Football and war have had a strange relationship over the years and have often come together in the most unlikely of circumstances. One famous example is the now legendary (and somewhat mythical) First World War truce in no-man’s land when despondent troops from opposing trenches supposedly stopped on Christmas day for a good-natured kick-about.
There have been many other instances where football has been affected by war such as the time in 1938 when Liverpool Manager George Kay, along with dozens of top flight footballers, joined the Territorial Army in readiness for the inevitable conflict with Nazi Germany. When the war came many players hung up their boots and took up arms to fight for their country and inevitably, some never returned.
Football has even been implicated in the outbreak of international conflict. The infamous “football war” between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 certainly inflamed an already tense situation that existed between the two nations, and ultimately led to a bloody military battle.
A more recent example of war and football crossing paths happened during the Belgrade “Eternal” derby on March 22, 1992 when the fiercely violent opposing fans of Red Star and Partizan Belgrade briefly forgot their own bitter terrace war to cheer in unison at the conquest of Croatian territory by the Serbian army.
Another story worth recounting involves a match between Athletic Bilbao and Budapest Honved SE, and tells of how the early days of the European Cup were also affected by the turmoil of war and revolution.
In 1956/57, Athletic were making their debut in the competition, and after overcoming FC Porto 3-2 on aggregate in the preliminary round, they were drawn against Budapest Honved SE – the team of the Hungarian Army. The side from Budapest included several key members of the famous Hungarian national team known as the “Mighty Magyars”, which made it to the 1954 World Cup final and famously defeated England 6-3 in front of 105,000 people at Wembley Stadium in 1953. Names such as Puskas, Bozsik, Kocsis and Czibor formed the nucleus of that Golden team of the 1950s and they were considered to be the best team in the world at the time.
Los Leones of Bilbao were themselves a major force to be reckoned with, and were one of the most successful teams in Spain with 6 La Liga titles and 19 Copa del Reys already under their belt. That season, they had just won the Liga and Copa double under the guidance of legendary journeyman Coach Ferdinand Daucik and the squad contained talented players such as Mauri, Orue, Marcaida, Merodio, Carmelo, Canito, Garay, Maguregui, Arteche, Arieta and Piru Gainza. The match promised to be a spectacular battle between two giants of world football.
The first leg of the tie was due to be played in Budapest on November 7 with the return match due to take place at the Sam Mames stadium in Bilbao. To prepare for the match, Honved had embarked on a series of tour matches in Western Europe, unaware of the terrible events that were unfolding back in their home country.
Before the first leg, on October 22, a student demonstration against the Soviet-inspired policies of the newly-formed communist state, turned into a revolt after the State Security Police opened fire on protesting students. Violence and disorder quickly spread across the country leading to revolution and on November 4, in an attempt to halt the uprising, Soviet-led forces were deployed.
As Soviet tanks loomed on the Capital, it was clear that the first leg could not take place in Budapest and it was switched to San Mames in Bilbao, with the venue of the return leg to be decided at a later date. The Hungarian players decided not to return home even though many had wives and children back home and were unaware of their whereabouts or safety.
It seems incredible today that the match still went ahead but the Hungarian players had to make a living and, as well as the European Cup tie, they also had several lucrative friendly matches organised. They could not return home for fear of imprisonment, and the money earned from these games would be enough to help get their families safely out of Hungary.
The first leg was played on a cold night in front of 40,000 excited fans at the San Mames stadium and was a highly entertaining game. Athletic dominated early on and took the lead after 16 minutes through Arteche, much to the delight of the home fans. They continued to put pressure on Honved and when they doubled their lead through Marcaida on 27 minutes, it looked as though the tie was over. The Hungarians were playing under extremely stressful circumstances and understandably, it seemed to affect some of the players with Puskas and Czibor in particular looking rather subdued.
In the second half, the team from Budapest began to claw their way back into the match and after 75 minutes, the pressure eventually paid off when Budai scored, setting the scene for a frantic last 15 minutes. As Honved pushed forward they became more and more exposed to the counter-attack, and seven minutes later Athletic scored again through Arieta. However, Honved didn’t give up and when Kocsis scored after 85 minutes to make it 3-2, it seemed like the tie could go either way. In a dramatic finale, it appeared that Honved had equalised only for the goal to be disallowed by English referee John Husband. Moments later, the final whistle went and the match ended 3-2 in favour of the Basque team.
There was much speculation about the venue for the second leg with Paris, Valencia and Madrid considered before it was finally decided that the Heysel stadium in Brussels would stage the game on December 20. In the meantime, unable to return home, the Honved players decided to continue their makeshift tour of Europe. Many had now been reunited with their families some of whom had fled Hungary on foot.
The legendary tour produced some remarkable moments in football history, beginning with a 5-5 draw in Madrid, when Honved faced a combination of players from Atletico and Real Madrid including Di Stefano, Gento and Joaquin Peiro. The next game took them to Barcelona where the Hungarians prevailed 4-3 and were reunited with their legendary compatriot Laszlo Kubala, who had fled Hungary in 1949 and was now representing Spain. The third game of the Spanish leg of the tour saw another unlikely union, as the players of bitter rivals Sevilla and Real Betis joined forces to beat the Hungarians 6-2. Further friendly encounters in Italy and Portugal helped to keep the players in shape ahead of the second leg in Brussels.
It was a cold and foggy night at the Heysel stadium but the atmosphere was electric. More than 30,000 fans packed into the stadium, aware that this may well be the last chance to see the exiled legends of Honved play together in an official match. Both teams attacked from the outset and after just two minutes Merodio scored for Athletic. Then, just four minutes later, Budai equalised for the Hungarian team. The game remained finely poised until a turning point early in the second half, when Bilbao forward Arieta collided with the opposition goalkeeper Lajos Farago. As a result, the keeper was forced to leave the pitch with a damaged collarbone.
With no substitutions available, Czibor was chosen to take Farago’s place between the goalposts. Athletic capitalised, and after 72 minutes they were 3-1 ahead thanks to goals from Arieta and a second from Merodio. Incredibly, Farago returned to the pitch for the final minutes, as goals from Budai and Puskas left Honved needing just one more goal in the final 4 minutes to complete a remarkable comeback – a feat they were unable to complete.
The tie was over and Athletic went on to face Manchester United in the next round, a match they eventually lost 6-5 after two more pulsating legs of football. It would be 28 years before they would win their domestic league again. Meanwhile, Honved were left in limbo, unable to return home and without a league to play in, they continued their tour with a trip to Brazil to play Botafogo and Flamengo. Unfortunately, these unofficial exhibition matches were not approved by FIFA and they took the decision to ban the renegade team from world football, and also threatened to expel Brazil from the next World Cup.
A golden era had come to an end and upon returning to Europe the team went their separate ways. Some returned to Hungary but others, such as Czibor, Kocsis and Puskas, refused to go back, preferring instead to seek refuse elsewhere – a decision that saw them issued with two-year bans from UEFA.
Eventually, Czibor and Kocsis both joined Barcelona while Puskas signed for Real Madrid where he enjoyed eight successful years before retiring. His nomadic adventure didn’t end there however and he went on to manage football clubs on six different continents before finally returning to Hungary in the 1990s.