The 1954 World Cup saw the return of Germany, or more precisely West Germany, to the finals. The world was returning to a form of normality which was to persist until the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union. The death of Stalin the previous year appeared to presage a possible improvement in World affairs, an interpretation reinforced by the end of the Korean War, or at least an armistice, also in 1953. There were teams from being the Iron Curtain as well as Europe and the Americas.

From South America the two finalists of the 1950 World Cup provided a formidable entry. The representation from the Americas was completed by Mexico, which country had the dubious distinction of having lost all its World Cup matches; Mexico was placed in a strong Pool One, additionally comprising Brazil, Yugoslavia and France, thus there was a real possibility of this unhappy record continuing.

Western Europe was represented by France, West Germany, England, Italy and Belgium. Neutral European countries playing in the World Cup included Sweden, Yugoslavia, Austria and Switzerland. The Soviet block countries who played were Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The latter being far and away the best team in the World at the time; for their team included Puskas, Hidegkutti, Bozsik,Kocsis and Czibor, players who had helped Hungary destroy all before them. In 1953 this team became the first non-British side to defeat England in England, by the more than convincing score line of six-three; a superiority more than underlined by a crushing seven-one win in Budapest in 1954, the worst defeat England has ever suffered, and, demoralisingly for England, before the World Cup had begun.

Two countries came from almost the opposite ends of Asia: Turkey, who had surprisingly overcome Spain, who had done so well at the previous World Cup; and South Korea, a country traumatised by the recent war in the Korean peninsular.

The World Cup was gaining increasing status as a truly world-wide event, although the absence of African representation was, at least in part, an unfortunate consequence of the colonial status of much of that benighted continent. Most of Africa had to wait until the 1960s before the colonial yoke was thrown off.

The competition again followed a divisional format, but with a twist, one which was to have a major bearing upon the outcome. Each division had assigned four teams, however, there would be two seeds who would not play each other, i.e. the top two would play the bottom two, with the two highest placed teams going through. This system had a hole, because of their surprising qualification at the expense of Spain, who had reached the final pool in the previous World Cup, Turkey were seeded in Hungary’s group, even though it was clear, even at the time, that the West German team was far stronger. The effect was that Hungary, en route to the finals, had to play Brazil and Uruguay, far tougher propositions than Yugoslavia and Austria, who provided Germany’s opposition.

The divisions were:

Pool 1: Brazil, Yugoslavia, France and Mexico.

Pool 2: Hungary, Turkey, West Germany and South Korea.

Pool 3: Uruguay, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Scotland.

Pool 4: England, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium.

In their opening match in pool 2 West Germany easily overcame Turkey 4-1. It was obvious that, should West Germany lose to Hungary, an all too likely outcome given that from 1950 to the World Cup Hungary were unbeaten, they would defeat Turkey in a play-off. Looking ahead the West Germans saw that coming second in Pool 2 had the considerable advantage of an easier route to the final. This conclusion resulted in an extremely weak West German team being fielded to face Hungary, thus the Magyars won 8-3 without being particularly stretched. While this chicanery may be considered unsporting but legal, no such defence could be offered on behalf of the German centre-half Werner Liebrich, whose vicious and quite deliberate challenge on Puskas put the Hungarian star out of commission until the final, and even then the world only saw a diminished Puskas. The Hungarians were forced to play the closing stages of this first round 8-3 win over West Germany with only ten men as substitutes were not permitted then. It was a pity that Hungary’s opening match had not been against West Germany, such tactics might then have appeared riskier. Hungary’s record breaking nine-nil demolition of South Korea did not occasion much surprise given the huge disparity between the teams. Given the huge problems facing South Korea as a legacy of the Korean War and the fifty years of Japanese colonial rule, just appearing in Switzerland was an achievement.

Puskas, who held a Major’s commission in the Hungarian Army even though he had never held a gun, was perhaps the outstanding player of the “Magical Magyars” (a nickname that was fully deserved); his fierce left shot made him a threat even from distance, and his stamina meant that there would be no respite during a match. In eighty-four games for Hungary Puskas scored no less than eighty-three goals, usually with his left foot. He remained a member of this most formidable of Hungarian sides until 1956, when the Soviet invasion persuaded Puskas, along with several of his colleagues, who were all on tour overseas at the time, not to return. Incredibly, as it now appears, several Italian clubs turned down the opportunity to sign the “Galloping Major”, who eventually end up playing in the great Real Madrid side of the 1950s. There his partnership with Di Stefano produced a quite lethal goal scoring machine.

Sandor Kocsis scored eleven times for Hungary in the 1954 World Cup, and it might have been more, save that he was played out of position in the Final. In the thirty-two matches before the World Cup Hungary conceded only four draws, winning the rest, often overwhelmingly. In all Kocsis scored seventy-five goals in sixty-eight matches for Hungary. What made him unusual for a continental player of that time was his ability to score with his head, for which he was nicknamed the “Golden Head”. Like Puskas, Kocsis did not return to his native Hungary after the crushing of the Hungarian revolution by Soviet tanks in 1956. Initially practising his trade in Switzerland, Kocsis eventually ended up playing for Barcelona, the great rivals of Real Madrid. He was part of the Catalan side that lost the 1961 European Cup Final to Benfica of Portugal.

Nandor Hidegkuti tended to play further back than most centre-forwards of that era, creating many chances for his compatriots but scoring not a few himself, most memorably a hat-trick against England in 1953, the first time ever that England had lost at home against non-British opposition.

Uruguay the defending champions had never lost a World Cup match since its inception, thus they might have been expected to make a splash. They dually did so at the expense of Scotland, scoring no less than seven times against a by no means weak side in their second match. Arguably Pool Three, along with Pool One were the two strongest groups. In Pool Three the other nations were Czechoslovakia and Austria, two of the better European sides; Austria the second seeds helped put an end to Scottish interest with a one-nil win in their opening game.

The format of the competition now switched to knockout, in the quarterfinals West Germany faced Yugoslavia, Austria Switzerland, England took on the reigning champions Uruguay, whilst the pick of the matches was between Hungary and Brazil.

Yugoslavia, which had earlier held Brazil to a draw, were expected to overcome West Germany. However, the German tactics of relentless tackling and closing down any space proved too much for the silken dalliance that was displayed by the Southern Slavs on the pitch. Two-nil was a fair, if somewhat unaesthetic outcome, demonstrating that discipline and careful planning around a team’s strengths and weaknesses often count for more than flair.

The match between Austria and Switzerland made up in entertainment value for what it lost in technique. A professional team should not lose from a three-nil lead , which was the situation after twenty-three minutes. Conceding five goals in ten minutes tells a story of panic, although scoring one back shows a sign of some fighting spirit. Thus at half-time the score was 5-4 to Austria, with a missed penalty making the margin finer than it should have been. The second half could not hope to live up to this even though there were to be three more goals. The seven-five win for Austria proving both elevating and enervating as the subsequent semi-final was to show.

Poor goal keeping proved England’s undoing in their match against Uruguay, for two of the four goals conceded should definitely have been saved. Thus Uruguay successfully eliminated both British contenders.

Hungary and Brazil were arguably the two best sides in the world at the time, thus many a fan of football would have turned up for a feast, only to witness a brawl, from which neither side emerged with any credit. Some lay the initial blame at Brazil’s door, observing that a professional side should not react to some of the niggling tackles of the Hungarian players; but why did the Hungarians, who even with Puskas missing were the better team, resort to such tactics? There is almost an element of a schoolboy farce in the way the “Battle of Berne” developed. After seven minutes Hungary were two up, it was predictable that this lead coupled with the aforementioned tackling would elicit a Brazilian reaction. Two successfully taken penalties followed, one for each side, leaving Hungary’s two goal lead undisturbed with the score at three-one. After twenty minutes play in the second half Brazil fashioned a second goal, however, the exhibition on show was that favoured by a boxing promoter, not a football purist as Bozsik and Santos were sent off for fighting. Ten players each, more fighting, then another Hungarian goal after eighty-eight minutes matched by a sending off, a second Brazilian. Yet even with the score at four-two and the referee’s whistle blown the “match” was still not over as the Latin Americans stormed into the Hungarian dressing rooms. For the first time in the game Puskas played his part, allegedly hitting Pinheiro the Brazilian centre-half with a bottle. Pinheiro certainly sustained some injury somehow as he left with a bandaged five inch head wound. I suppose it was just as well that the forty thousand strong crowd did not see the entire “match”.

For the semi-finals Uruguay squared up to Hungary, whilst West Germany took on an Austrian team reeling from their incredible quarterfinal against the hosts. The Austrians understandably changed their goalkeeper from one who had conceded five; yet his replacement, Walter Zeman, had previously been dropped because he was out of sorts. A nervous defence, an off-form goalkeeper who then proceeded to prove he was off-form by a series of disastrous misses set the stage for a calamitous 6-1 defeat for a team that would ordinarily have been expected to beat West Germany. The devil really had the best tunes, as this stroke of luck could be considered a reward for the questionable tactics earlier in the tournament of the West German coach.

The other semi-final should have been the final. Hungary, far and away the best team in the world verses the two times and defending champions - Uruguay. Supremely fit Hungary, far and away the most exhilarating team on earth verses a skilful traditional side who had two deep central defenders and two attacking fullbacks. Puskas, injured by brutal West German tackling in the first round games, was still unavailable to the Hungarians; however, Uruguay’s captain Varela was also out, hurt in the quarterfinal win against England, thus there was a parity of sorts in terms of missing players. At first it looked as though Hungary would overrun Uruguay, helped, apparently, by the heavy rain earlier in the day; for the Magyars scored in the opening quarter of an hour as a result of A Kocsis header to Czibor which was blasted into the back of the net. Yet the traffic was not all one way as Uruguay’s midfield general Schiaffino contrived to create opportunities for the South American side. Shortly after half time, one of the greatest goals ever seen in a World Cup seemed to end the match as a contest. A poor clearance from Carballo at the back of the Uruguayan defence was intercepted by Buzansky. Instantly Budai and Boszik charged forward, the latter managing to lay on a cross to Hidegkuti, who was apparently too far away to take advantage, yet the quick thinking centre-forward dived, just managing to head the ball into the back of the net. Two-nil. Uruguay, with the confidence of a team never previously beaten in any World Cup, continued to exude self-belief, chance after chance was fashioned by Schiaffino, Borges on the left wing had a shot cleared off the line. Eventually Hohburg, in the final quarter of an hour of normal time, managed to exploit a Schiaffino pass and score. The champion was aroused and fighting, two-one did not appear an insurmountable deficit, thus the valiantly rallying Uruguayans managed to repeat nearly the identical trick in the eight-eighth minute, Hohburg again scoring from a Schiaffino pass, the effort of which caused him to faint. The game moved into extra time. Yet these fantastic exertions had taken their toll, Uruguay only had one more real chance early on, the Schiaffino-Hohburg combination yet again, which resulted in a shot which bounced off a post. Thereafter the traffic streamed towards the Uruguayan goal as the much fitter Hungarians pressed forward. In the second period of extra time, Kocsis scored twice with headers, body blows from which Uruguay were too drained to recover. Thus the two teams that had qualified from Pool Two would meet in the final, with the additional diabolical fillip that the West Germans would be considerably fresher.

The 1954 final would be between the war time allies Hungary and (West) Germany. Hungary which when a kingdom in the Hapsburg Empire had encompassed a much wider area, including Transylvania, the Voivodina (in modern day Serbia) and Slovakia. The Hungarian capital Budapest had been completely shattered in savage fighting in November 1944 when captured by Malinovskii’s Second Ukrainian Front. For the first time in a while the Hungarian nation, shackled behind the Iron Curtain, would have something to celebrate, for their team was the world’s finest footballing circus. Bread would have to wait until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The horrific injury inflicted by Liebrich in the first match with West Germany had kept Puskas out, he now returned to the Hungarian team. It was and is arguable that it was a mistake to reinstate Hungary’s finest player, for he was not fit and his return necessitated some reshuffling that resulted in players playing outside their best positions. Nor was there a possibility to rectify this mistake as substitutions were not allowed.

On the day of the match (4 July 1954, US Independence Day!) the heavens opened. West Germany were physically much more robust than Uruguay, Hungary’s previous opponents, so this would not necessarily have benefited Hungary, particularly given Puskas’s injury; nonetheless the “Magic Magyars” were two up after only eight minutes. Yet even this short interval had taken its toll, the injury Puskas was carrying meant that Hungary had effectively only ten men, worse even as players would naturally assume Puskas to be capable. Thus West Germany equalised after less than ten minutes. The impossible had become the credible. Underdogs can produce the performance of a lifetime which is what happened here as Toni Turek the West German goalkeeper changed from the villain who had conceded two goals, to the hero who saved everything. Shot after shot rained in without breaching the fortress. Then after eighty-three minutes play Rahn of West Germany burst through the Hungarian defence and scored. Game over? No, for two minutes later Puskas equalised, save that the goal was disallowed for offside, a questionable but final decision. Thus it came about that one of the weaker teams in the tournament became World Champions. The Hungarian team of 1954 vies with the Dutch sides of the 1970s for the status of the strongest team not to win the World Cup.

© 2006 World Cup Years Ltd.