Nandor Hidegkuti

Saturday 02 March 2002 01:00

Nandor Hidegkuti, footballer and coach: born Budapest 1922; died Budapest 14 February 2002.

Hungary's 6-3 thrashing of England at Wembley in 1953 brought down the curtain on an era that had lasted for 81 years. Although football's mother country had lost to the Republic of Ireland in Liverpool three years earlier a home defeat on that dank November afternoon was considered to be her first ever by foreign opposition.

A seminal performance, it swept away the last vestiges of arrogant superiority from the game in England and can still be fairly called the most significant football match ever played on an English football field.

The Times football correspondent, Geoffrey Green, wrote,

There is no sense in suggesting that England were a poor side. Everything in this world is comparative. Taken within the framework of British football they were acceptable. This same combination – with the addition of the absent [Tom] Finney could probably win against Scotland at Hampden Park next April. But here, on Wembley's velvet turf, they found themselves strangers in a strange world, a world of flitting red spirits, for such did the Hungarians seem as they moved at devastating pace with superb skill and powerful finish in their cherry bright shirts.

If it was Hungary's captain, Ferenc Puskas, who captured most of the attention with his magic wand of a left foot and clinical finishing, the key figure in their success was Nandor Hidegkuti.

Nominally the team's centre-foward, Hidegkuti had been picked out by Hungary's coach Gustav Sebes to be the mainspring in a system of play that proved to be a turning point in the game's tactical evolution. Dropping deep to link up with Josef Bozsik in midfield, Hidegkuti became both creator and goalscorer, one minute sending passes through to Puskas and Sandor Kocsis or freeing his wingers, the next bursting through to get on the end of attacks.

Fed the idea that England were still more than a match for any team in the world on their own soil, a capacity crowd of 100,000 had never seen anything like it. Neither had an England team that included such notables as Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright, Stan Mortensen and Alf Ramsey.

All suffered, but none more than England's centre-half, Harry Johnston. Used to dealing with conventional centre-forwards he was bemused by Hidegkuti's roaming. If Johnston went in search of his man he found himself stranded in no-man's-land. If he stayed put there was nobody to mark, such was the perfection of Hungary's passing and movement. "The Scarlet Pimpernel wasn't in it," Johnston said afterwards. "Here, there, every bloody where."

Johnston must have sensed what was coming when Hidegkuti put Hungary ahead in the first minute, combining with Bozsik to rip a hole in the centre of England's defence. The hope brought by Jackie Sewell's equaliser was quickly stilled. Within 28 minutes Hungary led 4-1. Another for Hidegkuti, two for the rampant Puskas. When Bozsik sent a powerful rising shot past Gil Merrick 10 minutes after the interval England were dead and buried. Outpaced, outmanoeuvred, utterly outclassed – their misery was complete when Hidegkuti completed a hat trick.

Seven months later, England met Hungary again, this time in Budapest, their final match before competing in the 1954 World Cup finals. The roof came in again. Johnston's replacement at centre-half, Syd Owen, was instructed by England's manager Walter Winterbottom not to follow Hidegkuti, leaving the task of picking him up to the wing-half backs. It made no difference. This time, Hungary scored 7 to England's one. Finney said,

I felt sorry for Syd Owen, trying to stem the onslaught from Hidegkuti, Puskas and Kocsis. What a terrifying experience for him in only his second international.

Owen was shattered by the experience. "It was football from another planet."

Football played by the "Golden Team", as it will always be remembered in Hungary. They were Olympic champions in 1952, while an injury to Puskas probably caused their surprise defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final. Come the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Soviet intervention, the team was no more.

Hidegkuti made 68 appearances for the national team scoring 39 goals. During 14 years with the Budapest club MTK he won three championship titles. Frequently praised for his sportsmanship, he went on to coach Fiorentina of Italy, winning the European Cup Winners Cup in 1961. He also coached in Egypt and the Emirates.

Hidegkuti's death leaves only three survivors of the team that twice humiliated England; Puskas (who has been in hospital for more than a year), Jeno Buzanszky and the goalkeeper Gyula Grosics.

Of all the tributes paid to Hidegkuti none can match that of impersonation. Many tried but only he played the role to perfection.

Ken Jones

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