by Rob Doolan
In 1954, football came home. Sort of. The selection of Switzerland as the venue for the fifth World Cup finals had less to do with practicality and more to do with the Swiss-based FIFA’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Yet in many ways it was fitting that the land of the cuckoo clock provided the setting for the most barking mad World Cup in history.
Switzerland ’54 produced, amid a good deal of fine football, controversy, violence and one of the greatest shocks the competition has ever seen. What it had more of than anything else, however, were goals, goals and more goals. Massive score lines were commonplace, the tournament averaging 5.4 goals per game, making it the most free-scoring World Cup of them all.
With the competition still in its relative infancy, FIFA continued to tinker with the format. While the conventional semi-finals and final structure returned after 1950’s ‘final pool’, the group stage was more complex. Two of the four teams in each of the four groups were seeded, but each team would only play twice, with the seeds kept apart, a system which favoured the bigger teams from the outset. In the event of a tie for first place, lots would be drawn, while a tie between the second and third placed teams would result in a play-off to seal a quarter-final spot.
The favourites, to an almost embarrassing degree, were Hungary; Gusztàv Sebes’ mighty Magyars having revolutionised football with their early version of 4-2-4. Olympic champions and twice emphatic humblers of England, in Ferenc Puskás they had the finest player in the world. He was ably supported by the likes of Nándor Hidegkuti – the prototype of the modern number 10 – and Sándor Kocsis the man nicknamed “golden head” for his aerial prowess, and the player who would finish the tournament as top scorer with 11 goals.
As powerful as they were skilful, the Magyars quickly set about living up to their billing, effortlessly progressing to the quarter-finals and rattling in 17 goals in their opening two games. After despatching hapless debutants South Korea 9-0, they defeated West Germany – permitted to enter the competition for the first time since the war – 8-3. Yet peculiarly, this game foreshadowed Hungary’s ultimate downfall, firstly in the injury to Puskás’ ankle following a late tackle from centre half Liebrich that would all but end the “galloping major’s” tournament; and secondly in the consolation goal scored by the West German outside right, one Helmut Rahn.
The last eight pitched Sebes’ men against Brazil. The Brazilians were in transition from the team that had just missed out on home soil four years previously, but in the shape of Didi and unpredictable outsight ride Julinho, still had a strong and exciting team. Yet what promised to be a classic quickly degenerated into a bloodbath. The “Battle of Berne” would live in infamy. It is not clear exactly how or why the game so quickly deteriorated into violence. Hidegkuti opened the scoring after just three minutes and was set upon by Brazilians, losing his shorts in the process. Fights broke out all over the pitch when English referee Arthur Ellis’ back was turned and even when it wasn’t.
It was a miracle not just that Ellis managed to wait 75 minutes before sending anyone off, but that he maintained enough control to finish the game. Bozsik of Hungary and Nilton Santos of Brazil were dismissed for fighting, young Brazilian Tozzi following shortly afterwards for aiming a kick at Lórànt – his weeping pleas to Ellis falling on deaf ears. Almost inconsequentially, the game finished 4-2 in Hungary’s favour.
The violence spilled off the field as well, the Brazilian team invading the Hungarian dressing room, knocking out the light bulb and attacking the Magyars with whatever weapons they could get their hands on. Sebes suffered a lacerated cheek in the fracas as Brazil went home in disgrace.
Also returning to base in ignominy were Scotland. Making their first appearance at the finals, the Scots endured a farcical campaign. First, believing the weather in Switzerland would be cold the Scottish powers that be provided the players with thick woollen shirts. Of course, Switzerland in June was sweltering, and the unbearably hot kit made a tough task even tougher. Frustrated by constant interference from the SFA, manager Andy Beattie resigned after his team’s opening Group Three defeat to Austria. A rudderless Scotland were then summarily schooled 7-0 by Uruguay.
Not that there was any shame in losing to Uruguay. The holders had won every World Cup they had entered, never losing a game. 1954 was a final hurrah for the last truly great Uruguayan team – most notably the masterful, elegant inside left Juan Alberto Schiaffino whose magnificent displays in Switzerland earned him a move to AC Milan, not to mention the veteran attack-minded defender Varela. Having despatched the Scots, they turned their attentions to England in the quarter finals.
The English had been knocked out of their superiority complex by their two famous drubbings by Hungary the previous year, but still had a strong team. At a sprightly 39, Stanley Matthews was still the main man, a maverick on the right wing, albeit one not entirely trusted by the selection committee. Other future legends in the side included Nat Lofthouse, Tom Finney, and captain Billy Wright.
England met their match against Uruguay, however, Schiaffino netting twice, with two further goals from Varela and Ambrois, both beating goalkeeper Lou Merrick – who never played for England again – a touch easily. Lofthouse and Finney replied for England, but La Celeste ran out 4-2 winners. Not for the last time, there was controversy surrounding England’s exit, as Varela was inexplicably allowed to drop kick a free-kick straight to Schiaffino who promptly scored the decisive third; yet there is little doubt that the better team prevailed.
Austria met Switzerland in sunny Lausanne in another quarter final that brought together two of the competition’s finest defenders – Austria’s captain, attacking centre back and technical marvel Ernst Ocwirk, and Swiss skipper Roger Bocquet. Naturally, the game turned out to be a goal fest of breathtaking proportions. Switzerland raced into a surprise 3-0 lead, but by half time the Austrians were 5-4 up, prompting a red-faced declaration over the microphone from the stadium announcer, “All goals scored against Switzerland owing to the sun”.
The hosts fared little better in the second half, however, Austria eventually prevailing by the frankly ridiculous score line of 7-5. Bocquet had been especially poor, with one Swiss official remarking that he seemed to be playing “almost as if in a trance”. It later transpired that he had been playing while suffering from a brain tumour, although happily he survived his post-tournament surgery and is still alive today.
Police surrounded the pitch as Hungary and Uruguay took to the field for their semi-final, the authorities fearing a repeat of the Magyars’ last encounter with South American opposition. In the event, the game was everything the Battle of Berne should have been, a breathtaking exhibition between two of the world’s greatest football teams. Hungary led 2-0 through Czibor and Hidegkuti; a brace from Hohberg eventually taking the game into extra time. There, Schiaffino’s classy through ball put Hohberg in for his hat-trick, but his effort thumped against the post. Then, “golden head” Kocsis struck, rising to power in two headers to complete yet another enthralling 4-2 score and put the Magyars into the final, a result which brought to an end Uruguay’s proud undefeated record.
And so, after the Battle of Berne came the Miracle of Berne. West Germany had largely flown under the radar on their path to the final. Sneaking through in second place in Group Two, they then earned a hard-fought win over a talented Yugoslavia team in the quarter-finals before exploding into life in the semis with a 6-1 trouncing of an exhausted Austria. The core of the West German side came from the dominant Kaiserslautern team, with six members – including star player and captain Fritz Walter – plying their trade for the Rhineland outfit.
Nobody gave West Germany a chance against Hungary. The Magyars had already stuffed them in the group stages, were unbeaten in four years and had beaten the best the game had to offer. West Germany didn’t even have a national league, the Bundesliga not being established until 1963. That the Germans were able to achieve what they did owes everything to one man, Sepp Herberger. The diminutive coach is the man responsible for instilling the qualities that would come to be associated with German football for decades – mental and physical strength, stamina and resilience.
He also took two huge gambles that paid off enormously. The first was exploiting the format of the competition. He identified Turkey as being the weak seeds in West Germany’s group and essentially wrote off his team’s game with Hungary in the belief that they could see off the Turks. After West Germany duly beat Turkey 4-1 in their opening game, Herberger fielded a reserve side against the Magyars and took the beating before bringing his big names back to pulverise the Turks again in the play-off (7-2 on that occasion) to progress.
His second masterstroke was bringing Helmut Rahn back from South America where he had been on tour with his club Rot-Weiss Essen. The outside right was a big personality, a party animal whose antics Herberger valued for team morale. He was the boisterous yin to Walter’s moody, artistic yang. Yet while Rahn initially travelled as a reserve, he would have a bigger say than anybody on the ultimate destination of the Jules Rimet trophy.
Puskás declared himself fit for the final despite concerns remaining about his ankle. As with Ronaldo and Brazil almost half a century later, the need to accommodate their star turn contributed to the favourites’ undoing. Not that it appeared that way in the early going, the Magyars racing into a 2-0 lead after just eight minutes with Puskás himself opening the scoring and Czibor doubling the advantage. It was now that the German resilience came to the fore. Inside right Max Morlock issued a rallying cry and then went on the offensive to make it 2-1. Fritz Walter’s cross was then knocked in at the far post by Rahn. With just 16 minutes played, it was 2-2.
Hungary went for the jugular at the start of the second half, but unexpectedly began to fade. Puskás hobbled around the pitch looking a pale imitation of himself, the West Germans grew in confidence and influence, and with seven minutes remaining the ball fell to Rahn just outside the box. He seemed to pause, as if in awe of the moment, before cutting inside, moving into the box and rifling into the net. Unloved, unseeded, and only just permitted to compete, West Germany were world champions and had beaten the unbeatable in the process.
Of all Germany’s successes before and since reunification in international football, the 1954 triumph remains the sweetest. The victory was a symbol of redemption and recovery for a nation still coming to terms with the scars of war. For Hungary, however, the defeat was the beginning of the end. The Soviet invasion two years later led to a number of their stars leaving the country, Puskás, Boscics and Czibor amongst their number.
Puskás would claim in the aftermath that the West German team had taken performance enhancing drugs during the final. That a number of the German players, including Rahn, were treated in rest homes for jaundice just weeks later only deepened suspicions. Puskás later retracted the remarks, but a German study conducted just last year suggested that there might be more to the allegations than just sour grapes, its results hinting that Herberger’s men may have been given stimulant methamphetamines at half time.
That the outcome of the 1954 World Cup final is still fiercely debated today underlines the magnitude of the shock that West Germany delivered on that rainy July day – a fittingly hysterical end to a tournament infused with insanity from the outset.