Monday, May 6, 2013

Like France, Hungary did not qualified for the World Cup finals since 1966. The last Hungarian success, if such word could be used, was in 1972, when the country ended 4th in the European championship. Hungary suffered long decline and it was a miracle that the team qualified for the 1978 World Cup. Nobody expected that and not even because of the relative strength or weakness of the national team, but because Hungary was in a group together with USSR – it was understood they were not going to offer resistance to 'big brother'. But they did. It was not like revival of great Hungarian football was taking place – a decent team, but not exceptional or ranking high. The draw – or the manipulation of it – placed them in fantastic group of similar teams: all with wounded pride, years of decline and disappointments, and eager to rise again. Group 1 was perhaps the toughest group at the World Cup – no clear outsider and since none has been any good in recent years everything was possible. Like the others, Hungary depended on young rising players, not very well known yet. Unlike Argentina, Italy, and France, Hungary had well known coach.

Lajos Baroti was 64-years old veteran in 1978 with vast experience – he started coaching in 1948 and not obscure teams at that. He coached the national team of Peru in 1971-72, then returned to Hungary to take the reigns of Vasas (Budapest), starting the revival of the club. In 1975 he was appointed coach of the national team, which was his second spell as national coach – he already coached it for 8 years (1957-66), the last successful period of Hungarian football. And he was the last coach to qualify Hungary to World Cup finals. Old fox, Baroti, and he did it again.

It was not an easy road – Baroti was too old to be a revolutionary, but even if he was, he was limited by the pool of available players. It was obvious that a whole generation had to be discarded – getting old in every sense. Total football demanded different players and there were not many up to modern demands at hand. Baroti experimented, called new players, then others, tried this and that, mostly depending on solid Ujpesti Dosza team, rising Ferencvaros, and Vasas, the team he developed. Slowly, something better emerged, at least as a skeleton. The best thing happening was the rising of two young stars – midfielder Tibor Nyilasi and striker Andras Torocsik. Both were 23-years old in 1978, but already with considerable international experience. The real difficulty was selecting 22 players capable of playing modern football – Baroti was unable to select a great squad because of the small pool of players, but he resisted the temptation to include aging veterans with big names and old habits. The biggest name out of the team was arguably the greatest Hungarian star since 1966 – Ferenc Bene.

1  GK Sándor Gujdár       8 November 1951 (aged 26)   19  Budapest Honvéd FC
2  DF  Péter Török           18 April 1951 (aged 27)          29 Vasas SC
3  DF  István Kocsis         6 October 1949 (aged 28)       6   Budapest Honvéd FC
4  DF  József Tóth            2 December 1951 (aged 26)    25 Újpesti Dózsa FC
5  MF Sándor Zombori    31 October 1951 (aged 26)     16  Vasas SC
6  DF  Zoltán Kereki        13 July 1953 (aged 24)            24  Haladás VSE
7  FW László Fazekas      15 October 1947 (aged 30)     71  Újpesti Dózsa FC
8  MF Tibor Nyilasi          18 January 1955 (aged 23)      26  Ferencvárosi TC
9  FW András Törőcsik    1 May 1955 (aged 23)            11  Újpesti Dózsa FC
10 MF Sándor Pintér        18 July 1950 (aged 27)            32  Budapest Honvéd FC
11 FW Béla Várady         12 April 1953 (aged 25)           28  Vasas SC
12 DF  Győző Martos      15 December 1949 (aged 28)   11  Ferencvárosi TC
13 MF  Károly Csapó      23 February 1952 (aged 26)     5    Tatabányai BSK
14 DF  László Bálint         1 February 1948 (aged 30)       54  Ferencvárosi TC
15 DF  Tibor Rab             2 October 1955 (aged 22)        11  Ferencvárosi TC
16 MF István Halász         12 October 1951 (aged 26)      3   Tatabányai BSK
17 FW László Pusztai       1 March 1946 (aged 32)           22  Ferencvárosi TC
18 MF László Nagy          21 October 1949 (aged 28)      21  Újpesti Dózsa FC
19 FW András Tóth          5 September 1949 (aged 28)    14  Újpesti Dózsa FC
20 MF Ferenc Fülöp         22 February 1955 (aged 23)     0    MTK FC
21 GK Ferenc Mészáros   11 April 1950 (aged 28)           13  Vasas SC
22 GK László Kovács       24 April 1951 (aged 27)           12  Videoton FCF
On the surface, the Hungarian squad appeared at the best age – not young and 'promising', but largely made of players over 25 years old. Players at their peak, as the common wisdom goes. Not a veteran squad, but rather a squad for this and only this particular championship – with the bulk nearing 30, it was hardly a team for the future. May be at their prime, but most of them were not all that great and certainly supportive players, not leaders. There was some uncertainty about the goalkeeper – Ferenc Meszaros was the best goalkeeper at the time, but somehow caught between generations: when he was younger, he was mostly a promising back-up for older and more experienced keepers; then suddenly he was a bit old and preference was given to others. At the end, Meszaros was still second choice and curiously with less matches for the national team than otherwise lesser known Gujdar. And thanks to rotations and experiments, the third goalie, Laszlo Kovacs, already had the same record as Meszaros in the national team. The defense was shaped largely around Laszlo Balint, already 30-year old veteran, with vast experience and influence. Reliable player, who was just unlucky to be part of mostly mediocre squads so far. Balint was outstanding defender, but there was hardly another Hungarian at his level, so Baroti surrounded him with experienced teammates – Martos, Torok, and Kereki. Similarly, the midfield was shaped around Nyilasi – Pinter and Pusztai were the usual starters. The attack was a bit of headache: Torocsik in the centre and Laszlo Fazekas at the right wing were excellent. But having rather standard centre-forward and classic right winger automatically required an old-fashioned left winger. There was none available, practically forcing Baroti to use 4-4-2 schemes. The team tended to lean on the right side in attack, thus limited and easy to read. At the end, Hungary depended largely on the skeleton of Meszaros-Balint-Nyilasi-Fazekas-Torocsik, supported by journeymen, who changed often, for none was exceptional – they were rather similar, especially in their limitations. On the bright side, the duo Nyilasi-Toroczik was deadly and the whole team was quite enthusiastic. It was not a bad squad and capable of surprises. Hungary, with some luck, was able to go even beyond the first stage of the finals. Baroti was no fool – as the picture above suggests, his options were limited to about 16 players, but the coach knew how to use them best. He also knew the problems the other teams were facing and certainly was going to use them to his advantage.