Soccer as anti-communist resistance

Hungary had a world-class soccer team in the early 1950s. Despite the fact that most of the team opposed the Hungary’s communist dictatorship, in some way they ended up helping the communist regime led by Mátyás Rákosi. It was because they were so good. Defeating both England and Brazil, the team provided the dictatorship with some legitimacy. Consequently, Rákosi and his helpers treated the players well, providing them with privileges, cars or comfortable living spaces that were out of reach for ordinary people.

The dominant Golden Team led by Ferenc Puskás proved a huge disappointment to Hungarian fans, however. They were the overwhelming favorites headed into the World Cup final in Bern, Switzerland, July 4, 1954. But they were defeated by West Germany, despite having embarrassed the Germans 8:3 earlier in the group stages. The failure of the Golden Team coached by Gusztáv Sebes was a crushing disappointment for fans back home, since during the darkest days of communism the team was perhaps the only source of joy in a country beset by suffering.

Fans all over the country, young and old, listened to the radio broadcast of the final match. As a testimony to the popularity of the Golden Team, some 40 thousand fans listened in silence from the tribune of Népstadion, the Peoples’ Stadium. Little wonder that soccer was so popular in Hungary at the time. For an oppressed population, enjoying the success of the national team offered a great release from the frustrations of living under the regime. Soccer games were also the one occasion when people could openly use national symbols, like the national flag, which was banned at other events, except of course for government or official events.

Following the traumatic match, some 10 thousand people went to the streets of Budapest in protest, many of them chanting for the Ferencváros team that had been suppressed under the communist system. Support for the Ferencváros club had become synonymous with being anti-regime. Others broke shop windows, and still others demanded explanations for the injured Puskás’s play, while Gusztáv Sebes was also the target of accusations and had the window of his apartment broken. As a result of this indignation, the Golden Team’s train arrived home almost in secret. Four hundred people were arrested according to police reports, although the archives have no record of the sentences. One thing is certain, however, for Lászó Felek, the editor-in-chief of the only communist sports newspaper Népsport, or Peoples’ Sport, was relieved of his post with the explanation that he had raised expectations too high. Naturally, local media did not report on these incidents, but the western media did, even the BBC.

In some ways, those 1954 riots showed the frustration of the people and their readiness to take to the streets, offering a hint of the uprising that was to come, the 1956 Revolution. In both cases, the crowd wanted to have their demands read on the radio. In 1954, there was little reaction from the regime and, absent any political slogans, the movement soon dwindled. In 1956, security forces fired upon the crowds. The two events ended very differently.

Bence Csatári