If the good people of Brazil are in a state of stupefaction after seeing the national side drubbed 7-1 by Germany in the World Cup semi-final, Englishmen of a certain age will readily identify with them.
Old-timers with unselective memories will hark back to the year 1953, when England bestrode the football world like the proverbial colossus, with a team that included football icons of the calibre of Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey and Stan Mortensen. The economy might be in a parlous state, but a new queen had just been crowned, heralding a new Elizabethan age; a British expedition had just conquered Everest; and English football reigned supreme – at Wembley, the most famous stadium in the world and in football terms a citadel as impregnable as Gibraltar.
Only once had England lost to a foreign team there, and that was against the Republic of Ireland, which at the time was hardly considered foreign, as most of its players turned out for English clubs. England, the founder of the game, a perceived powerhouse in world football, was regarded by ‘lesser breeds’ around the world as THE team to beat – or so mighty England supposed.
A friendly match had been arranged, at Wembley, against Hungary. It would be a test, as Hungary was widely acknowledged to have as fine a team as ever laced eleven boots. Hungary had not been beaten for three years, and had won the gold medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. (Hungary’s players in the days of the Communist regime were amateurs in name only; most were listed as officers in the Hungarian army and played for Honved, the Hungarian army club.)
Advance word in the newspapers was that certain Hungarian players, such as Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Puskas were something rather special – and Hungary’s extended string of victories spoke for itself.
The Wembley match, played on 25 November, 1953 – a date which in the corridors of the Football Association will live in infamy – attracted a gate of over 100,000. Many in this vast crowd had showed up confident of watching England hand out a lesson in the old-fashioned virtues of English football, in the process taking the cocky Hungarians down a peg or two. They were in for a nasty shock, and it was not long in coming. Hidegkuti, shaking off his markers with chocking ease, scored in the first minute. Another goal followed minutes later. The stunned silence on the packed Wembley terraces was said to be eerie.
Hungary’s forwards thereafter ran rings round the lumbering English defenders, while at the other end of the pitch Hungary’s defenders reduced the English forwards to a state of bewilderment. Matthews, the wizard of dribble, never got a look in.
Hungary won the match 6-3.
The margin might have been even greater, most observers agreed, as Hungary had taken 35 shots at the English goal, while England had managed a mere five. England had, it is true, scored three goals, but one was a penalty and the other two were the result of breakaways into gaps created by Hungary’s incessant assaults on the English goal.
More than a few English fans went home believing the result to have been a fluke, evidently unwilling to believe the evidence of their own eyes. England had had a rare off-day, many maintained, and the Hungarians had simply played out of their skins. In the return match in Budapest, the following May, England would show the Hungarians who ruled the world football empire.
When the showdown arrived, the nation rallied behind the team, the press screaming for revenge. More than a few fans actually anticipated something close to a reversal of the score-line.
Hungary won 7-1.
England’s humiliation was comprehensive. Wembley had been no fluke. The supposed old-fashioned virtues of English football had turned out to be simply old-fashioned methods. The Hungarians had used a hitherto unfamiliar formation, in which the centre-forward, Hidegkuti, played deep, which had the effect of confusing the England centre-half (Harry Johnston) who in consequence was constantly drawn out of position.
But the humiliation was not just about technicalities such as formations; English football had not changed since the 1920s, and the then revolutionary tactics of Arsenal’s manager, Herbert Chapman. Yes, the Hungarians had used tactics that confounded the English, but they were also fitter and individually more skilled and collectively more adaptable.
Incidentally, England’s manager for both of those games was one Walter Winterbottom, who had never played for or managed an English league club. The hapless goalkeeper was Gil Merrick of Birmingham City, who, though largely blameless in conceding thirteen goals, never fully recovered from the shock – or so it was said. He retired the following year.
Some would say that English football, despite the 1966 World Cup triumph, still has not completely come to terms with the embarrassments of 1953.
Brazilians, read this and smile. Or weep.