The World Cup headed back to Europe in 1954 with Switzerland been confirmed as hosts back in 1946. There were fewer boycotts than the previous tournament with Argentina the notable exception. Both German nations were readmitted along with Japan, but only West Germany qualified while South Korea became the first independent Asian nation to qualify with Turkey and Scotland also making their debuts in the 16-team field.
The format was changed back to a group phase followed by knock out quarterfinals. FIFA, however, provided a twist; the groups all containing four teams would see each team play just two games. Many sniffed an agenda to keep the favorites apart until the final, however, nobody was in any doubt who the favorites were.
The Magical Magyars
No team has ever entered a World Cup as hotter favorites than Hungary in ’54. Dubbed the ‘Magical Magyars’, Hungary entered the tournament 31 games unbeaten, Olympic Champions and had trounced England twice within the year leading up to the finals. Manager Gustav Sebes had developed an innovative 2-3-3-2 formation. The key to the innovative system was the use of Nandor Hidegkuti as a deep lying forward, while Jozsef Bozsik was an early exponent of the box-to-box midfield role. The core of the team was completed by legendary goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, winger Zoltan Czibor, striker Sandor Kocsis and the star forward Ferenc Puskas.
Hungary bolted out of the gate, thrashing South Korea 9-0 with Kocsis collecting a hat-trick and Puskas a brace, it remains a record World Cup win. Next up was West Germany, who had come from behind to beat Turkey 4-1. Hungary were again devastating, as Kocsis scored another four. While a quickfire double from Hidegkuti had the Magyars home and dry early in the second half, the Germans added a couple of consolation goals. Still, it was Hungary who won by a thumping 8-3. However, Hungary suffered a major blow when persistent fouling on Puskas had left the talisman with a hairline fracture of the ankle and out of the quarter and semifinals.
South American Challengers
The team most felt could seriously challenge Hungary were Brazil. In their re-designed yellow and blue kit, Brazil had a formidable midfield duo in Pinheiro and Didi. There was creativity in winger Julinho, but they no longer had Ademir up front with Baltazar now the main forward. Brazil got a dream start with a 5-0 hiding of Mexico. Brazil then found themselves behind against Yugoslavia. Didi grabbed a second half equalizer, but even after extra time, the score remained 1-1. The Yugoslavs had already beaten France, while Brazil’s reward was a quarterfinal with Hungary.
Defending champions Uruguay were getting their first experience of a European World Cup. They were still captained by the inspirational Obdulio Varela, while striker Oscar Miguez was another notable hold over from 1950. However, World Cup final hero Alcides Ghiggia was no longer in Uruguay’s ranks. Uruguay began with a conservative 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia with Miguez finally getting the breakthrough after 71 minutes. In the same group, Austria beat newcomers Scotland 1-0 thanks to an Erich Probst goal. With the oddity of the group format meaning Austria and Uruguay didn’t face each other, both knew avoiding defeat in the second group game would see them through. Both made light work of their final group games, with Uruguay completing a miserable tournament debut for Scotland in a 7-0 romp. Meanwhile, Probst hit a 24-minute hat-trick as Austria pounded the Czechs, 5-0.
Those hefty defeats to Hungary had finally seen England wake up to the need for change if they were to succeed in a World Cup. Manager Walter Winterbottom was crafting a more tactical and technical approach, but England’s hopes were relatively modest in Switzerland. Winterbottom’s squad was talented with legends Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews blended with emerging talents in Manchester United duo Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor and the predatory forward Nat Lofthouse. In their opener against Belgium, Ivor Broadis’ brace had given England a 3-1 lead, only to concede twice in quick succession to force extra time. Lofthouse regained the lead, but again it was squandered and a 4-4 draw meant England would have to beat hosts Switzerland to be sure of progressing.
The Swiss themselves were not amongst the favorites, but got their tournament up and running with a late Seppe Hugi goal, giving them a 2-1 win over Italy. Winterbottom rotated his attack to face Switzerland and was rewarded with the recalled Jimmy Mullen and Dennis Wilshaw scoring in an impressive 2-0 England win; the embarrassment of 1950 would not be repeated. Italy had rebounded from defeat to beat Belgium and force a playoff against the Swiss. For the rematch, Hugi was again a thorn in Italy’s side. Striker Robert Ballaman was on target to give the Swiss a 2-0 lead. Italy managed to halve the deficit, but Hugi was on hand again to grab the third late on as Switzerland ran out 4-1 winners.
West Germany On The Up
The devastating 8-3 trouncing from Hungary left West Germany needing a playoff to qualify for the knockout phase. Had tiebreakers been decided on goal difference, they’d already have been eliminated. The strange format meant the playoff would be against Turkey, who the Germans had already beaten 4-1 in their opener. Turkey had got their campaign back on track with a 7-0 hiding of hapless South Korea, with Lefter Kucukandonyadis hitting a goal of the tournament contender with a stunning volley.
The West Germans were not a team of stars, they did however have an inspirational captain in midfielder Fritz Walter, while strikers Max Morlock and Ottmar Walter were a handful for any defence. West Germany got a dream start in the playoff with Walter grabbing the opener after just seven minutes. In a high-scoring encounter, Morlock gave the Germans a 3-1 cushion at halftime. West Germany were finding a groove with Morlock too hot for Turkey to handle, completing a hat-trick as the Germans ran out 7-2 winners to book a quarterfinal against Yugoslavia.
Goalfests in the Last Eight
The last eight threw up some intriguing matches as England faced Uruguay and the hosts took on Austria on the first day of the quarterfinals. In Basel, England goalkeeper Gilbert Merrick made two poor mistakes as Carlos Borges and then Varella gave Uruguay a 2-1 lead. Uruguay looked to have the game secured when Pepe Schiaffino scored to make it 3-1. England stormed back with 39-year old Matthews a constant threat on the wing, a goalmouth scramble in the 67th minute saw Finney keep his cool to slot home and reduce the deficit to 3-2. The game ebbed and flowed in an end to end half, but it was Uruguay who got the crucial goal when Javier Ambrois scored with 11 minutes to play to send Uruguay into the last four.
Meanwhile in Lausanne, an even more dramatic match was unfolding between the hosts and Austria. Ballaman opened the scoring with a fine solo effort and Hugi scored twice in three minutes to put Switzerland 3-0 up after only 19 minutes. Austria hit back with Theodor Wagner starting the comeback with a rasping effort. A minute later, Alfred Korner added a second and Wagner equalized to make it 3-3 after 27 minutes. Switzerland were stunned and Austria weren’t done with Ernst Ocwirk giving them the lead and Korner made it 3-5 before Ballaman pulled one back on 39 minutes. Korner was given a guilt-edged chance for his hat-trick, but missed a penalty, leaving the halftime score an astonishing 4-5.
The crowd drew their breath and it took just eight minutes for the goal glut to resume with Wagner wrapping up his hat-trick for 4-6. Seven minutes later, Hugi scored again to keep Switzerland in touching distance. The goals finally stopped flowing as Switzerland searched for an equalizer, but they were finally finished off by Erich Probst’s 76th-minute strike for 5-7. It remains the highest-scoring encounter in World Cup history. In the aftermath, fingers were pointed at Switzerland captain and key defender Roger Bocquet, with critics labelling his performance as ‘in a sort of trance’. It later transpired he was suffering from a brain tumor for which he later underwent a life-saving operation.
The Battle of Bern
The next day in a rainy Bern came the headline act of the quarterfinals: Hungary vs Brazil. With Puskas injured, Brazil sensed their chance, but it was Hungary who took an early lead through Hidegkuti. Kocsis made it 2-0 after just eight minutes. Brazil pulled a goal back from the penalty spot to make it 2-1 at halftime. Those hopes lasted until the 60th minute when Hungary won a penalty in which Mihaly Lantos dispatched for 3-1, prompting a furious pitch invasion from Brazilian officials. With tempers boiling over, the game descended into a series of increasingly brutal fouls. Brazil were awarded a penalty which Djalma Santos put away to send the score back to 3-2. The cynical fouling continued when Nilton Santos brought down Bozsik, causing a fight and eventually two dismissals. With all control lost, Brazil’s Humberto kicked out at Gyula Lorant and was issued his marching orders. Kocsis reminded everyone this was a football match with his second goal arriving in the 88th minute. However, the final minutes descended into running battles as Hungary claimed a bruising 4-2 win.
Quickly dubbed the ‘Battle of Bern’, the game remains one of the most violent matches in World Cup history with three sendings off and an eye-watering 42 fouls. The trouble didn’t stop with the final whistle, as more fighting on the pitch occurred and the Brazilians invaded the Hungarian dressing room. The final act saw Puskas enter the Brazilian dressing room and smash Pinheiro with a bottle. Referee Arthur Ellis later labelled the game a disgrace and stated he didn’t send more players off simply ensure the match wasn’t abandoned.
Clash of the Titans
After the drama in Bern, the final quarterfinal passed by almost unnoticed as West Germany continued their surprise run with a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia. In the semifinal, they faced Austria in what most expected to be a tight encounter. True to form, the first half was close with Hans Schaefer giving the Germans the slender first half lead. The sides exchanged goals early in the second half, but on 54 minutes, West Germany won a penalty which Fritz Walter dispatched. As Austria poured forward, West Germany exposed them on the counter. Ottmar Walter quickly made it 4-1 as Austria fell apart, and two more goals saw West Germany into the final.
Impressive as West Germany’s win was, it was the other semifinal that captured the world’s attention with the holders taking on the favorites. Hungary were still without Puskas, but they got a fast start with a nicely-worked move playing Czibor through for the opening goal. In the first minute of the second half, Hungary got what appeared to be the killer goal through Hidegkuti’s close-range header. Uruguay had never lost a World Cup match and weren’t about to surrender their crown without a fight. The spirit of 1950 was rekindled when Juan Hohhberg halved the deficit on 75 minutes. As the minutes ticked down, Hungary became edgy and Hohhberg got clear again. He appeared to have fluffed his chance, but at the second attempt, he poked home for 2-2 and extra time.
Uruguay were exhausted, but another Maracana miracle was within their grasp. The first period of extra went without a goal, but it was Hungary on the front foot. With 11 minutes remaining, Kocsis made his mark on the game, heading home for 3-2 and the predatory forward glanced in again on 116 minutes to send Hungary to the final.
The Miracle of Bern
Ahead of the final, Sebes had a huge call to make on whether or not to pick the half-fit Puskas. Even without Puskas, Hungary were overwhelming favorites, having thrashed the Germans 8-3 in the group phase. One thing the Hungarians couldn’t control was the weather and as the teams arrived at Bern’s Wankdorf Stadium, the rain was pouring down. Fritz Walter was particularly efficient in wet weather and West Germany’s boots came with the new innovation of changeable studs. Crucially, West Germany’s strong performances in the knockout phase had cemented a settled team in the mind of coach Sepp Herberger with right winger Helmut Rahn now a starter.
Puskas was declared fit enough to play and lead his team out for the final. It took just six minutes for Puskas’ inclusion to be vindicated when Bozsik played in Kocsis, whose shot was blocked, but it fell to Puskas who put Hungary ahead. West Germany were rattled and a defensive mix up just two minutes later saw Czibor go clean through and place the ball into an empty net 2-0 after just eight minutes.
After their horrific start, West Germany quickly regained their composure and Rahn got away down the left side. Hungary failed to clear his cross and left Morlock a simple chance, 2-1 after ten minutes. Morlock was gaining confidence and probing away at the Hungarian defence. After clearing the initial corner threat, Hungary failed to deal with the second corner and Rahn rose to power in the equalizer 2-2 after 18 minutes.
Stunned into action, Hungary pressed forward. A vicious volley from Hidegkuti forced a spectacular save from Toni Turek. Minutes later, he hit the post as Hungary piled on the pressure. Incredibly the scores were still level at halftime. After the restart, Hungary were quickly into their stride and within two minutes, Puskas forced another save from Turek. The pressure continued with West Germany forced into successive goal line clearances.
At the other end, West Germany created almost nothing, having to wait until the 72nd minute for their first meaningful chance of the half. Turek was having the game of his life in the German goal, but on 78 minutes, his resistance looked set to break when he rushed out to block a through ball. The loose ball fell to Hidegkuti, but the forward could only find the side netting.
With six minutes remaining, West Germany countered through Schaefer, who’s cross was only partially cleared. Rahn picked up the loose ball, dummied beautifully to create a shooting chance and fired in for 2-3. Hungary went back on the offensive and Puskas looked to have equalized, only to see his effort ruled out for a contentious offside. Turek was forced into yet another save in injury time but the whistle finally blew, as West Germany were World Champions.
West Germany had arrived in Switzerland rank outsiders and returned home shock winners. Soon dubbed ‘The Miracle of Bern’, the team’s success became a symbol of the new nation’s post war rebirth and set the tone for German tournament teams for decades to come.
As for the Magical Magyars, the team rolled on expecting a second shot at the World Cup in 1958. Those hopes were dashed by political unrest at home. A famous 1-0 win over the Soviet Union in Moscow proved their last act as key players headed west, ending their Hungary careers. Puskas became a legend in club football with the all conquering Real Madrid team, while Kocsis and Czibor emerged as stars for arch rivals Barcelona. Between 1950-56, Hungary’s Golden Team played 50 games, losing just once and remain arguably the greatest team not to win the World Cup.
Beyond the finalists, Switzerland ’54 proved the first truly great World Cup, featuring a succession of high-scoring matches and a record tally of hat-trick heroes. Few World Cups have offered such an array of forward talent and none so many goalfests, no longer a fledging tournament the World Cup was fast becoming the greatest show on Earth.