The Top Corner
Hunting down the earliest depictions of football in postage stamps
When it comes to football firsts notched up by Hungary, it is hard to think beyond the Mighty Magyars, the Aranycsapat, and their exploit in becoming the first non-British team to beat vainglorious England at Wembley. But I recently stumbled upon another while fossicking around in 90-year-old sports journals in the British Library.
Strictly speaking, it is a philatelic first. While leafing through issues of a weekly publication aimed at young sports fans called, prosaically enough, Sports Budget, I came across the following in the edition dated 27 June 1925: “I have something rather novel to put before you this week. Many of you, I dare say, go in for stamp collecting and therefore will learn with interest that as sport has made such headway in Hungary, the state has just issued a set of stamps available for ordinary postage. These are called the ‘Sports Series’. So far as I know this is the first time modern sport has had a place on a postage stamp.”
The text is accompanied by an image of one of eight stamps in the set, the 2000 korona purple-brown, depicting a goalkeeper jumping in the classic pose with arms outstretched and bent right knee to catch the ball ahead of an onrushing attacker.
As a child of 1960s England with its World Cup victory and its fourpenny (that’s 4d) “England Winners” stamp, I have always had a soft spot for stamp collecting, though the hobby has become about as cool as bellbottom trousers and as outmoded as County Championship cricket. So I wondered, did Sports Budget’s claim stack up? Were these otherwise underwhelming scraps of perforated 93-year-old paper really the first time modern sport – and therefore association football – had had a place on a postage stamp?
After consultation with the hyper-knowledgeable Paul at Stanley Gibbons in London and staff at Haarlem’s PostBeeld, the people behind the excellent www.freestampcatalogue.com, I think we can, indeed, say that this was the first depiction of football on a postage stamp.
The first stamps inspired by football, however, appear to have been issued by Uruguay in 1924. They celebrated the triumph of Héctor Scarone, José Andrade and teammates in capturing the gold medal at that year’s Olympic Games in Paris. There was nothing indecisive about their victory: the outstanding team of the era won each of their five games, with an aggregate score of 20 goals for and two against. (Hungary, incidentally, crashed out 3-0 to Egypt in a match refereed by a Mr Collina.)
The design of the three stamps issued to commemorate the feat – which are identical apart from their colour, respectively red, violet and blue – has nothing to do with the sport, though. Someone from PostBeeld told me it was a sculpture housed at the French capital’s famous Louvre museum. This enabled me to identify it as the marble Winged Victory of Samothrace, dating from approximately 2000 years before association football’s codification – though it was rediscovered in the year of the Football Association’s foundation, 1863.
This very great Uruguayan generation, who would also carry off the first World Cup in 1930, went on to win a second consecutive Olympic football competition in Amsterdam four years later. Once again, three stamps were issued, this time featuring what might be a stylised goal framing a mountain and the rising sun.
Far from marking a great triumph by some brilliant, half-forgotten predecessor of Ferenc Puskás’s deadly, innovative team of the 1950s, those pioneering Hungarian stamps, by contrast, were a fund-raising exercise. As Sports Budget explained, “they are sold at 100 per cent over face value for the benefit of Sports Associations in Hungary.” It went on: “A notice to this effect is printed on the back of each stamp.” I was advised that stamps sold under such conditions are often comparatively scarce. This is simply because most customers who walked into their local Post Office to send a letter would opt, reasonably enough, for stamps with no mark-up.
I am pleased to say that Hungary went on to establish an impressive tradition of sport, and particularly football, stamps as technology advanced and the small adhesive proofs of payment transmogrified into miniature canvases for national self-expression.
The 1966 team of future Ballon D’Or winner Florián Albert and Ferenc Bene were easy on the eye, outplaying Brazil at Goodison Park, Liverpool, en route to a quarter-final exit. The Hungarian stamps produced for the tournament were classy too, featuring artists’ renditions of the adversaries in the seven previous World Cup finals, including the heartbreaking 1954 match that saw Puskás’s men unexpectedly swept aside by West Germany. The 1962 competition in Chile was commemorated by another colourful Hungarian series, featuring the flags of the 16 qualifiers printed on large, square stamps designed so as to be displayed on their corners, like a chubby version of the diamond suit in a pack of playing cards.
But my single favourite Hungarian stamp has to be the one produced to mark that never-to-be-forgotten rout at Wembley six and a half decades ago. “LONDON-WEMBLEY, 1953.XI.25, 6:3” – this time no one felt compelled to spell out the winners. Boxed in by these vital statistics, a cherry-shirted Magyar leaves an Englishman in his wake and draws back his left foot ready to lacerate once and for all the myth of the home side’s invincibility. It captures the moment perfectly.