Match of the Century

To many modern football fans, the idea of the beautiful game in the 1950s is less of a reference point and more a combination of myth and legend. Even watching back the scratchy footage of the likes of Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, John Charles, Nat Lofthouse and others seems increasingly alien compared to what we’ve become used to in the modern game. For those watching games from 70 years ago, the pace can appear pedestrian, the physicality daunting, the lack of lurid boots and fluorescent kits laughable.

And yet, it is undeniably the sport we all know and love. One of the truly beautiful things about football is the throughline it offers us to the past; no matter what changes in the game and in the wider world, football has remained stubbornly static for over 100 years. The 1950s is a particularly illuminating period in this long, unbroken lineage, as it marks the emergence of both regularly filmed and televised games, and therefore footage for us to pour over today, and players who, but for their need to take second jobs and their non-existent fitness regimes, clearly boast the skill and ability required to make it in modern day football.

Nowhere is this truer than in the 1953 meeting between England and Hungary, in a game that was dubbed by the press as the ‘Match of the Century’. Watching the game back, a full 70 years later, and much of it looks outdated. The kits are baggy, the boots clumpy. The ball looks heavy enough to knock anyone daft enough to try and head it unconscious. The tactics are rudimentary; even with Hungary’s famed deep-lying centre forward, the innovation that ushered in the very idea that tactics could be wielded as a weapon, the Magic Magyars look rigid and dogmatic by modern standards. The play is curious; the intensity, when compared to today, mimics the dying embers of a game that has been long won. And yet neither team has any real interest in controlling the game or keeping possession. Instead, the match swings from end to end with the regularity of a pendulum, both teams instantly surging forward as soon as they’ve won the ball back.

Some of the players also appear anachronistic, offering little more to the match than a willingness to charge about relentlessly in the hope of the ball fortuitously finding them. However, there are also shining lights, players who despite all the mitigating factors clearly have the raw materials from which a modern player could have been chiseled. There is Stanley Matthews, aged 38 (and still more than a decade from retirement) and yet still able to strike fear into the Hungarian defense with just the simplest of feints, a precursor to the likes of Lionel Messi, capable of waging psychological warfare against defenders armed with nothing more than the notion of what he might do next. England’s mercurial captain Billy Wright would become the first player to reach 100 caps for his country, and would spend the Match of the Century embodying, for better and for worse, the quintessential elements of English football at the time (and for decades to come); blood, thunder, unstoppable determination.

It is on the Hungarian side, however, where the pure, timeless ability of the players is evident in abundance. Gyula Grosics showcases the lightning reflexes, willingness to sprint from his line and, above all else, the athleticism we associate with modern goalkeeping. Midfielder József Bozsik is an oasis of calm amidst the maelstrom, exuding a metronomic effect on the play whenever involved. Zoltan Czibor is a Wurlitzer of tricks, and is found anywhere but his nominal left wing position, another tweak to the tactical formula that leaves the English utterly baffled. At inside forward, Sandor Kocsis is somehow both the embodiment and antithesis of the archetypal British centre-forward, hurling himself into aerial duels but doing so with remarkable elegance, a far cry from the full-blooded approach taken by the strikers that the 100,000-strong crowd were used to seeing every Saturday.

Alongside him is the man charged with uncorking England’s defence, Nandor Hidegkuti. The plan before the match was for Hidegkuti to deploy a rope-a-dope stratagem against England centre-half Harry Johnston, luring him into a false sense of security before adopting his new fangled deep-lying role. In the actual event, Hidegkuti needs just seconds to determine that there is little sense in waiting around. 45 seconds after Dutch referee Leo Horn had blown his whistle to begin the game, the ball nestles in Gil Merrick’s net, Hidegkuti was celebrates his goal, and decades of perceived footballing wisdom crashes down around the stunned England players, press and fans.

And then, of course, there is Ferenc Puskas. An unmistakable figure even when rendered in grainy black and white, Puskas is without question the player who looks most as though he has been transported back in time. His poise and grace are counterpoints to his brute strength and ferocious power. It is this combination that enables his first goal, Hungary’s third, the one he would remember for the rest of his life as his favourite. Positioned with his back to goal on the corner of the six-yard box and with the irrepressible Wright charging at him, Puskas performs an impudent drag-back that leaves the England captain, in the words of The Times’ reporter Geoffrey Green, like a “fire engine going to the wrong fire.” With time seeming to stand still, Puskas sets himself and hammers a shot that is past Merrick before he even knows Puskas has connected. Hungary’s talisman raises his arms aloft, like a gymnast upon the completion of a gold medal floor routine.

Much like the players, the era in which the game took place can in some respects feel like eons ago. 1953 was the year in which Everest was finally summited for the first time, and in which the structure of DNA was first proven. The polio vaccine was developed, and the Korean war ended. Britain was still rationing after the Second World War, and the United States was to first bear witness to the colour television.

And yet history has a curious way of circling around on itself. For every player out on the Wembley pitch who seems to defy the time in which he played, there’s also a major world event from around the time of the match that has echoes today. Josef Stalin’s death and the USSR’s successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb plunged the world deeper into the Cold War and its resultant paranoia and fear; today, Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine have drawn the iron curtain around Russia again. The gradual disintegration of Britain’s empire, something which contributed directly to the pressure on the England team to act as standard bearers, and the ensuing questions it raised about the former superpower’s place in the new world order mirrors to on-going angst surrounding Brexit. 1953 also saw Queen Elizabeth II coronated, a link across eras which has only just been broken.

The Match of the Century may seem quaint in some respects, but ignore it at your peril. Like the year in which it took place, you may be surprised by how much it can still teach us.

Written by Matt Clough, Author of ‘The Match of the Century’

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