So near yet so far: coming second in style

Neither Hungary nor the Netherlands have ever won a World Cup. Yet both are relatively well respected within the football world - even capturing its collective imagination with their innovative and, at times, beautiful playing styles. Here, we look at the style and approach to football that arguably took them to within 90 minutes of winning the World Cup - on several occasions.  

So, how can it be possible that Hungary and the Netherlands, not to mention Austria’s Wunderteam of the 1930s, which are both such small countries in comparison to the footballing world powers of Germany, Brazil and Italy – changed the way the game was played and, perhaps, even made football a better sport?

Hungary’s Magical Magyars, as they were known, left their mark on an entire generation in 1954. They were the forerunners to the Dutch team that developed a philosophy and playing style that is now used as the blueprint at FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Johann Cruijff often takes the plaudits but, to this day, there remains a romantic notion that football owes a debt of gratitude to the Hungarians and the Dutch for its introduction.

In his autobiography, Ferenc Puskás wrote that, following a 5-2 defeat to Czechoslovakia in 1949, there was a collective will among his teammates to change the way they played. And, after the Second World War, there were various schools of thought on how to play football in Hungary. Some advocated the English style that blended pace and passing; others preferred a more “continental” style that was more attractive to the European enthusiast and allowed creative players could develop their skills; while others still looked to Italy and argued that the success of the Azzurri was due to their superior athletic preparation.

However, the Hungarian team’s coach, Gustáv Sebes, opted for what would become a prototype of the 4-2-4 formation, with the majority of the players coming from clubs Honvéd and Vörös Lobogó (today known as MTK Budapest). The coach demanded that they be unified in their efforts - something that matched their socialist ideals. For Puskás, the system created by the Hungarian coaches was “the most revolutionary since 1926, when Arsenal deployed the ‘WM’ formation” and was based precisely on finding as many variations as possible of Arsenal’s formation.

Attack had to begin at the same time as defence, and as the journalist Alfredo Relaño commented in his blog for El País: “Instead of attacking with two wide players and a centre forward supported by two inside forwards, the centre forward, Hidegkuti, played a more withdrawn role to support build-up play alongside the central midfielder Bozsik. The wingers (Budai and Czibor) dropped back to bolster the midfield, without neglecting their main task. Leading the front line were the inside forwards, Kocsis and Puskás. All of which could rely on the outstanding skill that was encapsulated by the left foot of Puskás and the heading of Kocsis.”

Sadly, Hungary’s talented generation struggled to find continuity after the revolution of 1956 and the Soviet invasion – hindering their longevity and the impact that they could have had. The Dutch legacy, however, still lives on today. Football writers such as David Winner, in Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, and Jonathan Wilson, in Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, have shed light on the origins and the reasons behind the blossoming of Dutch football. Both writers refer to Albert Camus’ description of Amsterdam in The Fall: “It was desperately dull.” As a result, Dutch football was a reflection of its capital. As evidence of this, it is enough to recall that between June 1949 and April 1955; the Netherlands played 27 matches and won only two. But over the next 15 years, the Dutch brand of football was transformed into one of the world’s most revered. What was it that provoked such radical change?

The answer may lie in the social changes that the country experienced in the post-war years. According to the English anarchist Charles Radcliffe, “Amsterdam in the ‘60s was the capital of the youth rebellion and Dam Square became symbolic of the hippie movement.” In this atmosphere of social, cultural and intellectual dynamism where experimentation was encouraged, two stars aligned, bringing together Johan Cruijff and Rinus Michels.

Michels was the Dutch coach responsible for implementing the playing system that saw the Netherlands delight the football world. But this success was of course in part due to the mercurial talents of Johan Cruijff, described by journalist Hubert Smeets as “the first player who understood that he was an artist, and the first who was able and willing to collectivise the art of sports.”

Together, Michels and Cruijff created what is today known as “total football.” Michels was the Dutch coach responsible for implementing the playing system that saw the Netherlands delight the football world. But this success was of course in part due to the mercurial talents of Johan Cruijff, described by journalist Hubert Smeets as “the first player who understood that he was an artist, and the first who was able and willing to collectivise the art of sports.”

[QUOTE Person=" – Pep Guardiola, to FourFourTwo" Phrase="Johan Cruijff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it"]

In the Dutch school of football, the concept of space, which is always a key consideration in the Netherlands due to its geography, is fundamental. In attack, they used the full width of the pitch, which meant that the ball had to be played across to the wings, but when they lost possession, they would already begin pressing in the opposing team’s half, thereby reducing the space available to play the ball.

As Ruud Krol noted in David Winner’s book, “We talked always about space in a practical way. When we were defending, the gaps between us had to be very short. When we attacked, we spread out and used the wings.”  In order to cope with the physical demands of the game, they found a solution: “If I, as a left-back, run 70 metres up the wing, it’s not good if I have to run back 70 metres to my starting position. So, if the left-midfielder takes my place, and the left-winger takes the midfield position, then it shortens the distances.” Essentially, this meant that it did not matter which position a player was given.