Beware the example of Hungary

Ken Jones
Sunday 19 May 1996 23:02

Before a fateful encounter at Wembley in 1953 that left English football in a state of shock, Walter Winterbottom was a lone voice in warning that Hungary would be no pushover.

Alerted to developments in eastern Europe - Hungary were the 1952 Olympic champions and rising - Winterbottom approached the match with deep foreboding. "The press tended to think we would win easily," Winterbottom recalled in Saturday's match programme, "but I tried to point out that the Hungarians [who trounced England 6-3 and repeated the victory 7-1 in Budapest seven months later] were actually a great side."

The memory lingers on but such is the parlous state of Hungarian football today that the 19th game between the two countries was never likely to provide England with more than a light sparring session in the run-up to next month's European Championship.

To see Ferenc Puskas watching at Wembley was to revive admiration for a team that raised football to new levels of intelligence. But since he led out such notables as Gyula Grosics, Jozsef Bozsik, Nandor Hidegkuti and Sandor Kocsics, to be followed in later years by Florian Albert and Ferenc Bene (who might have figured in the 1966 World Cup final but for incompetent goalkeeping), the game in Hungary has gone into almost terminal decline.

Repeated attempts to revive it have failed through lack of funding, interest lost to such an extent that international matches at the Nep Stadium in Budapest, where England were slaughtered in 1954, are watched by fewer than 5,000 spectators.

There is sadness in this and a warning too for anyone who believes that the British sporting public's present obsession with football is guaranteed deep into the next millennium. Lose a generation of supporters, as clubs in the Premiership are risking with grossly inflated admission charges, and who knows?

Other factors, political as well as economic, have figured in the collapse of Hungarian football, which was all too clearly evident on Saturday. Of course, the marvellous improvisations that Puskas and his cohorts introduced us to more than 30 years ago were unlikely to be emulated by subsequent generations, but now there is no hint of a great heritage.

Ironically, it is the stirring example of Hungary's innovative teamwork in the 1950s, the ideal of players adapting easily to the requirements of every outfield position, that figures most prominently in modern thinking.

It can be seen most vividly in the play of the European champions, Ajax, and in what Terry Venables is trying to achieve with England. "You won't come across much in football that is new," Venables said last week. "It's mostly a case of updating things that have been attempted before. If not you, aren't going anywhere."

However, a system is only as good as the players who perform within it. "The Hungarians had five or six magnificent players," Winterbottom recalled.

As none of the players available to Venables fit that description, the importance of teamwork to England's chances in Euro 96 cannot be overestimated.

Hungary were poor enough to suggest that England's 3-0 victory was an opportunity wasted. However, there were encouraging signs for their coach, who was entitled to feel that his players are getting the idea of adapting to wider responsibility.

Some years after he retired as manager of the great Hungarian team, Gustav Sebes was invited by Walter Winterbottom to a coaching course at Lilleshall. "When those players were coming through we had one or two who were more skilful than Puskas in his position but lacked his consistency," he said. "On the worst day of his life Puskas could never be anonymous on the field." What, you had to wonder on Saturday, was going through the great man's mind.

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