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Ramadan Tales S2EP01- Nandor Hidegkuti: Hungarian hero who laid the foundations of a dynasty
Budapest. The capital and largest of city of Eastern European behemoths Hungary. Located in the centre of the country, the city – which lies on the River Danube – boasts some of the best and most fascinating architecture found worldwide, cementing its place amongst Europe’s go-to destinations of recent. While football may not be one of the main tourist attractions in the city, the trace of an important page in the sport’s history can still be found.
Indeed, 18 players out of Hungary’s 22 man-squad for the 1954 World Cup called Budapest home. The ‘Aranycsapat’, more commonly known as the ‘Mighty Magyars’, or ‘Golden Squad’ came to change the way football is perceived. Boasting the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Jozsef Zakarias, Zoltan Czibor, and Laszlo Budai, the Aranycsapat recorded 42 victories, seven draws, and just one defeat between 1950 and 1956, with the one defeat coming in arguably the most important game of them all: the 1954 World Cup Final against Germany.
Perhaps the most ‘revolutionary’ player of them all was Nandor Hidegkuti, who – effectively – played the role of a false nine. So effective, and so lethal that Leeds hero Don Revie wrote about him in his autobiography.
“In the summer of 1954 England and Scotland were knocked out of the World Cup series in Switzerland. That competition was won by Germany, but dominated by Hungary, who played with a deep-lying centre forward, Nandor Hidegkuti. Alongside him; Sandor Koscis and Ferenc Puskas, two of the greatest inside-forwards in the world. But whatever people claim of Koscis and Puskas, it was the man Hidegkuti who tore the England defence to shreds at Wembley in November 1953. It was Hidegkuti, again playing his hide-and-seek centre-forward game, who shattered England in the return match in Budapest in May 1954, when we were thrashed 7-1.”
Don Revie on Hidegkuti
For those who saw him play, Hidegkuti was mesmerising. definitely one of the most important footballers in the 1950s. Upon his death in 2002, his boyhood club – MTK Budapest – one of the largest in the country – renamed their stadium ‘Hidegkuti Nandor’ to honour a legend.
The Hungarian isn’t just simply a legend in his home country, but his efforts – this time as a coach – still influence Egyptian football to this day. For Hidegkuti’s teachings left a permanent mark on Egyptian football – especially Al Ahly – in the 1970s.
Cairo, 1967. Egypt was a shambles, the military had just lost the war against the Israeli forces, who’d taken control of Sinai. Turbulence everywhere, the tumultuous cries of defeat overshadowed everything in the country, including the beautiful game – and it wasn’t until 1974/75 that football resumed in a normal fashion.
The disruption which occurred in 1967 thus meant that an entire generation of Al Ahly players hung up their boots – and because the country was basically in a state of war, their retirements went unnoticed, despite being one of the most important generations to ever grace – not only Al Ahly – but Egyptian football as a whole. Basically we’re talking Saleh Selim, Tarek Selim, Mahmoud El-Gohary, Adel Heikal, Refaat El-Fanagily, Taha Ismail, amongst others. They’d given so much, yet their efforts on the pitch – as footballers – were never really celebrated as they would’ve liked due to the war.
Al Ahly were in a crisis, the aforementioned golden generation of players had all hung up their boots – they needed someone to rebuild the team, which is why the board – headed by Field Marshal Abdelmohsen Mortagy – gave the duty to late club icon Saleh Selim, who upon his appointment in 1970, stated that in three years he’d build an unassailable outfit. And so it was. Saleh Selim established a system which nurtured and scouted youngsters, and by 1972, he’d established a side then known as ‘فرقة التلامذة’ (Arabic), or ‘the student squad’. All of the players were either teenagers, or in their early 20s – a much needed gamble which would change Egyptian football forever.
Despite possessing immense talent, the ‘Student Squad’ didn’t really hit the ground running in their first full season, finishing fourth, as Ghazl El-Mahalla went on to win their first and only title to this date. With the 1973/74 season facing the same fate as the five seasons prior to 1972/73, Al Ahly entered 1974/75 with the same ‘Student Squad’, but with Hidegkuti in charge. The Hungarian’s most recent achievements prior to his Reds stint, however, were not so recent. He reached the semi-finals of the European Cup with Gyori ETO in 1965, and won European Cup Winners’ Cup with Fiorentina in 1961. Al Ahly -though – knew Hidegkuti was the man they needed, abruptly reaching an agreement with the ex-Hungarian Player of the Year, who agreed to a basic wage of $600 a month. The intriguing factor is the fact that the Hungarian agreed to sign under the condition that he’ll be given permission to watch the side for six months prior to starting his official duty as Al Ahly coach, which began at the start of the cancelled 1973-74 season.
“Training was pretty much comprised of three laps around the field, some cardio, shooting practice, and the tactical aspect was all on the blackboard – that was pretty much it.”
Ex-Al Ahly man Mimi El-Sherbiny on the pre-Hidegkuti era
Hidegkuti’s arrival signalled a new era, for the first time in Egyptian football history, training included movement, tactics, it was far more rigorous, and of course it was Hidegkuti who introduced the Al Ahly routine of training twice per day, which still stands until now. Hidegkuti also set diet routines, and frequently weighed the players, to make sure they were in top physical shape.
His system extended beyond training as well; on the pitch, Al Ahly players were able to play the ‘Hidegkuti role’, or a false-nine – they didn’t warm-up in the dressing room, like all the teams in the league, but rather on the pitch – which instigated scathing attacks against the Hungarian, with some journalists labelling him a ‘madman’.
It was Hidegkuti who got the last laugh, however. The Hungarian, accompanied by the excellent services of the defence-minded assistant Fouad Shaaban, guided Al Ahly to their first league title in 13 years. Indeed the ‘Student Squad’ had done it; looking back at it, the triumph kickstarted an Al Ahly legacy, after all the team included Mahmoud El-Khatib ‘Bibo’, Rabei Yassin, Taher El Sheikh, Abdelaziz Abdelshafy (Zizo), Maher Hammam, Mostafa Abdo, Mostafa Younes, Mokhtar Mokhtar, Mohsen Saleh, Shatta, Anwar Salama, and Ekramy.
Another league success followed in 1975/76, only this time Hidegkuti and Al Ahly improved on their league win in 1974/75, winning the title without losing a single game for the first time in Egyptian football history. The Reds finished top of their respective group, thus setting up a play-off against Ghazl El-Mahalla, which they duly won 5-0 on aggregate.
By 1977 – unsurprisingly – Al Ahly were heads and shoulders above every side in Egypt, as they comprehensively won a third consecutive league title under Hidekguti’s guidance, five points ahead of arch-rivals Zamalek. It wasn’t until 1978 that Hidegkuti lost his first (and last) league title as Al Ahly coach, losing out to the Whites despite scoring the same amount of points, and the same amount of goals. However, Zamalek conceded seven goals compared to Al Ahly’s eight – which ultimately decided the league title.
Hidegkuti, got his revenge soon after, though in the famous 1978 Egypt Cup final. With both Khatib and Taher El-Sheikh on the bench injured, rivals Zamalek looked favorites to win a domestic double. The Whites’ status as favourites was certified at half-time, going 2-1 up thanks to goals from Taha Basry and Ali Khalil. Down 2-1 at the break, Hidegkuti glaringly looked at Khatib, before addressing him in broken Arabic, “Bibo, darling, we’re going to lose”, it was at that point that both Bibo and Taher El-Sheikh offered to play the game, and they were in fact subbed on with 15 minutes to go. Zamalek fans were off their seats, they thought they’d won the Cup; however, it wasn’t to be. In 15 minutes, Al Ahly produced one of the greatest Cairo Derby comebacks of all time to win the game 4-2 – with Bibo, and Taher El-Sheikh both getting their names on the scoresheet.
The following season saw Hidegkuti regain the title, repeating the feat on 1975/76, as he went all season undefeated, a staggering seven points ahead of Zamalek. 1979/80 proved to be his final at Al Ahly, rounding it off with yet another league win.
Hidegkuti was, and still is adored by the Al Ahly faithful. ‘Mr Kuti’ – the nickname given to him by the Al Ahly players and staff – symbolises coaching at the club, along with other foreign greats such as Manuel Jose, and Dietrich Wiese. His prowess, and intelligence can be highlighted, or summed up in the game between Al Ahly and Borussia Monchengladbach in 1976. During the game, Hidegkuti realised that Mahmoud El-Khatib was being heavily man-marked by the Monchengladbach players, thus ordering him to change shirt numbers at half-time, in order to decrease the marking imposed on him by the Germans.
It wasn’t just Hidegkuti’s prowess as a manager, though. There are good managers everywhere, but what’s truly unforgettable is his love and admiration for the club. Establishing a bond with the fanbase and the players is what makes a manager unique, and Mr Kuti was able to do such a thing.
He spoke to the players in broken Arabic, as once told by renowned journalist and pundit Hassan El-Mistikawy who recalled his first meeting with the Hungarian. Upon starting the interview, Mistikawy started speaking in English, only to realise that Hidegkuti was puzzled – he didn’t speak English, turns out he spoke broken Arabic, and could only understand broken Arabic, which meant that Fouad Shaaban had to frequently translate what the players said in – you guessed it – broken Arabic!
His bond with the club, and with Egypt as a whole extended beyond the laughs and giggles. Hidegkuti would even visit the rural countryside with the players; one time, when long-term Al Ahly kitman Aam Hareth fell ill, Hidegkuti insisted on visiting him in the area of Ezbet El-Sa’ayda, Embaba – a poor district of Greater Cairo.
Even following his departure, Hidegkuti held Al Ahly deep in his heart, sports journalist and pundit Alaa Ismail once met the Hungarian during the latter’s stint with Al Ahli Dubai. According to Ismail, the Hungarian legend wept when he spoke to him about Al Ahly.
“The tears ran down his face, he loved Al Ahly, he loved the club,” revealed Ismail.
Nandor Hidegkuti, ladies and gentlemen, remains an Al Ahly icon, a man who laid the foundations of a dynasty, one that impacted Egyptian football, and still does until this very day. Rest in peace, ‘Mister Kuti’.