The Story of the Hungarian Football Team at the 1912 and 1924 Olympic Games

“No one should believe that Hungary is just a poor relation in the line of eternal Austrian dominions. This was the latest step in the recognition of Hungary’s independence.”

The above words date back to 1912, yet do not relate, as one might think, to any strides made forward in the world of politics. The words belong to Sport Világ, one of the country’s leading sports papers, and to the events of the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games. Jenô Fuchs had won individual gold in the men’s sabre in addition to team gold. Sándor Prokopp had won gold in the 300m military rifle. In each and every one of the modern Olympics Hungary had finished above Austria in the medals table. Yet these words were not a commentary on any podium finish.

Hungary would achieve its first Olympic medal success at the inaugural Olympic Games in Athens, in 1896, with Alfréd Hajós of the Magyar Úszó Egyesület (MUE) winning 2 gold medals in the swimming. Aside from Hajós, Hungary’s medal haul also included one silver and three bronze which, with national passions running high as Hungary celebrated 1000 years of statehood, would lead to widespread public adulation of the nation’s leading sportsmen. In the following years Zoltán Halmay, Rudolf Bauer, Richard Weisz and Jenô Fuchs kept the momentum up by bringing medals home. As the nation’s athletes left for Stockholm for the Games of the Vth Olympiad in 1912, they were joined for the first time by the nation’s top footballers. Great Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands were odds on for the medals. Hungary, on the other hand, were stepping into the great unknown, having rarely played any of the teams in the competition.

Football was introduced into the Games of the IVth Olympiad four years earlier with Great Britain winning gold on home soil by beating Denmark in the final. The Netherlands, whom Hungary had been drawn to play against before withdrawing due to financial reasons, took bronze. Coach Ede Herczog would prepare his team for the 1912 tournament by twice playing a touring Tottenham Hotspur side in Budapest, drawing 2-2 and losing 4-3. En route to Stockholm the team played two fundraising matches to cover their Olympic expenses, drawing 2-2 with Sweden in Gothenburg and beating Norway 6-0 in Christiania (Oslo). Any dreams of glory would soon be dashed. The Magyars recevied a bye in the preliminary round, then drew the short straw in the first round proper. Great Britain would be their opponents: the nation whose football the whole world aspired to, reigning champions and hot favourites. They were also a nation with which Hungary had close ties, both on and off the field.

The MLSZ (Hungarian Football Federation) had only just been founded and the maiden league season was barely over when the first British side to visit Hungary, Richmond Association, beat MUE 6-0 in April 1901. Many of the first English sides that toured Budapest were lower league teams, but in Budapest they had star billing; so much so that BTC, Hungarian champions in the first two league seasons of 1901 and 1902, were even on the point of leaving the league so great was the lure of high earnings from playing the visitors. Before long, the big guns of the day were visiting regularly, their professional players among the best in the world. Southampton, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Everton all came, followed soon after by Chelsea and Manchester United. By 1914, touring British sides had played over 100 matches in Hungary.

At the beginning the games were terribly one-sided, the British teams often running up double-digit scores but, gradually learning from the masters, by 1912 Hungarian sides were beginning to have some success. BTC managed a draw against Arsenal in 1907 and FTC, by now the best in the country, beat FA Cup finalists Barnsley in 1910 and drew with Celtic, the dominant Scottish side of the day, a year later. Victories were indeed rare but the gap was certainly closing. The English national team also visited in 1908, Hungary’s first opponents from outside the Empire. A year later England returned to play two matches as part of the FIFA Congress being held in Budapest. These results were a more accurate indication of the daunting task facing Herczog’s side as they prepared for their first ever Olympic appearance, England winning 7-0 on their first visit and 4-2 and 8-2 on their return.

The match against Great Britain was played in the brand-new Stockholms Stadion, designed especially for the tournament by architect Torben Grut, “The result, still gloriously intact, a stadium part castle, part mansion, part cloister, part pageant, but altogether magnificent”, in the view of Simon Inglis in his The Football Grounds of Europe. The match kicked-off at 1.30 pm local time on Sunday 30 June, and despite the tremendous heat, a healthy crowd of 7,000 was present. Hungary started brightly and won a penalty after a quarter hour for handball and, for a moment could begin to dream. Sándor Bodnár, however, saw his kick saved, and not long after, Harold Walden gave the British a two goal lead. Captain Vivian Woodward added a third before half-time, which lasted half an hour, during which H.R.H. Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, Honorary President of the Swedish Olympic Committee for the Games, came onto the pitch to shake hands with both teams. Inside-left Gordon Hoare then fell injured, although according to some sources he was suffering from sunstroke, meaning Great Britain had to play with ten men, but it made little difference. Walden bagged another three and Woodward another one to make the final result 7-0.

Hungary were out but, despite the score line, not disgraced. The official Olympic report remarked that “the result is most misleading, as the British team itself was the first to acknowledge – Hungary had quite as much of the game as Great Britain. If they had the least bit of their opponents’ finishing power, their forwards would have made several goals”. The team did not go home just yet though: a Danish millionaire, Mr Jansen generously donated a silver cup as the prize for a consolation tournament for the teams already knocked out. Hungary, once again, received a bye for the first round, meeting Germany in the semi-finals at the Råsunda Stadion on Wednesday, 3 July. A hat-trick from the prolific Imre Schlosser – arguably the best player on the continent and largely responsible for football becoming the passion of the masses in Hungary –, gave them a 3-1 win, by all accounts a deserved victory that could and should have been greater but for their profligacy in front of goal.

If expectations had not been so great when facing the British, the consolation final pitted Hungary against a nation they felt beatable and wich, above all others they most wanted to defeat: Austria. Nemzeti Sport, in its leader of 8 May 1909 summarised the footballing relationship with Austria thus: “Whenever the teams meet they aren’t simply fighting for sporting hegemony, but also for national honour.” With the exception of England and Scotland and, perhaps Argentina and Uruguay on the banks of the River Plate, no two nations’ early footballing history was so intertwined. The first football match in Hungary had been against Austrian opposition, BTC taking on Vienna Cricket and Football Club in front of 2000 curious spectators at the Millenáris ground on 31 October 1897. The first time a Hungarian club side played abroad, it was in Austria. The first victory against a foreign team was against an Austrian one, and the first game of the Hungarian national team, in October 1902, was against Austria. The consolation final in 1912 was already the 20th time the two sides had met, but that does not even begin to tell the tale.

The contemporary punchline, “against who?” whenever an Austria–Hungary match was announced, was common fare. Officially, they were one country, since the Compromise of 1867 and the advent of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. No longer under Austrian rule, Hungary was now a partner nation and Budapest, now joint capital with Vienna, vied fiercely with its neighbour to be seen as the first city of the Empire. Nationalism, the driving force behind the competition with Vienna, would soon permeate sport, especially football. Nemzeti Sport in June 1903 would sum up what that meant in a sporting sense, proclaiming that “Victory is always sweet, but it is ten times sweeter if Hungary beat the Austrians”.

The Compromise, despite the fact that both Austria and Hungary felt they had lost more than they had gained, brought many benefits where sport was concerned. It not only facilitated the founding of sports clubs, but also the passing of new legislation in education which resulted in increased levels of literacy and the incorporation of sport into the school curriculum. Labour law reforms set Sunday aside as a day of rest. The 1896 Millennium celebrations, an unthinkable event had the Compromise not happened, resulted in the building of the Millenáris sports ground at a crucial period and when no other venue existed.

Budapest positively flourished in the decades following the Compromise, its population rose from 280,000 to almost one million, wich made it the fastest growing city in Europe. Workers flocked there to work on the many construction projects, for the expanding railway, or at one of the many factories or flour mills. Budapest housed two thirds of the country’s industry and by 1900 the working class population was larger than anywhere East of Vienna. Vacant plots of land – grund–acted as surrogate footballing “schools” for the working-class youth.

The industrial proletariat were more educated than ever before, in a city where a burgeoning press industry disseminated the nascent game of football to the eager masses. Sport and football in particular, had reached the people. Physical exercise had traditionally been the preserve of aristocrats and the well- heeled, the wider public excluded; gymnastics, fencing and ice-skating being the only sports practised to any extent in Budapest. Gymnastics was run along similar lines to the ultra-conservative Turnen of the German Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the NTE (Nemzeti Torna Egylet) club – the largest club by far – comprising members who were mainly well-off citizens of ethnic German background. It would be 1875 and the forming of MAC (Magyar Atlétikai Club) – membership open to those who possessed a school-leaving certificate – that would herald a shift in those demographics. Jews were also beginning to become involved, particularly joining three clubs that would dominate football prior to 1914, two of them long after that: BTC (Budapesti Torna Club), founded in 1885, MTK (Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre) in 1888, and FTC (Ferencvárosi Torna Club) – the first club to play football from its inception – in 1899.

Austria held the upper hand in the early matches between the countries; in part due to the number of British players involved, and in part, because the presence in the city of so many Brits meant that football arrived in Vienna earlier than it did elsewhere in the Monarchy. Vienna, the business capital of the Empire attracted numerous foreign companies, many of them British. Hundreds of English people were sent there for work purposes, many also attracted by job advertisements in England asking for footballing experience too. British businessmen, engineers and salesmen were able to build up a network of local contacts by playing football: it was good for business.

Thanks to the strong British influence the Austrians played “the Old Scottish Style” – a short passing game, playing it on the deck – from the off. In Hungary, the kick and rush style prevailed, notably at BTC. In contrast with Austria meanwhile, apart from a Cambridge graduate and all-rounder, Arthur B. Yolland who organized rudimentary football matches in the early 1890s at the Catholic Grammar School on Ilona utca, it was Hungarians, and not Brits, who introduced the sport to the country. When playing BTC in 1897, Cricketer fielded eight Englishmen, winning 2-0 against a BTC side who fielded just two, Yolland and Ashton; the rest of the team possessing little in the way of skills.

If nationalism helped fuel the desire for footballing dominance, the frequency with which teams from Budapest and Vienna played each other intensified it further. By 1900, BTC had already played some 20 matches against Austrian opposition. From 1902 Hungarian teams competed in the Challenge Cup – a competition open to all clubs in the Empire – against the top Austrian teams of the day. BTC and MAC would reach the final in 1902 and 1905 respectively before FTC became the only non-Austrian team to win the cup, beating WSC 2-1 in Vienna in 1909. Already in 1901, matches were played which pitted the best players from the clubs of Budapest and Vienna against each other under the title of “Ramblers”. With both countries’ leagues only comprised of teams from the respective capitals, they could be considered “quasi” international matches and, indeed, one of these matches, held in Vienna on 12 October 1902 would later be recorded as the first official international match for both sides, and as the first international football match on the European continent. From then on, with the exception of 1905 and 1906, Austria and Hungary would play each other twice a year – once in Vienna and once in Budapest.

Slow to begin with, public interest in the rivalry soon picked up. The first game in Budapest, in 1903, was played at the MAC pitch on Margitsziget, the game being held after an athletics meet in an attempt to drum up interest. Only a few hundred turned up. Within two years there were 8,000 at Millenáris to see the match and by 1909 it was full to the rafters with 13,000 crammed in. By 1911, crowds were so big that the cramped Millenáris was put out to pasture, FTC’s new Üllôi út stadium taking over the hosting duties. “Football Special” trains were put on by the Sport Hírlap newspaper to take Hungarian fans to the Vienna games, and, by 1910, some 500 were travelling. In 1907 carrier postal pigeons were – gleefully no doubt – dispatched from Budapest carrying the result – a 4-1 win to Hungary – to editorial offices of the papers in different cities, notably Vienna and Graz.

Although Austria only drew at the Millenáris in 1905, the home team had, up until 1909, always won. Hungary broke this run when in the twelfth meeting between the sides, held at the Cricketer ground in Vienna, they won 4-3. By that time Hungary had arguably caught up with their Western cousins. The emergence of Schlosser made a huge difference, as did the arrival in 1911 of a Scot, John Tait “Jacky” Robertson, formerly of Everton, Rangers, Southampton and Chelsea, as coach of MTK. The stereotype – that the Austrians held the advantage in technical quality and played the better football while the Hungarians held the edge in temperament and hence were more effective – began to change, Robertson’s tenure at MTK prompted a Rangers club obituary to state that “it was often said by leaders of the game in Austria and Hungary that it was Jacky Robertson who laid the foundations of the cultured style of football played there”.

Hungary would go into the Olympics undefeated in the last two meetings between the sides. The Austrians meanwhile were also taking the Olympics seriously. A conscious effort had been made to ape the style of the touring Rangers side from Scotland in 1904 while, after a tough 1-1 draw against Hungary in 1912, a frustrated Hugo Meisl turned to the Lancastrian Jimmy Hogan to coach the team for six weeks. A 1-0 victory over a touring Tottenham Hotspur and a creditable draw against Southampton in the run-up to the Olympics showed what they were capable of, although Hogan was no longer with the team as the Austrians could not afford to extend his contract. Austria began the tournament well, trouncing Germany 5-1 in the preliminary round. In the next, they came unstuck against the Netherlands, bronze medallists in 1908. The Dutch, coasting 3-1 at half-time, held on in the second half, goalkeeper Just Göbel denying Austria as they exited the main tournament. In the first round of the consolation competition a second minute goal from Grundwald proved enough for victory against Norway. Against Italy in the semi-final Austria held the upper-hand all game, took the lead on 30 minutes and never looked back; only a fine display from Piero Campelli in the Italian goal preventing a heavier defeat than the final score of 5-1. The scene was set.

The final at the Råsunda Stadion on Friday 5 July was not for the feint-hearted. The official Olympic report said that “a rougher game has never been played in Sweden, and it was only the fear of causing the scandal to assume still greater proportions that prevented the referee, Mr Willing of England, from ordering several of the players of both sides off the field”. Hungary took the lead after 32 minutes when Schlosser, reaching the ball a fraction of a second before Josef Kaltenbrunner, poked it into the net. They doubled their lead through Pataky on the hour, finishing a centre from Borbás, and on 76 minutes grabbed a third through Bodnár. Tempers did not improve in the second half, a short pause being required “in order to allow the hot blood of the players to cool a little”. The Austrians had no reply and at the end Hungary had won 3-0.

Summing up the tournament, the Olympic report went on to declare that “There was no rough play worth mentioning, with the exception, perhaps, of during the game between Austria and Hungary in the consolation series. But in this case, of course, scarcely anything else was to be expected”, adding that “Hungary, had it been matched against Holland instead, might have been successful”.

The Hungarian sporting press was in gung-ho mood, Nemzeti Sport proudly claiming that “the match, for a time will announce the hegemony of the Hungarians over the Austrians. Thus, our first Olympic appearance, through beating who else but the Austrians – ended in a beautiful success”. Sport Világ chipped in with “Now the whole world knows that in the Olympic consolation final Hungary fought with Austria and won; no one should believe that Hungary is just a poor relation in the line of eternal Austrian dominions. This was the latest step in the recognition of Hungary’s independence.”

Sporting hegemony over Austria now appeared to belong to Hungary, and when Budapest was chosen to host the 1920 Games it seemed to put any debate to bed.

This would not come to pass however. In April 1919 and with Hungary on the losing side in the war, the IOC transferred the Games to Antwerp. By 1920 Hungary, along with Austria, Germany, Turkey and Bulgaria, were not even invited to take part in the Games, as losers of the First World War. It is doubtful if the city could have hosted in any case. Spring 1919 saw Hungary, under the Hungarian Soviet Republic, attacked from the South, East and North by Serbian, Romanian and Czechoslovakian troops. In June 1920 when the Games were underway, Hungary was signing the Treaty of Trianon. By the time the next Games came along, in Paris in 1924, the situation had stabilized somewhat, but with little improvement. Economic imbalances, already present in the Empire, were exacerbated by the loss of old markets. Unemployment was dangerously high. Industrial output was a fraction of pre-war levels and the flow of Viennese capital to fund investments gone. Few jobs were being created and this delicate situation was made worse by a large influx of refugees from the lost territories.

It was the era of pseudo amateurism. Clubs, in an attempt to help the situation of their supposedly “amateur” players, would try to help their players by finding them jobs, usually at the company of their benefactors, which in turn they rarely had to attend. Strikers György Molnár and György Orth, both playing for the best team of the era, MTK, made seven million (inflationary) koronas at the beginning of the 1920s; this was three and a half times the amount a qualified worker did. Large numbers of Hungarian players had left and were playing abroad where the situation was more stable and in many places more money was on offer. Italy was a popular destination, as were Czechoslovakia and Austria. Many who went were derided for going. Goalkeeper Ferenc Plattkó, describing his new life in Barcelona, proclaimed: “I’ve got things to do all day: boating, fishing, sunbathing, hunting, playing football, eating and drinking. Did I have all this in Budapest?” The sporting press could not remain silent: “Even if losing Schaffer, Payer, Konrád or Plattkó is a sensitive blow for our football, it doesn’t authorise invading the private lives of the players who went abroad. But when this migration of footballers reaches such heights that it hurts the spirit of amateurism and threatens our football with a catastrophe, it is our obligation to shout: Stop! No more!”

This time, Hungary were considered among the favourites, half of the team coming from the dominant MTK. The club were champions eight times in a row and benefitted from a tactical revolution inspired by Jimmy Hogan – who, thanks to the war had ended up in Hungary where he laid the foundations for generations to come. England and Scotland were not there due to their professional status, and neither were the Austrians who were in the process of moving toward professionalism. FIFA’s Dutch Secretary General Hirschmann even announced that “If the foreign-based Hungarian stars really returned home, the strengthened national team could be unbeatable in Paris”. The self- belief among the players and the management was great. Coach Gyula Kiss saw the storm clouds gathering, however.

One issue was finance, or the lack thereof; many of the “legionnaires” were thus precluded from competing. Unable to raise the funds to send athletes to Paris, the MASZ (Magyar Atlétikai Szövetség) issued the country’s first sports stamp to raise the necessary money. The Federation skimped and saved wherever it could, albeit not where the delegation was concerned. The players themselves, meanwhile, travelled to Paris by train on wooden benches in 3rd class and without drinking water. Once there, the size able delegation of officials lived it up in a plush hotel while the players slummed it in the rat-infested Hôtel Haussmann, Grosz and Opata housed in the pantry where they would get woken at 5 am by chefs popping in for some jam or sugar. The organizers had not felt the need either to take a masseur. Worse still, there was no training pitch, the first training session taking place in a field with no changing facilities. The players for their part found the food on offer unpalatable, which led to one official blaming them for not being Europeanized enough and failing to appreciate French cuisine.

In the preliminary round on 24 May, however, Hungary would make light work of Poland, Ferenc Hirzer and Zoltán Opata scoring twice each and József Eisenhoffer the other in a 5-0 win. Three foreign-based players were in the team: centre-half Béla Guttmann (Hakoah), left-half Gábor Obitz and inside-left Hirzer (Makkabi Brünn). In the next round they faced rank outsiders Egypt for a place in the quarter finals. The game, on 29 May 1924 would go down in Hungarian sporting history as “Hungarian football’s Mohács”.1 Egypt, under pressure throughout, scored three goals from virtually their only three attacks. Hungary forced eighteen corners to Egypt’s one, had a goal disallowed and even missed a penalty for good measure.

Reaction to the 3-0 defeat was vicious. The result was seen as a national disaster: the “Egyiptomi Csapás” (the “Egyptian Calamity”). Many searched for a scapegoat; the referee was blamed for not allowing more robust play as was allowed in Hungary. The players, tactics, and team selection all came in for blame. There were even heated debates in parliament, Gyula Gömbös announcing that “our national team members do not represent Hungarians, the Hungarian nation nor Hungarian sport. They represent international professionalism”. FTC President Ernô Gschwindt felt it “unnecessary to pick those players based abroad for the Hungarian team”, and for a while afterwards it appeared that indeed the foreign legion were ignored. Coach Gyula Kiss, blaming the leaders’ thoughtlessness, resigned as did the MLSZ hierarchy. Zoltán Blum meanwhile, dismissed the issue of the accommodation, noting that “plenty of other teams had it worse”, blaming instead Kiss’s public criticism of the players following a 4-2 defeat against Switzerland in the run-up for destroying player morale. Captain Károly Fogl was perhaps the most honest, stating that “we defeated ourselves”.

The team would not be there at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. By that time Hungary had gone professional just like Austria and Czechoslovakia. No football tournament was held in Los Angeles in 1932 and by the time Hungary played at the 1936 Berlin Games, the prestige lay not in the Olympic tournament but in the professional game and the FIFA World Cup. Hungary, after much soul-searching following the 1924 debacle, along with Italy, Austria and Czechoslovakia – bolstered by playing each other regularly in the Švehla Cup and at club level in the premier European football competition of its day, the Mitropa Cup – were by then established as among the best in the World.

Hungary went on to win three footballing Olympic gold medals and one silver during Communist times, when the Eastern-Bloc nations – Hungary, the USSR, Yugoslavia, Poland, DDR, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania – almost made the tournament their own, by sending almost full-strength sides due to the “amateur” status of their best players. While those three golds, one silver and one bronze from that period still constitute a record, there is a pleasing symmetry in the fact that the two nations who can equal the record this summer in London are closely linked with those first two campaigns. Great Britain, champions in 1912 and Hungary’s first ever Olympic football opponents, and Uruguay, who took gold in 1924 as Hungary’s high hopes were being dashed.

Cited Works:

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Kontler, László: A History of Hungary. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2002.

Lukacs, John: Budapest 1900, a Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture. Grove Press Books, 1990.

Nagy, Béla: Futball-Évtizedek. 125 magyar–osztrák válogatott mérkôzés története. [Football Decades. The History of 125 Hungary–Austria Matches]. Budapest, 1984.
Nagy, Béla: Tempó Magyarok! válogatott mérkôzések – válogatott történetek 1901–1931. [Tempo Hungarians: National Team Matches and Stories 1901–1931]. Budapest, 1980.
Rejtő, László – Lukács, László – Szepesi, György: Felejthetetlen 90 percek. [Unforgettable 90 Minutes]. Sport, Budapest, 1974.
Szegedi, Péter: A magyarok a spájzban vannak. [The Hungarians are in the Pantry]. Magyar Narancs: “Pálya a magasban”, 16 November 2006.
The Swedish Olympic Committee: The Fifth Olympiad: The Official Report of the Olympic Games of Stockholm 1912. Wahlström & Widstrand, Stockholm, 1913.

Zeidler, Miklós: Egy régi pálya a polgári korban – a Millenáris Sporttelep. Versenypálya a Csömöri úton [An Old Football Pitch of Bourgeois Hungary: the Millenáris Sports Ground]. Korall, Nos. 7-8, March 2002.
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1 A reference to the fateful defeat of the Hungarian army to the Turks in 1526.

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