Among the most widely noted tactical phenomena of the last ten years has been the increasing importance of the “deep lying playmaker”. As teams have lined up with ever more defensive midfielders, previously advanced midfielders have dropped ever deeper themselves in search of precious space. In many ways this isn’t a new trend, but simply a return to a practice of the 1950s and earlier. For prior to the advent of the WM, the deep lying playmaker (such as Austria’s attacking centre-half, Ernst Ocwirk) was a mainstay of the game.
Arguably the finest deep lying playmaker in football history was Hungary’s stellar right-half, Jozsef Bozsik. When the Magical Magyars are fondly remembered, it is often for the goalscoring exploits of Sandor Kocsis, the tactical innovations of Peter Palotas and Nandor Hidegkuti, and the all round brilliance of Ferenc Puskas. The result is that the metronomic qualities of Bozsik are frequently overlooked.
Born in the Kispest area of Budapest, Bozsik (nicknamed “Cucu” by his grandmother at an early age) developed a life-long friendship with Ferenc Puskas from the age of five and the two would go on to form arguably the most fruitful footballing partnership in history. At 11 years old Bozsik was selected by Nandor Szucs to join the junior section of the Kispest Football Club, a team he would never leave.
He was not the only Bozsik to be spotted by the club. Jozsef shared a bedroom in the family’s tiny Budapest house with his four brothers, all of whom represented Kispest, in either the senior or junior teams. None though possessed the talent or the dedication of Jozsef.
Indeed, the young Bozsik made his debut for Kispest against Vasas at the age of just 17, but following the game was dropped and it took him some time to get back into the team. By the end of 1943 Puskas had made his debut for Kispest, and soon Bozsik was back in the team. From then on he never relinquished his place.
In the early years it was Puskas who blossomed first, winning his first cap in 1945, while Bozsik was forced to wait until 1947 when he made his debut in a 9-0 victory over Bulgaria. At the beginning of his career in Hungary few appreciated what Bozsik brought to the game. Lacking pace, many considered him to be ponderous on the ball and too slow to play for the national team. With time though observers began to realise that rather than make a wrong decision quickly, Bozsik took his time to get it right.
By the stage that he made his debut for the national team it was apparent that Bozsik’s decision making was one of the central strengths to his game. Not only was he able to spot the right pass at the right moment, his technique was impeccable. The youngster possessed a range of passing that allowed him to find distant targets, but he was also happy to play the simple ball if it meant retaining possession. Furthermore, he was almost impossible to dispossess as he shielded the ball so well from opponents.
In May 1947 Kispest set off on a tour of France and Luxembourg. The play of Bozsik caught the eye of many watching, and the club received an offer of 2 million Francs, which was immediately rebuffed. Bozsik was not the only player to receive offers from foreign teams but the government were unwilling to allow the country’s best players go abroad for fear of the impact it might have on the national team.
Kispest at the time were far from the biggest club in Hungary. Budapest giants Ferencvaros and MTK had far greater resources at their disposal, while the country’s form team were Ujpest. In order therefore to retain their two star players, Kispest gave a local ironmonger’s shop to Bozsik and Puskas. The pair considered themselves rich at the time, but within a matter of months the government embarked on a programme of nationalising small businesses and the shop was no more.
However, while government intervention was detrimental to the finances of Puskas and Bozsik, it had only positive effects on their footballing career. The conversion to communism that took place in Hungary in 1949 saw Kispest become the chosen team of the army. The following years saw the likes of Lazslo Budai, Zoltan Czibor, Gyula Grosics and Sandor Kocsis arrive at the club as they swept up most of the nation’s finest players.
The change in stature of the club almost immediately yielded results on the pitch. Now renamed Honved, the team won the title in 1949-50 and began a period of domestic domination. Despite the arrival of the other great players at Honved, the pair of Bozsik and Puskas remained central to the team’s success. When Bozsik received the ball in his right-half position, his first thought was to try and play a cross-field diagonal pass to find Puskas at his typical inside-left. The source of so many of the goals scored by Puskas was this searching and unerring pass.
One man who held Bozsik in particularly high regard was Puskas’ father, also called Ferenc. He coached Honved in two spells, sandwiched around a brief period where the great Bela Guttmann took charge. If ever Puskas wanted to convince his father of something he would say, “Ask your friend Bozsik, he will tell you I’m right.”
As the team became affiliated with the army, Bozsik was enrolled as an officer. Fortunately for him that entailed very little true soldiering. For his first three months in the army he was forced to live in barracks, but after learning the basics of marching and parades he was allowed to return home. Soon after his move to the barracks he was, along with Puskas, promoted to the rank of lieutenant but after just 18 months in the army even the requirement to report for training was dropped.
As Honved began to improve as a club, so too did Hungary as a nation. In the pre-war years the Danubian school of football had been at the forefront of the game, and Hungary had reached the World Cup final of 1938. Now the national team again became among the most feared in football.
Following Bozsik’s debut for Hungary in 1947 they set off on a run of results which saw them win ten of their next 14 games, including three consecutive 5-0 victories over Bulgaria, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. A 5-3 defeat away against Austria was a setback, but they immediately resumed their winning sequence. By the time they reached the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, they had won nine of their last ten games, with the other a draw. In Finland the team continued their exceptional form, thrashing Italy, Turkey and Sweden before beating a fine Yugoslavia team 2-0 in the final.
One of the results of Hungary’s exceptional performance at the Olympics was the opportunity for a friendly with England. Following the 6-0 demolition of Sweden in the semi-finals, Stanley Rous, the secretary of the FA, proposed the two teams might meet at Wembley. The result, of course, was an historic 6-3 victory for Hungary, the first Continental team to win at Wembley.
The match was famous for many things: England’s first ever defeat at home to “foreign opposition” (the Republic of Ireland had beaten them at Goodison Park in 1949), the remarkable “drag-back” goal of Puskas, but most of all for the maelstrom caused in the English defence by the movement of Nandor Hidegkuti. Many players were to profit from the confusion the English defenders showed, but the man it was intended to benefit most was Jozsef Bozsik.
With Hidegkuti pulling players out of their natural positions, space was constantly available to Bozsik. Given his ability to choose the right pass when placed under even the greatest pressure, he was in his element when allowed free reign. Indeed in many ways it was Bozsik who set the tone early on. Within fifty seconds of the game kicking off it was Bozsik’s pass that put Hidegkuti through to score. Later on in the match Bozsik scored the fourth goal of the game with a deflected free-kick. Certainly Hidegkuti and Puskas more than deserved the plaudits, but Cucu played his part.
A year later the team prepared for the 1954 World Cup. As well as beating England at Wembley they had humbled the game’s inventors 7-1 in Budapest, in addition to beating Italy 3-0 in Rome in 1953. In short, they were widely considered invincible. The two group games of the World Cup showed why many held that opinion, as South Korea were dispatched 9-0 before West Germany were beaten 8-3.
Those victories set up a quarter-final with Brazil that came to be known as the Battle of Berne for the levels of violence displayed. Bozsik was a naturally placid character, but that was not always the case when playing football. Puskas would later reflect, “He never seemed to get excited, just didn’t show it at all. Off the pitch, I don’t think I ever saw him angry, but on it, if someone had clobbered him off the ball, he could break into a rage and threaten to leave the field.”
By 1954 Brazil had established themselves as a genuinely world class team and were putting up far greater resistance than those who had gone before them. Hungary had raced into a two goal lead, but Brazil fought back and with 20 minutes remaining the score stood at 3-2. Nilton Santos, a defender so complete that he was nicknamed the “Encyclopaedia of Football”, then flung himself into a reckless tackle on Bozsik which brought on the rage Puskas referred to. The two players traded punches and were immediately dismissed by English referee Arthur Ellis.
In Bozsik’s absence the Hungarians prevailed and Cucu was able to return for the semi-final against defending champions, Uruguay. Arguably the finest game in the history of the sport saw two supreme attacking sides take it in turns to threaten the opposing goal. Hungary seemed certain winners at 2-0, but Uruguay fought back to force extra-time. Kocsis restored the Hungarian advantage before applying the killer blow with a header from Bozsik’s cross. The final against West Germany saw Puskas return from injury, but Hungary again allowed a two goal lead to slip away. This time it would be West Germany who would prevail.
The defeat was a tremendous anticlimax for a team that seemed sure to win. Hungary had not lost a match for four years since their defeat to Austria in Vienna, recording 27 victories and four draws in the intervening years. To lose the match that mattered most was a crushing disappointment. Yet almost immediately the team started winning again. It was not until 1956 that they would lose another game.
That was the year of the Hungarian revolution which prompted the break up of the “Golden Team”. When the uprising took place Honved were abroad as they prepared to take on Athletic Bilbao in the European Cup. The team had been scheduled to depart on a tour of South America, and although the tour went ahead it did so without the permission of the Hungarian authorities. When it finished the players were faced with a difficult decision: should they return to Hungary or remain in exile?
Bozsik’s position was among the most difficult. He was not only a member of the Communist party, he was also a deputy in the Hungarian parliament. Furthermore, his father had recently died and he did not feel he could abandon his mother and four brothers in Budapest. The chance to coach at Atletico Madrid (an offer obtained for him by Emil Osterreicher) was tempting, but he could not fail to return home.
As he did so both Honved and the Hungarian national team fell apart. Czibor, Kocsis and Puskas, all decided to stay in the West and in their absence the club was no longer competitive. Despite that, Bozsik remained. A disappointing World Cup in 1958 did not deter him from captaining the Hungarian national team and in 1961 he became only the third man in history (after Billy Wright and Thorbjorn Svenssen) to reach 100 caps.
Given his lack of goalscoring prowess and the limited availability of footage it is perhaps inevitable that the name of Bozsik has largely been forgotten. Yet there are few historical players who would have been more valued in the modern game. For Bozsik possessed the gift that is the most valued in contemporary football and the hardest to find, that of time. He had the ability and composure to wait for the right option and to execute what few others could even see. In an era where such qualities are at a premium, Bozsik would have been peerless.