Famous foes in 1954, Hungary and Uruguay are on different trajectories now
The first issue of World Soccer magazine, published in 1960, contained a two-page spread about what was termed the greatest match ever played: the semifinal of the 1954 World Cup, in which, after extra time, Hungary beat Uruguay 4-2.
When Hungary reopened their national stadium this week, now named after the great Ferenc Puskas, the choice of opponents was obvious. And so it was Uruguay who lined up in Budapest on Thursday.
From the Hungarian point of view, the link to 1954 brings back a wistful sadness. Back then, Hungary had the best team in the world, one of the greatest ever. With Puskas rampant, they notched a famous 6-3 win over England at Wembley in 1953 and followed it a few months later with a 7-1 thrashing in the original version of the newly reconstructed stadium in Budapest. The one time they slipped up was in the match after their epic win over the Uruguayans, when on a heavy pitch they were surprised by West Germany and went down to a 3-2 defeat.
Until recently, the match was a reason for wistful sadness for Uruguayans as well. They were the reigning world champions, and they had never before lost a World Cup match. They were right up there at the top table of the global game.
Hungary fell back soon afterward, especially in the aftermath of the political turmoil of 1956, when Puskas and many of his colleagues defected. They have never been back.
Uruguay also slipped into decline. Quarterfinalists in 1966, they battled their way through to the semis four years later, but then, hampered by a population little greater than three million, they fell further into mediocrity. They failed to qualify for three consecutive World Cups between 1974 and 1982, missed out again in 1994 and 1998, and fell to Australia in the 2006 intercontinental playoff. In between, La Celeste made little impression on the occasions they did qualify in 1986, 1990 and 2002.
But Uruguay's story follows a different route from that of Hungary -- and much of that has to do with a man who, as a 7-year-old, has vivid memories of listening to the radio broadcast of that dramatic 1954 semifinal.
Oscar Washington Tabarez has become the first coach in the history of the game to be in charge of the same national team for 200 matches. His second spell with Uruguay, which started in 2006, has surpassed all expectations, restoring the Sky Blues to their previous status as one of the most respected sides on the planet.
The reasons for this were clear in Thursday's 2-1 victory in the Ferenc Puskas stadium. Tabarez has continually managed to refresh his team with graduates from the magnificent youth development project that he implemented. The Under-20 side serves as a superb production line for the seniors. Going into the last World Cup -- in which Uruguay were statistically the best South American representative -- Tabarez rejigged his midfield, introducing a collection of talented ball players well able to give the team more controlled possession.
Since Russia 2018, the constant renewal process has improved the team's play down the flanks. Left-back Matias Vina set up the first goal against Hungary, curling a wonderful cross behind the defensive line that invited a finish from Edinson Cavani. A pair of wingers have come in, Brian Lozano and 19-year-old LAFC signing Brian Rodriguez, who scored the second with a well-placed shot, his third goal in five matches.
Lozano and Rodriguez played in recent friendlies in which the strike duo of Cavani and Luis Suarez was missing, allowing the team to experiment with a 4-3-3 system. With both strikers available against Hungary, Uruguay reverted to 4-4-2 with a pair of wingers and chalked up another victory. They have not been beaten this year -- they were knocked out of the Copa America on a penalty shootout -- and look in fine shape to begin the coming set of World Cup qualifiers, which get underway in March 2020.
There is one more test before then: Monday's game in Israel against Argentina, a team whose 1-0 win over Brazil on Thursday prolongs the good phase they have enjoyed since the Copa America. Of the friendlies involving South American sides the next few months, Argentina against Uruguay is the clear pick of the bunch.
Uruguay will come out of it seeking to make more history in the coming tournaments, adding to a list of glories that includes the epic 1954 semifinal against Hungary.