told that Rákosi was concerned by the possibility of defeat. Nonetheless, when European football federation leaders met late in 1952, a friendly was arranged for November 1953.

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