‘TheHardTackle Whiteboard’ is a semi-regular column which anatomises the tactical development/non-development in the game. So if chalkboard, formations, FM series and Herbert Chapman arouse you, then you are looking at the right page. Today we focus on four names, and a period where the seeds of the modern game was sown.

It might be hard to comprehend, but modern football is based on a (much debated) political ideology. Here is how a man with a socialistic view changed the game forever. 

The evolution of football (and its tactics), from being a chaotic mob game to an organized form of art, can be segmented into various stages. While Jimmy Hogan laid down the blue prints of ‘Total Football’ and professionalized the game, Marton Bukovi took the first step to move away from the rigidity of Herbert Chapman’s WM formation, Gustav Sebes infused ‘socialism’ into football while Bela Guttmann preached it across Europe and South America.

After discussing about Jimmy Hogan and Marton Bukovi in the previous part of this series, we now turn our attention towards the legendary duo of Gustav Sebes and Bela Guttmann.

Gustav Sebes – Socialism In Football

“I believe Socialism is the grandest theory ever presented, and I am sure it will someday rule the world.” – Andrew Carnegie, the famous Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist, wrote this in A Millionaire Socialist (New York Times).

Gustav SebesWhile it didn’t exactly rule the world, but Socialism has certainly left its imprints in football. In fact, when we look back at the evolution of football to its modern form, we find that modern football has its roots run deep in the political ideology of Socialism and Gustav Sebes was the man primarily behind this.

Sebes was a man from a modest background. He started his youth career with Muszaki Dolgozok before moving to Vasas SC. Sebes would go on to play for various Hungarian clubs – most notably for MTK Hungaria. He was someone who held strong political views and even worked as a trade union organizer in Hungary and France.

After the World War II, political situation in Hungary changed drastically. Hungary was occupied by Soviet troops after the fall of Nazi Germany. Soon the Communist party came into power and established an autocratic government in 1948. Football, like any social entity, wasn’t immune to these changes. The Communist party wanted to communicate its political ideology through the game and they found Gustav Sebes, someone with firm socialistic views, as the perfect man to bring about these changes.

Initially, a three-man committee of Sebes, Bala Mandik and Gabor Kompoti-Kleber took charge of the Hungarian national team. Later Sebes was appointed as the Deputy Minister of Sports and became the man in charge of Hungarian football. The Communist government was willing to invest in the game and they wanted Sebes to lead the reforms within the sports.

Gustav Sebes was greatly inspired by the legendary Austrian Wunderteam (under Hugo Meisl) and Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy (which won back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938). He noted that the one thing common between these two successful teams was the fact that the national team players for both these nations came from one or two clubs. Sebes wanted to implement that system in Hungary as well.

The Communist government nationalized the football clubs. The sports clubs were placed under government administrations and were associated with various institutions of the state. The ‘secret police’ took charge of the biggest Hungarian club at that time, MTK Hungaria, while Kispest AC came under the Hungarian ministry of defense. The need of compulsory military service enabled Kispest to sign a lot of the notable Hungarian footballers into team. Gustav Sebes made MTK Hungaria and Kispest the two clubs which would form the base for his national team. He believed this would improve his team chemistry as the national team players would mostly play for the same clubs. Hungarian football slowly recovered (after the World War II) under the new government and the leadership of Gustav Sebes.

Gustav Sebes’ political ideology not only affected the administration of football in the country, but it also bore upon his footballing tactics with the national team. He was a tactician who believed in ‘Socialist football’ – where every player has equal responsibilities both in attack and defence and everyone can play in any position across the field. That essentially took out any form of rigidity in a formation. It enhanced the movements of the midfielders and attackers as they interchanged their roles on the pitch.

The world stood up and took note of the development Hungarian national team has gone through under Sebes during the 1952 Olympics. The Mighty Magyars swept aside every opponent on their way to the gold medal. It was an emphatic performance. The football that Hungary displayed was unlike anything the world has experienced before.

The 4-2-4 formation, which was developed from Bukovi’s MM formation, came under the spotlight. The revolutionary tactics came into its prominence during a sunny afternoon at Wembley. While the MM formation developed by Bukovi was extremely fluid, it was defensively vulnerable. Sebes provided the finishing touch to this tactical revolution in ‘the’ match against England in 1953.

Mihaly Lantos, Gyula Lorant and Buzanszky were the three full-backs in the starting eleven. Sebes urged Lantos and Buzanszky to support the attack down the wings (similar to the role of modern-day full-backs), while Lorant remained deep almost as a sweeper. Bozsik, the right half-back, was asked to bomb forward in support of the withdrawn forward Hidegkuti, while Zakanas, the left half-back, dropped deep to provide defensive cover. So Lantos, Zakanas, Lorant and Buzanszky formed a back four – the first in footballing history. Lantos and Buzanszky were perhaps the first attacking full-backs in the game, while Lorant was perhaps the first to play in the role of a sweeper. That match against England is a significant check point in the tactical evolution of the game.

Gustav Sebes

[Left] Note the changes made to the MM formation (developed by Bukovi) by Gustav Sebes. He pushed the fullbacks wider, pushed up one of the half back while pulled back the other
[Right] The 4-2-4 formation used by Sebes against England at Wembley.

The match itself was a historical milestone. Hungary ran rings around a hapless England side and won 6-3. England were knocked off their imaginary perch and false sense of superiority. This was the first time they realized how much the game has evolved in the rest of Europe. They realized how foresightful Jimmy Hogan was; although their bruised ego forced them to label him as a traitor, deep down they knew that they were no longer master of the game they fathered. Since Gustav Sebes infused Socialism into their style of football, metaphorically this victory also signalled how socialism, as an ideology, won over monarchy.

Although that incredible Hungarian side had many legendary players, the name that perhaps stood out was that of Hidegkuti and Gustav Sebes had a massive influence in his career. Hidegkuti mostly played as a winger in MTK under Bukovi while Palotas played as a withdrawn striker. However, during a friendly match against Switzerland, which Hungary were losing 2-0, Gustav Sebes replaced Palotas with Hidegkuti in the second half. It was the first time Hidegkuti played in that role, but he excelled in it. He made a massive difference since coming on and Hungary ended up winning that match 4-2. After that Hidegkuti played in that role for the rest of his career.

Hungary under Sebes dominated the international stage like no other team has done before or even till date. The Magyars went on a 36 game unbeaten run (in 4 years). But sadly it failed to fulfil its destiny. They failed to lift the world cup in 1954, despite dominating the tournament and even taking a two goal lead against West Germany in the final. ‘The miracle of Bern’ is perhaps the most dramatic World Cup final; ever.

Despite that loss, Gustav Sebes and his team left behind a legacy, which perhaps, still remains unscathed. Sebes’ revolutionary tactics has formed the base of modern football. So every time you are awed by Barcelona’s tiki-taka football, remember that Sebes’ Socialistic ideology is the essence behind it.

Gyula Grosics, Hungary’s goalkeeper under Sebes, said:

“Sebes was very committed to socialist ideology, and you could sense that in everything he said. He made a political issue of every important match or competition, and he often talked about how the struggle between capitalism and socialism takes place on the football field just as it does anywhere else.”

Football has always been more than just a game.

Bela Guttmann – The Preacher

“What is beyond dispute is that he (Bela Guttmann) the final flowering of the great era of central European football; he was the last of the coffee-house coaches, perhaps even the last defender of football’s innocence” – Jonathan Wilson wrote this about Bela Guttmann in his book Inverting The Pyramid.

The English word which could describe Bela Guttmann is – rebel. We live in an age where the likes of Brian Clough (during his managerial days), Jose Mourinho and Zdenek Zeman hog the headlines more than some of the footballers do. Whether you hate them or love them, you surely can’t ignore them. But still, any of the above mentioned names can’t come close to replicating Bela Guttmann’s legacy.

Bela Guttmann’s footballing career, as a player and a manager, was nothing short of a soap opera. He started his youth career at Torekves before moving on to Hakoah Wien. Guttmann eventually went to America and played for several clubs of American soccer league. His international career with Hungary ended shortly after he hung dead rats on the doors of the national team’s officials in protest of the inadequate preparation of the team before the 1924 Olympics.

He started his managerial career with Hakoah Wien in 1933. It was the first of his 25 stints with 20 different clubs in his career. He managed clubs like AC Milan, Benfica and Porto but perhaps his biggest contribution to the game came in Brazil; even bigger than winning two back-to-back European championships with Benfica.

During his first stint in South America, Guttmann took charge of Sao Paolo in 1957. Guttmann preached the 4-2-4 formation in Brazil and soon Brazilian national team coach Vicente Feola adapted his tactics. Brazil won the 1958 world cup (using the 4-2-4 formation) as Marton Bukovi and Gustav Sebes’ teaching made its way across the Atlantic.

But Guttmann was more than just a preacher of Sebes’ tactics. His flamboyant personality also reflected upon his teams. The Benfica team that he coached from 1959, was one of the best club teams back in those days and the Hungarian is largely credited for mentoring legendary Eusebio.

Guttmann believed in the ‘three years rule’. He never managed a club more than three years, he termed the third year as ‘fatal’. Controversy and Bela Guttmann went hand in hand. In fact this article is too small a place to narrate the long list of his polemic incidents. His second stint at Benfica didn’t have a happy ending (in fact very few of his stints at any club had a happy ending!). He left the club after a dispute with the Benfica board over a pay rise; which according to him he deserved after bring two European championships to the club. Before leaving the club Guttmann said this, now famous, lines –

“Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever win a European Cup”

Benfica reached the European Cup final five times after that incident, but failed every time. It is rumoured that Eusebio even prayed to Guttmann’s grave to lift the curse before the final in 1990.

Jonathan Wilson summed up Guttmann’s contribution perfectly. He wrote –

“In truth, football has never been quite the same. Guttmann, more than anybody since Chapman, had defined the cult of the manager; the man who would take his mantle was Helenio Herrera, whose conception of the game could hardly have been more different. Out went all romantic notions of scoring one more than the opposition, and in came cynicism and Catenaccio and the theory of conceding one fewer”

The quartet of Jimmy Hogan, Marton Bukovi, Gustav Sebes and Bela Guttmann has contributed to the tactical evolution of the sports like none other. Over the past seasons, there has been a gradual rise in the number of goals scored. Teams are becoming more adventurous as everyone wants to play possession based football. Perhaps the notion of “scoring one more than the opposition” is returning once again. Perhaps the free spirit of this game, which Hogan dreamt of, is making a comeback and we hope that the age of “coffee-house” coaches’ returns with it.

This is a tribute to a quartet of forgotten revolutionaries.

  • The Whiteboard might be my favorite column at THT. Always a great read. Love a good dose of history along with my footy.

    (Any chance we can get some insights on the evolution of the goalkeeper next time? :) )