One of the basic requirements of being a football fan is to know who Ferenc Puskás is. You may not know much about his career or be able to recall facts about the Hungarian team he was part of, but you should know the name – since 2009, the FIFA goal of the year award has been named after him. As someone who has been interested in his story, I was excited to pick up ‘The Names Heard Long Ago’ by journalist Jonathan Wilson, which focused on the individual greats from Hungarian football.
Hungary don’t have many stars right now. Willi Orbán, Péter Gulácsi, and Dominik Szoboszlai star for RB Leipzig, and Ferencváros made the Champions League Group stages in the 2020/21 season but it’s a far cry from the superstars and dominating club and national teams of the early part of the 20th century. The modern game hasn’t been kind to the Hungarian’s and Wilson documents possibly the greatest fall from grace in football history.
Wilson explores why this fall came about and tells the tale of some of the most interesting names from the past; it explores how the political landscape, including two world wars and the rise of fascism, dictated the game, and, most important, leaves the reader asking, ‘What if?’ on multiple occasions.
For those not aware of the significance of Puskás and the Hungarian team he played in, in short, they were the greatest international team to have never won an international tournament and Puskás was the crown jewel. The story of the team is also a remarkable one. They won the 1952 Olympics but lost in the 1954 World Cup final to West Germany. Hungary had beaten them 8-3 in the group stage but lost 3-2 in a controversial final; it was their only defeat in 31 games which included a 6-3 thrashing of England at Wembley in 1953.
The team were not only incredible on the pitch but their story off the pitch is just as interesting. The mid to late 20th century was a difficult time for Eastern European nations and Hungary was no different. Budapest Honvéd, for whom a lot of the national team, including Puskas, played, were due to from a match in 1956 only to find the Hungarian uprising in full swing, and decided against going back. They were banned for two years and Puskas didn’t return to Hungary until 1981, playing instead for Real Madrid and even the Spanish national team.
The Magical Magyars, as the team from the 50’s was known, was, clearly, a team worth writing about. On the pitch, they were phenomenal, off the pitch, the political trials and tribulations that hindered them are fascinating if not disturbing. Wilson, of course talks about these but only towards the end. The bulk of the book focuses on the names that paved the way for the almost-all-conquering team of the 50s.
After Hungary’s 6-3 victory at Wembley, manager Gustav Sebes was asked how the Hungarians came to be so good. His somewhat poetic reply was that they “played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.” It was a statement that highlighted the Hungarian’s willingness to adapt and learn but was also damning to British football whose well-known stubbornness saw them decades behind the rest of the World.
Hogan was a pioneer. After a decent career as a player, his coaching career saw him travel to the Netherlands, then to Austria, and on to Hungary in 1914. Wilson details his philosophies and how they helped build one of Hungary’s top clubs – MTK. Readers are left in no doubt of Hogan’s importance in shaping the Hungarian game but the indirect impact he had on the game as a whole is truly remarkable.
When Hungary Ruled the World
The foreword has Wilson in a graveyard in Hungary searching for the grave of the son of the great Imre Hirschl. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because, like it did to Wilson, it was something of an enigma. During his research, Wilson had found that there was a pioneering coach working in South America who was the catalyst for Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup win. The trouble is, there were no records of him anywhere. Partly because of a difficulty in record-keeping but also because he changed his name to ‘Emérico’.
Hirschl is a key name in unlocking Hungary’s influence over South American football. Five of his Peñarol side played in the 1950 World Cup final and he was in line to coach the national side until fierce opposition from rival side, Nacional, put an end to it. Wilson draws a direct line between Uruguay’s success and Hirschl’s managerial career and he does similar with other managers’ influence within the continent: Izidor “Dori” Kürschner in Brazil, György Orth in Chile, and Peru, Hirschl again in Argentina; not to mention the affect that touring teams had.
It wasn’t just South America that Hungary impacted football. Players and managers dazzled all over Europe and the Americas; from legends of the game like Béla Guttmann, who won two European Cups with Benfica; or Árpád Weisz, who gave the great Giuseppe Meazza his Inter Milan debut; or even Lajos Czeizler, who gave Gunnar Nordahl – the only man to win Serie A top scorer five times – his break at IFK Norrköping.
Wilson concludes by saying that most World Cup winning nations owe their success, in some way, to Hungarian influences. Certainly, when football was in it’s infancy in South America, Italy, and France, Hungarians were prominent within the domestic game. And then there’s the indirect impact – Sir Alf Ramsey played in England’s 6-3 thrashing 13 years before he led England to World Cup glory with his ‘wingless wonders’. Wilson’s conclusion may well be a romantic retelling in some places but it’s one that is worth of the beautiful game’s stature in our hearts.