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Iconic World Cup Moments: When the Golden Team were miraculously defeated at Bern

The World Cup final in 1954 was supposed to be the crowning glory for Hungary, the greatest team football had ever seen. But West Germany had other ideas, as they came from a two-goal deficit to defeat the Hungarians 3-2. The match is referred to as "The Miracle of Bern".

The Hungarian football team recite their national anthem before a group stage match at the 1954 World Cup

To call the 1954 World Cup extraordinary would be an understatement of prodigious proportions. For starters, it was the first World Cup to be held in Europe after World War II had ravaged the continent. Then, there was the small matter of the event taking place in the year of FIFA’s 50th anniversary. Football’s governing council, being huge fans of John Howard Payne, knew there’s no place like home and decided to keep the World Cup at home in Switzerland.

The Overture

While Europe was still at war, in the early 1940s, Bela Guttmann – who would turn out to be a European Cup winning coach with Benfica a couple of decades later – was busy building a young army-based football team called Budapest Honved FC (back then known as Kispest FC). Before he could do anything notable with a highly talented bunch of players, he walked out after falling out with Ferenc Puskas, the man who would go on become the central figure in a team of superstars.

It was in 1949, when Gusztav Sebes took over at the club and made it into the official team of the Hungarian army that people started taking note of Kispet FC. This was a significant move as Hungary being a communist state, Sebes used it to polarise it away from big clubs like Ferencvaros which were thought to be on the right-wing side of the political spectrum. Ferencvaros’ star players were poached, and Sebes began building a strong base for the national team at the club. Future legends like Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor and Gyula Grosics were on the club’s roster, with Sebes drawing inspiration from Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy and Hugo Meisl‘s Austria from the pre-war era. He wanted to build a team that combined Italy’s discipline and determination, along with Austria’s skill and flair.

International Recognition

The Hungarian national team started showing signs of invincibility after the commencement of the 1950 World Cup, as they went on an unbeaten run in international football for two years before arriving at the Olympic Games in Helsinki as firm favourites with western countries fielding their amateur teams at the event. The manner in which the Hungary beat their opponents at the Olympics was devastating. The highlight came when they humiliated defining Olympic champions Sweden in the semi-finals, scoring six goals with Swedes drawing blanks. Just a year later, the Hungarians were up against England in an international friendly which many football observers have described as the “most important football match in history”.

Hungary England 1953
Hungarian captain Ferenc Puskas and England’s captain Billy Wright lead their teams out at Wembley

Friendlies are usually given very little importance these days but it was a different case back in the 1950s. This was no ordinary match, it was a duel between the best team in the world in Hungary and the inventors of the sport England, who still had huge pedigree when it came to international football despite being embarrassed by USA in the previous World Cup.

The game being referred to as the “Match of the Century”, ended in distain for the 105,000 strong crowd at Wembley as they saw their team, still using the age-old WM formation, battered by a much more flexible and free-flowing Hungarian side. The 6-3 defeat was England’s first ever loss at the iconic Wembley stadium.

The biggest problem the English faced on the night was Nandor Hidegkuti, who was playing in an unconventional withdrawn role from his original position of being a centre-forward. You could say Hidegkuti was almost playing as a modern day false 9, and taking up positions the English centre-halves were finding it impossible to pick up. The English media and fans alike were bemused by what they watched and English football would change forever after the game.

The World Cup

The Magical Magyars came into the 1954 World Cup – the first one to be televised LIVE  – on an awe-inspiring 32-match unbeaten run. They looked unstoppable and when they destroyed West Germany 8-3 in the group stages, a maiden World Cup triumph looked a certainty for the greatest team football had ever seen. In the quarter-finals of the tournament, the Hungarians came up against a powerful Brazil team who were also on the lookout for their first World Cup trophy after having watched their dreams shattered at the Maracana four years earlier against Uruguay.

Surely, two teams who had entertained the world with their attacking brand of football over the years preceding the World Cup were going to produce an all-time classic? Sadly, the expectations turned out to be fallacious. What came next was a brutal encounter, one which involved scuffles and fist-fights throughout the game. The referee was forced to call 42 free-kicks and three players were sent off for violent conduct during the game that would later be dubbed as “The Battle of Bern”.

The conflict didn’t even cease at full-time as players, officials and fans went after each other after the referee had blown the final whistle. Even Hungarian manager Sebes wasn’t spared as he was hit and had to get four stitches on his face after the game. Sebes later described the contest as “a brutal, savage match.”

Amidst all the chaos, Hungary won 4-2.

After beating the 1950 World Cup runners-up in the quarter-final, the confident Hungarians beat the 1950 winners Uruguay - who had never been defeated at the World Cup before - in the semi-finals. The result might have gone their way, but this was the first time Hungary looked vulnerable in a really long while. The Hungarians, perhaps still shaken after the game against Brazil, lost a two-goal lead and had to rely on extra time to get through to the final.

The Miracle of Bern 

West Germany’s legendary manager Sepp Herberger had taken notice of Hungary’s short-comings, as minor as they might have been, in the build-up to the final. He had noticed that the dream team could be rattled if physicality was used a tactic to muddle their free-flowing rhythm. In fact, even when the two sides had played in the group stages, Herberger had set up his team to play physically to counter the skill and finesse of the opposition. Looking at the score line, you might think that the tactic failed miserably but Puskas was injured in the game and had missed most of the tournament because of it.

Ferenc Puskas
Puskas opens the scoring in the final

West Germany were also now a much more confident side. They had humiliated rivals and pre-war giants Austria 6-1 in the semis. Striker Helmuth Rahn – a player who was not even in the initial squad for the World Cup - was turning out to be one of the stars of the tournament.

In the final, Sebes decided to risk Ferenc Puskas, who according to most witnesses, wasn’t filly fit. Eight minutes into the game and all was forgotten, as Puskas and Zoltan Czibor scored to give Hungary a 2-0 lead even before the West Germans got a proper feel of the ball. Another footballing master class from Hungarians looked on the cards. The Germans weren’t giving up though; as Max Morlock pulled one back just a couple of minutes later. The 64,000 capacity crowd at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern had already been enthralled by the football on display and it had been just 10 minutes since the referee blew the whistle for the start of the game.

West Germany stayed on the front foot and equalised from a corner as Rahn coming in at the far post slammed the ball into the back of the net. The Hungarians cried for a foul on goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, but saw their cries shrugged away by the referee. 18 minutes and it was 2-2. After the second goal, the Hungarians were shell-shocked. They didn’t know what had hit them. The Germans seemed the more sanguine team as the first half wore on and they took the game to Sebes’ men, something the latter weren’t used to.

In the second half, it was a different story. The Hungary that everyone knew and admired was back. They attacked from the word go and the Germans had to show all their grit and determination to hold the mighty attackers in the opposition ranks at bay. The German defence were putting on a heroic display. German goalkeeper Toni Turek, who had earlier made a shocking error for Czibor’s goal, was now playing like a man who had the cumulative powers of all super heroes the comic world had seen.

Going into the last 10 minutes of normal time, it looked like it would be either fizzle out in a draw or the German defence would finally be broken. But then, there was Helmuth Rahn. The player known as “The Boss”, received the ball at the edge of the German penalty area after a quick one-two with a teammate, beat one defender and smashed the ball into the bottom corner.

Helmut Rahn
Gyula Grosics can only watch as Helmut Rahn’s powerful shot beats him

Grosics could only watch as the stadium watched in shock. “TOOOOOOOOOOR”, screamed the German commentator, a term that is part of German football folklore even today. The Germans had done the impossible. They had beaten perhaps the greatest football team ever known to man. The sport was never going to be the same again, for either of the two nations.

Post the game, there were excuses aplenty from the Hungarians. They blamed almost everything, from the referee – who had ruled out a late Puskas strike for offside – to declaring that the German players were on drugs and thus, were able to match up to the prowess of the Hungarians. Some even blamed the defeat on black magic. None of these accusations took much media space as the game was seen as a triumph for the underdog in the most adverse of circumstances. 

The Repercussions

After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, many stars from the Hungarian dream team were forced to live in exile and never played for the national team again. They spent the rest of their career, playing club football on foreign shores. In the following decade, the Magyars did manage to reach the quarter-finals at the 1962 and 1966 World Cups. Since 1966, they have made only three appearances at the tournament and have never managed to get past the first round. The last time they qualified for the World Cup was in 1982 and have been in a footballing abyss since. 60 years on, Hungarian football is yet to recuperate from the shocking blow it took at Bern.

It has been a completely different story for the Germans. A country torn apart by World War II, this was an important victory as it showed the world that they were back and were now a force to be reckoned with, not only in political circles but also on the sporting front. Germany have gone to become one of the biggest superpowers in football over the years. The 1974 World Cup winning team, probably inspired by the heroics of 1954, came from behind to beat a much-fancied Dutch team in the final. A lot of parallels can be drawn from the two games.

Speaking on the impact of the 1954 final on the 1974 players, German legend Franz Beckenbauer said: "For anybody who grew up in the misery of the post-war years, Bern was an extraordinary inspiration. The entire country regained its self-esteem." 

Germany was a country re-born. A miracle in Bern had given hope to a whole generation in the country. In the end, the biggest losers in the war turned to be the biggest winners on sport’s biggest stage.

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