Nándor Hidegkuti: The world’s first false nine.

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    Nándor Hidegkuti played in a deep lying forward role in a Hungary team that dominated the world football in early 50's.
    Nándor Hidegkuti played in a deep lying forward role in a Hungary team that dominated the world football in early 50's.

    In this article, we discuss the life of a man who was part of Hungarian’s golden generation “Magical Magyars”. The team consisted of legendary players such as Ferenc Puskás, Nándor Hidegkuti, Gyula Grosics, and Sándor Kocsis to name a few. The team played “total football” that was unheard of in that era.

    Hungary managed to win the Olympics in 1952 and narrowly miss out on a World Cup win in 1954 when they lost to West Germany 2-3 in the finals. Hidegkuti was instrumental in the team’s success during this era as he contributed to almost 40 goals and a similar tally of assist in 69 caps for his nation.

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    Hungary’s football team currently ranks 52nd in the world and has failed to win any major accolades in the last 3 decades. This is quite a contrast from the team in the early ’50s that dominated the era and were lauded as the favorites to win the World Cup in 1954. During their dominance, they manage to dispose of fan favorites in major tournaments such as Brazil and Uruguay at the World Cup. Till this day England’s biggest defeat of 7-1 came at the hands of highflying Hungarians in 1953. Hungary was the best team in the world from 1951 to 1956 and Hidegkuti was instrumental in their success.

    Humble beginnings

    Nándor Hidegkuti was born into a middle-class family in Budapest on 3 March 1922. Hidegkuti’s earliest experiences of football involved playing with a ball made from rolled-up stockings. At the age of 12, he joined Újlaki FC’s youth setup before progressing to the first team while working at a factory part-time. In 1940, he joined second-tier side Gázművek, where he stayed for three years before moving on to Elektromos in 1943. Over the course of 3 seasons, he made 53 appearances and scored 27 goals.

    His exceptional performance garnered interest from first division outfit Herminamezei AC, who secured his signature in 1945. At his stay at the Hungarian outfit, he was provided his debut for Hungary in which he scored 2 goals. In 1945, he spent a season there before moving to Hungarian giants MTK Budapest, where he spent the remainder of his playing career spanning over a decade. He transformed the club over the decade winning 3 championships and multiple trophies.

    Rise to prominence

    In the 1952-53 season, Hidegkuti scored a career-high of 28 goals and led his team to the domestic title. During the course of seasons, he became a mainstay in Hungary’s first-team squad. Gusztáv Sebes who had previously managed Hidegkuti at club level found no problem to accommodate the forward. He changed from a traditional 4-2-4 formation which was heavily used in football at that time to a 2-3-3-2.

    When the Olympics came around, a very promising Hungarian team was announced. They coasted past Italy 3-0 in the first round. They gave drubbings to Turkey(7-1) and reigning champions Sweden(6-0) in the quarter and the semi-finals respectively. In the finals, they brushed aside Yugoslavia 2-0 to claim the gold medal. Hidegkuti only managed to score once (against Sweden) but impressed nonetheless.

    Hungary was the number one ranked team in the world from 1952 till 1956.
    Hungary was the number one ranked team in the world from 1952 till 1956.

    In 1953, Hungary displayed their prowess by sweeping all in the Central European International Cup where they disposed of Italy 3-0 in the final. Hidegkuti managed to get on the scoresheet and was praised for his positional play.

    Dethroning England

    During the early 50’s era, England was one of the best teams in the world. They had never been defeated on their home soil before 1953 by a team outside the isle. To prove their superiority, English F.A. invited Hungary for a friendly match at Wembley. The much anticipated friendly was witnessed by a crowd of over 100,000 people. Hidegkuti took lead for the visitors at the first-minute mark and had 3 goals to his name by the hour mark. The English defenders did not know whether to react to his new position or leave him free to roam in yards of space, but whichever they did Hungary could not be contained. The match ended 6-3 and Hidegkuti was named man of the match.

    The very next year, England attempted to avenge the defeat at Wembley but complacency loomed around the team as they considered themselves to be superior to their European counterparts. England suffered its heaviest defeat to date in International football as they were mowed down 7-1.

    The World Cup of 1954

    On a long unbeaten run, Hungary were the overwhelming favorite for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. Hidegkuti did not play the first match but was back in the team for the second match against West Germany. He scored twice in that match as Hungary eased past West Germany 8-3. In the Quarter-final Hungary faced Brazil as the two heavyweights clashed in a match labeled as “The Battle of Berne”. An ill-tempered game that witnessed unsportsmanlike conduct on the pitch, locker room invasion, and two red cards saw Hungary coast past Brazil 4-2. Hidegkuti again managed to score the opener for his team and was un-markable for the entire game.

    Hungary faced Uruguay in a tightly contested affair in the semi-final. Hidegkuti again scored a goal as the game got decided in the extra time. The stage was all set for an epic final where Hungary met West Germany. They had demolished the Germans once in the group stage and were confident of repeating the feat.

    But, it will all come crashing down as Hungary threw away a 2 goal lead eventually leading to a German comeback within closing minutes of the game. Hungary’s excellence going forward obscured their defensive issues as the team would eventually lose to West Germany at “The miracle at Berne” in the World Cup final.

    Tactical Analysis

    Puskas and Kocsis would be employed as inside forwards and look to create overload in free spaces. Meanwhile, Czibor and Budai would provide additional firepower from the wings, exploiting the free channels behind the defense. Hidegkuti would drop from the attacking line, often drawing a defender along with him. Hidegkuti ideally occupied the left side of the central midfield and Bozsick would push up from the half-back position while Zakarias would drop further back. This change reverted them back to 4-2-4 which confused their opponents as Man marking was the norm back then. Players across the field would be drawn out of their positions, creating chaos in the field.

    The success of the attacking prowess would rely solely on Hidegkuti as he would link-up play or be the pass before the assist. If a defender chose to follow him, then free space could be exploited by the other 4 forwards. If not, then Hidegkuti would be available to receive the ball in a dangerous position. Playing from deep, Hidegkuti was able to distribute the ball to the other attackers and cause considerable confusion to defenses. Gusztáv Sebes used this style predominantly from 1953 till 1958 when he was sacked.

    Hungary played an unusual 2-3-3-2 formation with Hidegkuti occupying the central pivot.
    Hungary played an unusual 2-3-3-2 formation with Hidegkuti occupying the central pivot.

    Playing style

    Hidegkuti revolutionized the striker role with his antics to drop deep and lure away his man which was unheard of in that era. His playing style is quite reminiscent of a modern-day striker than someone from his own time. He played effectively as an attacking midfielder, spraying passes, dictating the tempo, and making late runs in the box to score. The tactic to drop deep was particularly effective as zonal marking was unheard of back in the day. He played an unconventional role and opponents often struggled to figure him out.

    Hidegkuti was a pioneer of Deep-Lying Forward role.
    Hidegkuti was a pioneer of Deep-Lying Forward role.

    Hidegkuti would often drop into the space behind the line causing one of the defenders to move from his position to man-mark him. This notion created havoc in defense as wingers would flood the space with darting runs and forwards would exploit the channel behind the defender. At the time this was a revolutionary tactic, requiring the player in the deep-lying center-forward position to have excellent ball control, distribution skills, and positional awareness which Hidegkuti possessed very well. 

    The Red curtain

    Post-1956 revolution, Hidegkuti decided to stay in the country, despite most of his teammates choosing to leave. He was offered a couple of caps for Hungary in 1958. But at the age of 36, his time on the international, as well as the club stage, was coming to an end. Hidegkuti left behind a legacy of a player who was instrumental in the success of one of the most iconic teams in football history.

    Hidegkuti had successful stints with MTK Budapest and Fiorentina as a manager. Later in his career, he swapped clubs across the globe and managed several teams in 3 decades as a manager before he retired in the early ’80s.

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