European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

14 June 2024

Can you learn to play football from a book?

With the Euro 24 football championships kicking off tonight, here is the first in a series of blog posts about the beautiful game as reflected in our European collections. Our first post looks at Hungarys glory days in the 1950s.

Can you learn to play football from a book? Apparently so, or at least attempts were made in the distant past, like with the 1954 hidden gem entitled Learn to Play the Hungarian Way: a Soccer Manual for Young Footballers Showing the Methods Used by the Hungarian Champions.

Title page of Learn to Play the Hungarian Way

The title page of Bukovi & Csaknády’s Learn to Play the Hungarian Way (Budapest, 1954)

What may sound even more surprising for some, in this slim volume Hungarians set out to teach the English-speaking world the tricks of the game. Others may of course be fully aware that 70 years ago Hungarian football was really a phenomenon to take notice of, the national side having won gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The next year they defeated England 6:3 at Wembley in the ‘Match of the Century’ and 7:1 in Budapest in 1954. Although favourites for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, Hungary came second behind West Germany there, but only after convincingly beating the likes of Brazil and Uruguay on their way to the final. Such a series of major football successes and their heroes like Puskás must have been hugely inspirational for the Hungarian people in so many ways, especially during the bleakest Communist period of the fifties.

Black and white photograph of a football crowd beneath a board showing the score England 1 - Hungary 7

Full time at the Hungary v England on 23 May 1954 in Budapest. Image by FORTEPAN  via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)  

Against this backdrop, the book was written by two coaches and, like the original, its English translation was also published in Budapest. It explains all the elements of the Hungarian game style from the various types of kicks through ball control, feints and tackles to shots and headers, not leaving out goalkeeping either. Tactics occupy a separate chapter, while sample training schedules to help reach one’s optimal fitness level are offered at the end.

The game has obviously developed and changed a lot since then, so perhaps not many young footballers would want to learn to play competitively from this book nowadays, but contemporaneous works like it certainly give researchers and interested fans a historical perspective by recording different stages of and some notable contributions to that development.

Demonstrating the skills in the photographs throughout the book are members of the ‘Golden Team’ itself.

Black and white photograph of a footballer leaping forwards to head the ball

When ‘diving’ in football was more innocent: the ‘pike dive’ illustrated in Learn to Play the Hungarian Way

The introduction was penned by Jimmy Hogan, who, before ending his career at Aston Villa just as the Second World War began, had managed a wide range of European clubs, including MTK Budapest from 1914-1921 and again from 1925-1927. So it all came full circle: an English coach instilling his advanced methods in Hungary and decades later the Hungarians teaching others!

From the 1970s, football in Hungary went into a long and painful decline, but recent signs of improvement have been giving cautious glimmers of hope again, including now at the 2024 Euros. Who knows, maybe this time…?

In the British Library’s Hungarian Collections we hold many other football-related items, just two quick examples here:

Front covers of two Hungarian football books

Covers of  Iván Hegyi, Magyarok nagy pályán : a labdarúgás legendái (Budapest, 2015) YF.2016.b.2107 and  László Hetyei, Magyarok a labdarúgó Európa-bajnokságokon (Budapest, 2016) YF.2017.a.16160

Ildi Wollner, Curator, Central/East European Collections