The blueprint for success at sport

It was the first time in international sport that so much attention had been paid to such intricate detail
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The Independent Online

England's World Cup-winning team of rugby union players flew home this morning in a sweet chariot of symbolism, merely masquerading as a British Airways 747. By a remarkable coincidence it is 50 years ago today since English sport was rocked even more seismically than it was in Sydney on Saturday, but by defeat rather than victory.

On 25 November, 1953, England's footballers were beaten 6-3 at Wembley by a Hungarian side manifestly better in every department. It was the first time that England had lost at home to a team from beyond the British Isles. English delusions of sporting supremacy disintegrated and have never been restored; nor should they be now, even as we welcome home Sir Clive Woodward - as he will soon become - and his masters of the universe.

Still, it is encouraging that Woodward masterminded the defeat of Australia in Australia just as the Hungarian Deputy Minister of Sport, one Gustav Sebes, once masterminded the defeat of England in England, by leaving nothing to chance.

In Ferenc Puskas, the Hungarians had the Jonny Wilkinson of his sport and his era. If a great sportsman's left foot can be said to be educated then that of Puskas had graduated with honours from Oxford, Yale and the Sorbonne. And his right foot was no slouch either in the examinations hall. But just as there is much more to England's triumphant rugby XV than Wilkinson, so Hungary had Nandor Hidegkuti and Sandor Kocsis, men who scarcely deserved to be cast in the shadow of Puskas. For them, read Martin Johnson and Jason Robinson.

Despite having such wonderful players, however, Sebes was Woodward-like in his preparations. Or, more accurately, Woodward was Sebes-like in his. Six weeks earlier, England had drawn 4-4 with a Rest of the World team largely drawn from other European countries. But Sebes would not permit any of his players to take part, because he did not want their skills unleashed. But he made sure that he was in London for that game, and that he got his hands on three English-made footballs, which differed from those the Hungarians used. Dropping the balls from a variety of heights on the lush Wembley turf, Sebes noticed that the balls never bounced higher than a metre. Armed with this information, and the balls, he returned to Budapest where he briefed the players and their innovative coach, Gyula Mandi.

It was probably the first time in international team sport that so much attention had been paid to such intricate detail, and Johnson's lifting of the Webb Ellis Trophy on Saturday was, in a way, part of the legacy. The Hungarian team trained together three times a week, as much without the ball as with. Not so Walter Winterbottom's England players, who were not even selected by Winterbottom. The manager was handed a list by the crusties at the Football Association, and told to get on with it.

By the time the Hungarian team checked in at the Cumberland Hotel in London, Sebes had found a restaurant near by with a Hungarian chef. That's where the players ate, to make things as familiar as possible. For the same reason, a chef was integral to Woodward's preparations for the World Cup. Military campaigns have been planned with less precision.

Of course, to non-sports lovers, it verges on the obscene that a sporting quest should be run in any way like a military campaign. "It wasn't a war, nobody died," philosophised Boris Becker once, on being knocked out of Wimbledon at a humiliatingly early stage. True enough. But will the reception accorded to the England rugby team be any less exultant than that given to our boys on their return from the Falklands? I doubt it. And there is no moral ambivalence about today's triumphalism, precisely because nobody died.

For Hungary in 1953, a country still reeling from the effects of the Second World War, footballing victory at Wembley represented an incalculable boost to national morale, just as for the English it caused more than merely sporting introspection. And the aftershocks reverberated again the following May, when Puskas and company hammered England 7-1 in Budapest. Tom Finney, who played on the England wing that day, once told me that his teammate Ivor Broadis complained after the match of a sunburnt tongue, having endlessly hared up and down the pitch trying to catch rampant Hungarians.

Still, who was it who said that they who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it? Lord Acton? A J P Taylor? Jimmy Hill? Whoever, they had a point. In the 1954 World Cup final the Hungarians were beaten, albeit unjustly, by West Germany. And shortly after that the team, like the country, fell apart. Meanwhile, the Hungarian football ethos was adopted elsewhere, wherein lies the danger for English rugby: all the major rugby playing countries now have a copy of Woodward's brilliant blueprint for success.