The Germans were banned from entering the 1950 World Cup following the atrocities of the Second World War, but that tournament in 1954 in Switzerland was a watershed moment thanks to the valiant leadership of captain and former prisoner of war Fritz Walter and the goals of Max Morlock.
(You may also be interested in 'World Cup Countdown: 16 Weeks to Go - The 13 Players That Represented Debutants Scotland in 1954')
But what their impressive victory in 1954 also did was deny a legendary Hungarian team the chance to cement their place in the history books. Instead, the 'Magical Magyars' are now remembered as the greatest team never to win the World Cup.
With an earlier generation of players losing finalists in 1938, Hungary's success in the post-war era stemmed from a tactical revolution that complemented the existing quality of individuals like Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti, Jozsef Bozsik and Zoltan Czibor - a fluid 2-3-3-2 formation when others were using the older, less flexible and soon to be outdated 'WM'.
Coach Gusztav Sebes, handed sole charge of the team in 1949 after earlier serving on a three-man selection committee, implemented a new fitness regime, but also actively encouraged his players to be versatile so that they would be comfortable in every position on the pitch. In that sense, Sebes' system was a precursor to the Dutch Total Football model of the 1970s, which in turn fed the Tiki Taka principles that all Barcelona players are schooled in today.
Image (L-R): Zoltan Czibor, Nandor Hidegkuti, Sandor Kocsis
As a pioneer of the deep lying forward role, Hidegkuti in particular was almost impossible to mark by defenders who had never seen such a system, while each of Hungary's attacking players moved all over the pitch to inflict most damage on opponents.
Sebes was crucially aided by the ability to draw many of his players from the same club: Honved. The rise of communism in Hungary and the nationalisation of its football teams saw the club taken over by the Hungarian Ministry of Defence and become the army team. And with Puskas and Bozsik already at Honved, named Kispest before the takeover, army conscription made it easy to recruit Kocsis, Czibor, winger Laszlo Budai, defender Gyula Lorant and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, essentially giving Sebes a national team training camp at
Those six Honved players all later started the 1954 World Cup final.
(You may also be interested in 'World Cup Countdown: 16 Weeks to Go - Ferenc Puskas, the Galloping Major Who Lead the Magical Magyars')
Hungary's first major achievement of the decade came at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952. The Olympic competition held major prestige at the time and the Hungarian team were able to compete in the amateur competition as the players, although full-time, were state sponsored rather than professional sportsmen, a loophole enjoyed by many eastern European nations in Olympic football until the amateur rules were eventually lifted in 1984.
Hungary beat Romania, Italy, Sweden and Yugoslavia on their way to winning gold, and Puskas later remarked, "It was during the Olympics that our football first started to flow with real power. It was a prototype of total football; when we attacked, everyone attacked. In defence it was just the same."
As a result of their Olympic success Hungary were invited to play in a prestigious friendly against England at Wembley in November of the following year. Despite embarrassment at the 1950 World Cup when they were beaten by the United States and suffered early elimination, the English, as inventors of the modern game, still saw themselves as superior to the rest of the world and had numerous globally revered players in their ranks, including Stanley Matthews.
Legend has it that the England players had referred to Puskas as 'that little fat chap' in the dressing room before the game. But they were soon laughing on the other side of their face when Hidegkuti, impossible to pin down in Hungary's revolutionary tactics, scored inside the first minute. England pulled one back, but the visitors simply blew them away and were 4-1 up within half an hour.
November 1953— Football Past (@thecentretunnel) June 16, 2017
England vs Hungary
Billy Wright & Ferenc Puskás pic.twitter.com/yXDXRCtqqy
The third Hungary goal is now iconic and saw Puskas perfectly execute a 'drag-back' to flummox revered England captain Billy Wright. The 'Magical Magyars' won the game 6-3 and Puskas later explained in his 1955 autobiography that 'the English defence were unprepared for the method of attack adopted by our forwards', in a chapter titled 'Why England Lost'. The hosts were simply chasing shadows, totally at sea as a result of the fluidity of the Hungarian system.
A rematch in Budapest was arranged for the following May, mere weeks before the 1954 World Cup was due to begin. England arrived hoping that their 6-3 humiliation had been a simple anomaly, but were subjected to an even heavier beating as Hungary ran out 7-1 victors. And with England licking their wounds and seriously reassessing how their football was played, it left little doubt that unbeatable Hungary were World Cup favourites heading to Switzerland.
Hungary started the tournament by hammering South Korea 9-0 - Puskas scored twice, so did Czibor, while Kocsis bagged a hat-trick. Their second game was against the Germans and again they prevailed comfortably, winning 8-3 after Kocsis scored four more and Hidegkuti netted two.
In the quarter finals, Hungary beat Brazil 4-2 in a violent match that is remembered as 'The Battle of Bern'. Sebes called it 'brutal' and 'savage' and there was fighting in the tunnel, but Hungary progressed nonetheless. Next followed a semi-final against cup holders Uruguay. It went to extra-time after two late strikes from the South Americans cancelled out Hungary's lead, but Kocsis scored his 10th and 11th goals of the tournament in the additional period to send the Olympic champions to the World Cup final and one game away from undisputed world domination.
In West Germany, Sebes' team were facing a final opponent they had already comprehensively thrashed in the group stage. What's more, as soon the game kicked off it looked as though Hungary would repeat that feat, especially when Puskas and Czibor both struck inside eight minutes to hand them a commanding early 2-0 lead. This time, the Germans refused to give in and Max Morlock halved the deficit just moments after Hungary's second. Helmut Rahn had then tied the score at 2-2 before the final was even a quarter of the way through.
Hungary dominated the second half but were unable to hit their usual rhythm, before Rahn bagged his second of the game in the closing stages to give West Germany a crucial late 3-2 lead. Puskas thought he'd equalised shortly afterwards, but the goal was ruled out for offside and the Jules Rimet trophy went not to the 'Magical Magyars' of Hungary, but to the underdog Germans in what soon came to be known as the 'Miracle of Bern'.
In his autobiography, Puskas reflected on what he felt was a poor performance from English referee William Ling, as well as a loud concert taking place the night before the game that had left the Hungarian players unable to sleep until 5am. But he was magnanimous in defeat and mused that, ultimately, the tough games against Brazil and Uruguay had taken their toll, taking the team to 'a state of nervous exhaustion'.
Between 1950 and 1956, Hungary played 50 times, winning 42, drawing seven, and losing just once, the one that counted most. The team was eventually broken up as a result the 1956 Hungarian uprising, which saw a number of players emigrate, including Puskas, who joined Real Madrid. Kocsis and Czibor, meanwhile, went to Barcelona.
Those few of the Golden Generation that remained, Hidegkuti among them, were too old by the time of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, and so Hungary's legacy lay... unfinished.
The World champions that never were.