Recently, Hungarian football has witnessed something of a decline, with clubs struggling financially and the national squad criticized for failing to produce top-flight football. But in the 1950s, Hungary produced one of the game’s most respected international players: Ferenc Puskas. Puskas captained the Hungarian when they defeated an ‘unbeatable’ England squad 6-3 at Wembley Stadium in 1953. 

Hungarian football has had some significant achievements in the 1950s and throughout the history of soccer. First, a team of ‘Magic Magyars’ won an Olympic title while introducing a new footballing formation. Then Hungarian football declined slowly but steadily and is still struggling to find its ‘old self.’ 

Hungarian football (and Hungary itself) has been combating various financial problems, which have had a bearing on contemporary domestic and international performances. These are essential facts about Hungarian football. However, there is much more to it than a few bland stereotypes. The history of Hungarian football is much more complex, In this article, we intend to point out a few less-publicly known facts and arguments to debunk some of the ‘myths’ of Hungarian football about its recent decline.

Hungarian Football Before World War 2

Although Hungarian football did exist and operate effectively before the Second World War, the success of the Magic Magyars in relation to the Hungarian communist regime will be first considered as this is the most internationally known historical phase of Hungarian football.

It is often not clearly indicated that the political regime enjoying the fruits of the Magic Magyars’ labor had little to do with the success of that team. Most of those players grew up in the 1930s and learned to play football on the streets of Budapest as children. Later, they were coached by the players of the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of the 1940s, these players matured and began to show exceptional footballing potential, that the communist regime did not hesitate to take advantage. Due to the strong centralization and social control, it was not a challenging endeavor for the government to build a team capable of outstanding national and international performance by gathering the most talented Hungarian footballers from all over the country. In other words, the communist regime only used the footballer material available to them and created a centrally coordinated world-beater squad, the backbone of the Magic Magyars.

Since it was relatively easy to find and select good quality and talented footballers at that time in Hungary, as the pool available was extensive, youth-development plans and initiatives never received considerable attention and financial support. It was believed that a ‘good footballer could be found in every bush’. This was true of most of the Magic Magyars, as they had been recruited from the streets of Budapest while playing football. This belief became widely accepted in Hungarian football culture, and youth development programs and endeavors did not officially and centrally take place until 1998.  This also indicates that the existing gap regarding football quality between most Western European countries and Hungary is not solely induced by financial conditions but ideology-driven historical roots.

1954 World Cup

Using football in particular for political purposes was/is always a risky business because of the uncertainty factor sports entail. The 1954 World Cup is a case. The Magic Magyars were expected to win the World Cup title but failed to deliver, which created considerable turmoil in Hungary and made the regime reconsider the political role of football in Hungary. 

This World Cup, indeed, is a watershed in the history of Hungarian football for two reasons. First, it has been argued that this event triggered and was the precursor of the revolution that took place in 1956. While this is an overstatement of the significance of football and sport in general, the outcome of the 1954 World Cup did cause the first open rebellion against the communist state. 

The most feasible and logical reason is that the Hungarian national team was exhausted due to physically demanding matches against Brazil (Battle of Berne) and Uruguay. Moreover, Puskas suffered from an injury, and the German coach (Josef Herberger) was a strategic mastermind.  

This defeat still casts its shadow over the present and needs to be eliminated from Hungarian football culture for it to create a new, modern identity.

Unauthorized South America Tour

After the 1954 World Cup, the Magic Magyars carried on a steady level of performance until the 1956 revolution, which fundamentally reshaped Hungary and Hungarian football. While the revolution was raging in Hungary, the players of Honved decided to take on a financially enriching tour of South America. After the tour, the players returned to Vienna. Still, not all of them chose to face the Hungarian football authorities as the South American tour had been announced illegal, and all the partakers were to be severely punished. As a result, three footballers (Puskas, Kocsis, Czibor) saw their future in foreign leagues and emigrated. The ones who returned were suspended for a few months and, in some cases, moved to rural teams. This was a significant setback for Hungarian football and the beginning of its leisurely decline.

The changing political system and social attitudes also had an important impact on Hungarian football development. After 1956, the new regime adopted a subtler way of governing Hungary and organizing football. A so-called ‘consumer-socialism’ was created in tandem with pseudo-meritocratic attributes. Due to the consolidating social and political life and the fact that football had backfired on the previous regime, football was to lose its political gradually, then its social significance. 

Decline In Hungarian Football

Hence, in the 1970s, the state began to gradually withdraw funds from football, the impact of which is still tangible. Moreover, since the private sector was virtually non-existent during communism, football clubs could not obtain funding from private sources for facility maintenance and development. Thus, the present problems and challenges Hungarian footballers, football managers, and officials face have long-reaching historical roots embedded in communism and its ideological functioning.

The collapse of communism left most of the Central and Eastern European countries, including Hungary, with obsolete economic and social conditions. Indeed, the early 1990s in Hungary could be perceived as political, legal, financial, and social chaos. Unfortunately, when a nation-state has to face these urgent challenges, sports remain secondary on the agenda. 

Nevertheless, Hungarian football tried to revitalize itself and, with little success, to adapt to new market-driven, democratic circumstances. The largest challenge sports in general and football, in particular, had to face was the fact that sport had not had a significant market value in communist Hungary and, thus, sports clubs had not had to deal with marketing their products as there had been a steady, although decreasing centrally governed financial support. 

In the post-communist period, the political function of sports fundamentally altered, and sports clubs had to manage their existence without the backup of state money. In Hungary, there was no pattern to obtain sponsors and to sell sports. As a result, sports clubs began to learn to manage monetary issues in their ways, which manifested in a mixture of Western and Hungarian practices.

This era, the years of post-communist transition, in the development of Hungarian football, can be explained as the re-commodification of sports in Hungary and establishing a Western-type sponsor-sport club relationship. The sports market was redefined in Hungary after 1989, and sports clubs began to approach international and national investors to obtain monetary support for advertisement space in return. However, as a consequence of the process of privatization and the unclear regulations regarding the sports market, most of the football teams slipped into a financial limbo between the hordes of sponsors.

The phenomenon of frequently changing sponsors became common in the Hungarian sports sphere. This reflects the economic instability of Hungary in this transition period. Since some of the enterprise-related regulations were not sophisticated and well implemented, during the 1990s, it was pretty widespread that companies appeared and disappeared from year to year. Therefore, many teams kept their sponsors for only one season, or as long as support was received, and they then tried to opt for another one or survive alone. 

This process is demonstrated by the way, and regularity Hungarian clubs changed their names in the 1990s. For instance, Vasas (a first division club) played under its original name in the 1992-93 season but changed to Vasas-Ilzer the following season. In the 1994-95 season, this team was named Vasas-CV, and two seasons later, it became Vasas-DH. These alterations in the name of this football club, and of most of the Hungarian football clubs for that matter, indicate the degree of financial instability Hungarian football clubs had to cope with within the 1990s. 

Arguably, for years Hungarian football resembled a labyrinth of problems with virtually endless alleyways, causing a high turnover of players and managers. Financial insecurity is still present in Hungarian football.  This may provide fans with a (false) ray of hope for a better Hungarian football, which is yet to come.

The Future Of Hungarian Soccer

This article is only a brief overview of specific historical periods of Hungarian soccer with the primary intention of debunking some of the most prosaic stereotypes and demonstrating that there is much more to Hungarian football than Puskas and the Magic Magyars. There are long-reaching historical reasons why Hungarian football has been suffering from weak performances. 

Furthermore, you could argue that Hungarian football has always been part of broader socio-historical processes in various forms and ways. Therefore, the full complexity of the current footballing situation and conditions cannot be fully unfolded without considering certain historical roots and socio-political settings. In recent times, Hungarian football’s political and social role seems to be changing, and the game itself is becoming more and more westernized. However, regardless of the intense westernization, the exact cultural, economic, and social direction Hungarian football takes cannot be accurately predicted. As of now, one can only speculate what might happen to national and international Hungarian football. However, whatever changes may manifest in the time ahead, those must be understood through a socio-historical lens to be fully comprehended.

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