How 20th Century Hungarian Football Influenced The Game We Love Today

The Sportsman caught up with author of The Names Heard Long Ago, Jonathan Wilson
16:56, 08 Mar 2020

Jonathan Wilson’s eleventh book, The Names Heard Long Ago: How The Golden Age of Hungarian Football Shaped The Modern Game, once again sees the celebrated journalist and author delving into a fascinating part of football history, meticulously detailed, thoroughly researched, as one would expect from the architect of the football fanatic’s Bible, Inverting The Pyramid. 

The Names Heard Long Ago explores the revolutionary concepts found in early 20th Century Hungarian football and the subsequent spread of ideas, tactics and characters around the globe, often granting unprecedented success in the far-reaching countries in which they were adopted, and still found in the game today. It illuminates names of once-great teams MTK and Ferencváros, characters who had a profound influence on the game such as Béla Guttman, Dori Kürschner, and Imre Hirschl. And fundamentally the effect of the tragic events of the 20th Century, the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Soviet occupation and ultimately the sadness that the progress of a nation has failed to recapture such magic and brilliance. 

Jonathan spoke to The Sportsman about his latest release.

This is the 11th book you have released, as an author what motivates you and helps you decide what to write about?

It changes from book to book. This book was realised over 15 years or so, in understanding that Hungarian football was hugely important in terms of development of the game. The more you probe into it the more you realise there’s some incredible human stories here. I felt with this book it was a hugely important story. Hungarian football hasn’t really been studied with depth, people have only just begun to look at this period. There’s a huge wealth of information there that hasn’t been uncovered, and when you work in a field like football, finding something totally new, whether that is newspaper articles, birth or death certificates, prison records, things that haven’t been looked at for close to a century, it feels important and necessary. 

Why is it important to recognise and appreciate this period of football history?

If we want to understand why football is as it is and why the teams who have historically been good have been good, there is a value in going back to the start and tracing that line through. And what you find with this enormous diaspora from Budapest in the early twenties is that essentially everyone who has won the World Cup - aside from Uruguay in 1930 - has in some way been significantly influenced by that school of football.

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Are there any characters or even narratives you uncovered that can perhaps see replicated or echoed in the modern game?

I pitched this book and my preceding book ‘The Barcelona Legacy’ as a pair. They have the same central idea. You have one club - MTK in the early 1920s or Barcelona of the late ‘90s, and for whatever reason you get this great coming together of people who will go on to be incredibly influential and successful coaches. I think they’re the two clubs in those specific times that have had the greatest influence over the world game. The Barcelona book will, of course, be the more popular - everyone who knows about football knows about the consequences of Barcelona in the late 90s - so I was sugaring the pill with also pitching the Hungary one alongside it. I was keen to produce them as a pair. There is a thematic link there.

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Were there particular characters you discovered that you felt particularly close to?

The story of Imre Hirschl is utterly remarkable. He is quite a well-known figure in Argentina, and to a lesser extent Uruguay, and yet the story that they know is fundamentally not true. 

One of my previous books, Inverting the Pyramid, had lots of different parts that I tried to map out and chart the evolution of football tactics. For that I came across [Hungarian footballer and coach] Izidor ‘Dori’ Kürschner, also a fascinating, quasi-lost figure, in Brazil. I knew that if this chart was correct then there had to be an equivalent in Argentina, and I found him in Hirschl. Then there was the accretion of experience to put together his story, but that paper trail through various archives and that moment of going to the Jewish cemetery and thus discovering him in Budapest was huge.

Going through the card index and finding the burial records of Hirschl’s son was extraordinary - you knew that tiny bit of card hadn’t been touched since 1941, and that’s an amazing feeling. And then there was the fact that the grave was way at the back of the graveyard, the bit that they don’t use anymore, massively overgrown.

What stories did you enjoy discovering that you perhaps didn’t know previously, and how difficult was it to research this book?

I had four researchers in Hungary. Without the four of them, this would have gone nowhere.

You get some ‘beautiful coincidences’. We had records of Hirschl checking into the immigrants’ hostel in Sao Paulo in 1928. We know he married in 1923 because he appears in newspapers twice: once as a marriage notice, and another when he takes journalists around his salami factory. But then there’s the huge question of, what happened to his wife? And so there was a lot of work just tracking who his wife might be.

Years and years earlier when I started looking at Hirschl, I had downloaded some passenger manifests of ships going across the Atlantic with Hungarians. Hirschl isn’t an uncommon name. Later on I was in my hotel in Budapest and I got a call from one of the researchers who told me we had found his wife, called Erzsebet, we’d finally pinned her down. As a precaution I searched through the passenger manifests - the first name on the first sheet: Erzsebet Hirschl. I had been carrying it around with me for ten years. We’d spent months finding out who his wife was, and in two minutes we had gone from not knowing who the hell she is, to knowing who she is, when she left Hungary, and when she went to Argentina.

How do you believe Hungarian football would have progressed had it not been curtailed after ‘The Golden Age’?

The increasingly right-wing governments of the late 1930s and 40s are the beginning of the ripping up of the roots. Nationalisation did - in terms of the national team - have a positive short-term effect, and maybe the early team of 1950s wouldn’t have been as great without that concentration of talent. 

But I can’t think of any other example where a country has simultaneously lost its best three players - Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskás - to defection, then loses its entire under-21 team as well, and also damage the roots. 

That’s the removal of three phases of talent: the brightest of existing stars, the next generation of stars, and the nursery that is producing the stars. That is a totally unique situation. I guess the closest thing would be Zambia losing their entire squad bar Kalusha Bwalya in 1993. One of the things most remarkable about Hungary is the absolute dearth of talent now. They hadn’t even qualified for a tournament between 1986 and the last Euros. Pretty much every major Eastern European country, they’ve produced one major star in the last 25 years.

What next?

I’m in a slightly fortunate position now where I can do projects that interest me rather than being entirely driven by earning a livelihood. I’d love to do something on Uruguayan football in the future. I think the culture of Uruguayan football and the fact that it remains such a dominant force despite having a population of just 3.5million.

The Names Heard Long Ago is not just a tactics book. It seemed to me when I was writing it that this was a very sad and human book, and it certainly is about the human stories, often of incredible courage. There’s a dozen characters I could each have written an individual book on.

The Names Heard Long Ago: How The Golden Age of Hungarian Football Shaped The Modern Game, by Jonathan Wilson. Bonnier Books Ltd, £9.99

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