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Born: Monday 22 January 1906, Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary)
Died: Thursday 30 January 1986, Budapest, Hungary (aged 80)
Gusztáv Sebes is renowned as the coach of one of the most exciting and influential teams in the history of football, namely Hungary's 'Magical Magyars' of the 1950s. His teams used an early form of 'total football' some twenty years before the Netherlands popularised such ideas, and went unbeaten throughout much of the early part of the decade before falling agonisingly short of becoming World Champions.
Born in Budapest in 1906, Sebes spent most of his teenage years playing youth football for Vasas SC but left his home town in 1925 when his work took him to Paris. Working as a fitter in a Renault factory and also organising the trade union there, he played for a short time for works team Club Olympique Billancourt before returning home in 1927 to join one of Hungary's leading teams, MTK Hungária.
Sebes would remain with MTK for the entirety of his playing career, staying with the club until the beginning of the Second World War. Although they missed out on the league title in his first season, 1928-29 did bring title success as MTK edged out great rivals Ferencváros. Sebes' next major honour also came at the expense of Ferencváros with a cup win in 1932. In 1935-36, Sebes helped his team to go unbeaten through the whole league season and claim another title, which they retained the following year. That would be the last major success of his playing days, and during the war years he began to make the move into management, where his greatest successes would come.
Sebes managed several club sides in Hungary during the war and by 1949 had been appointed as coach of the national team. He set about building a squad that could compete for major international honours, and wanted to do so using players from just a couple of clubs, as had been the pattern among the great national teams of the 1930s such as Italy and Austria. With Ferencváros deemed unsuitable by the authorities in Communist Hungary, those clubs would be Kispest, renamed as Honvéd, and his own former club MTK.
With many of the country's leading players at Honvéd, Sebes was able to take advantage of the fact that so many members of his national team knew each other's games so well. He also made use of the revolutionary 4-2-4 formation being introduced at MTK, where coach Marton Bukovi developed the deep-lying centre-forward system around Nándor Hidegkuti. Sebes recognised the potential of that formation and incorporated both it and Hidegkuti himself into the national team.
A committed socialist, Sebes developed his ideas of how football should be played largely on the basis of his political views. His system of 'socialist football' involved all players taking equal responsibility and pulling equal weight, and also being able to play in any position when required. This method was far more flexible than any previously seen, and challenged the consensus which had existed in the game for many years.
Having spent three years moulding his team, Sebes led them onto the world stage for the first time at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, where they would prove to be a revelation. After edging past Romania 2-1 in their preliminary round match, they went on to beat Italy 3-0 and Turkey 7-1 to set up a semi-final against reigning champions Sweden. Hungary took the lead in the very first minute, and went on the crush their opponents 6-0. Before the final against Yugoslavia, they were warned by the ruling authorities that failure would be unacceptable, but they never looked like failing as a 2-0 victory sealed the gold medals.
On the basis of their performances in Helsinki, Sebes was invited by the English FA to bring his team to Wembley for a friendly international in 1953. His meticulous preparations included using the same type of ball used in England, and laying out a training pitch to the exact specifications of Wembley. When the match came, England's rigid inflexible tactics could not cope with Hungary's fluid system and they were totally outclassed. Hungary won 6-3, and English legends Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews both hailed Sebes' team as the greatest that they ever played against.
The following year, Hungary won a return match against England by the even more overwhelming score of 7-1, and on the back of an unbeaten run stretching back to 1950 Sebes led his team into the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland as clear favourites. There was no-one to touch them in the group stages, as a 9-0 win over debutants South Korea was followed by an arguably even more impressive 8-3 thrashing of an admittedly weakened West German side.
In the quarter-finals they faced Brazil, and after opening the match with two goals in the first seven minutes Hungary were always in control. The semi-final against Uruguay is considered by many to be one of the greatest matches ever played, and Sebes saw his team take another 2-0 lead before being pegged back and eventually coming through 4-2 after extra-time. The final brought a rematch of the group game with West Germany, and after eight mintutes another thrashing appeared to be on the cards as Hungary led 2-0. The Germans were quickly level though, and when they took the lead late on Hungary had no reply. Their unbeaten run was over at the worst possible time, and Sebes had missed out on the greatest prize in the game. Sebes himself had said that the final would prove to be a test of nerves, and it appeared this his team had lost their nerve at the crucial moment.
After the World Cup, Hungary went on another long unbeaten run which took them into 1956, meaning that the World Cup final was their only defeat in six years of international football. The next defeat, however, was followed by two more in quite quick succession and it appeared that Sebes' team was in decline. He was sacked in the summer of 1956, shortly before the failed uprising in October of that year led to the complete break-up of his team.
Sebes continued to coach at club level in Hungary until the late 1960s, and also took administrative roles within both UEFA and the Hungarian Olympic Committee, before his death at the age of 80 in 1986. Although he never again reached the heights that he had achieved with the 'Magical Magyars', his lasting impact on the game was enormous. His styles of play were adopted by teams from all around the world and his team's victories over England forced coaches and administrators in that country to completely reassess their approach to the game.
References (all accessed 3 February 2012):
- Published on Friday, 03 February 2012 16:47