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Fifty Years Ago Today

At DBR, we love basketball, but we also pay attention to other sports, both at Duke and elsewhere. Today marks an anniversary that most Americans would not even notice, but which had profound impact on the rest of the World.

Throughout the start of the 20th Century, the British national teams were dominant in soccer. In particular, England was considered so far ahead of their continental rivals that they didn't even join the international organizations and competitions, as playing for something like a "World Cup" was beneath them. As England went, so did Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. After World War II, the home countries did join FIFA, and the path to the World Cup in Brazil was just to finish in the top two of the home nations competition. England finished on top, with Scotland in second place. Both were invited to Brazil, but Scotland declined the invitation.

In Brazil, the first real chinks in the English armor appeared. They won their first game, but were stunned by a team of amateurs from some non-soccer playing country, the United States, in their second game. One newspaper refused to believe that the US won, 1-0, and assumed that the transmission had dropped the leading digit in a 10-1 England win! England dropped their last game, to Spain, and were eliminated ignominiously from the competition.

Still, the belief remained that the team was the best. England had never lost at home to anyone but Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. Powerful teams from Germany and Italy had all been sent home defeated by the English when they played at Wembley. On November 25, 1953, that was to change.

England had scheduled a friendly against Hungary. Hungary was considered the best Continental team, and the match was dubbed as "The Match of the Century." When Hungary took the field, the English felt confident, so much so that one of the English players is reported to have said, "Look at that little fat chap. We'll murder this lot." However, that was not the case. In the first minute of the game, Hungarian forward Nandor Hidegkuti beat the English goalkeeper for a 1-0 lead. Proving it was no fluke, he hit a second, and Ferenc Puskas, "the little fat chap" nailed a third goal. By halftime, Hungary lead, 4-2, and they went on to give the English their first ever home defeat to a Continental team, 6-3. In a rematch in Budapest the following year, Hungary crushed the English, 7-1.

Ultimate glory eluded the Hungarians, though. In the 1954 World Cup, after beating West Germany 8-3 in the first round, the West Germans pulled off what is still considered the biggest upset in a final game, when they won the World Cup 3-2. Two years later, Hungary rebelled against Soviet occupation, and many members of the national team fled to Western Europe. A potential dynasty was crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks.

"It was like race forses against cart horses," said Sir Tom Finney, one of England's best players, "They were the greatest national side I played against, a wonderful team to watch with tactics we'd never seen before."