How did it feel to be Bert Trautmann?

While “The Red Devils” locked horns with “The Eagles”  in the 135th FA Cup, Subhajit Sengupta spun the clock back to take through one such FA Cup final encounter at Wembley when Cù Sìth came to Birmingham’s rescue but was kept at bay by the “The Citizens” custodian, Bert Trautmann.

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

– Bill Shankly must have had a face-off with Bert Trautmann right before he said that. However, his story is not all football centric in nature.

Although English clubs had seldom proved to be a fecund land for Germans, Bert Trautmann remains a name written in golden words in the English FA history. Despite his world class goalkeeping ability, he had to endure a series of agonising controversies from the English fans due to his censured past but Trautmann, by then an altered and far more matured personality, won their hearts and became one of their own. When he took the field on 5th May, 1956, a packed Wembley leaped to its feet in support of their foreign star as “The Citizens” from Manchester were lining up for their second consecutive FA Cup final.

Manchester City F.C. posing for a team photo before 1956 FA Cup final at Wembley (Source:
Manchester City F.C. posing for a team photo before 1956 FA Cup final at Wembley (Source:

Bernhard Carl “Bert” Trautmann was born on 22 October 1923 to a lower middle class family in Bremen. His father used to work in a fertiliser factory by the docks of Walle in west Bremen. The desolate financial struggle in the early 1930s left his father with no choice but to sell their place and moved to the working class area of Gröpelingen. The young Trautmann had a keen interest in outdoor sports especially in football, handball and völkerball (another form of dodgeball). To fulfil his appetite for playing in the green field, he joined the YMCA and football club Blau und Weiss. At a time when the Hitler youth movement was gaining widespread momentum, caught relentlessly by the spirit of the nation, the self-confident, lively but short tempered boy joined the Jungvolk, a precursor to the Hitler Youth. However, the radical political propaganda never interested him as most of his energy was spent in a wide range of sports. He was awarded a certificate for athletic excellence in 1934 signed by Paul von Hindenburg, the President of Germany. But these certificates didn’t earn daily meals for his family. So, at the onset of the Second World War, Trautmann, as the elder son of the family, took the job of an apprentice motor mechanic. Soon after the war broke out, he joined the Luftwaffe as a radio operator in 1941. During his training, he showed little aptitude for the job which resulted in a transfer to Spandau to become a Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper).

Known for his unorthodox sense of humour, Trautmann had paid the price several times. The worst of it came when he was stationed in occupied Poland. One of his practical jokes involving a car backfired on him which resulted in a sergeant burning his arms. As a result, he was court-martialled and received a three-month imprisonment. However, this dark sense of humour helped him in the later course of life to survive the outrage of fans and become an entertainer in the Manchester City dressing room. In October 1941, he re-joined the 35th Infantry Division at Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. Despite his unit  being hit hard by the Soviet counter-offensive force which forced the Germans to withdraw their troop, Unteroffizier (corporal) Trautmann won five medals for his bravery on the Eastern Front, including an Iron Cross First Class and was later promoted to Feldwebel (sergeant) rank. During his time in the German army, he was caught thrice by the Russians, the French and the British soldiers. Though he managed to escape from captivity twice, he did not attempt a third escape from the British army as the war was drawing to a close. During his captivity under the British soldiers, he was imprisoned with other Nazi prisoners and transferred to several Prisoner of War (PoW) camps on different occasions until his final destination at PoW Camp 50 in Ashton-in-Makerfield in Lancashire.

Football was an immensely popular game amongst the prisoners of war and almost instantly Trautmann found his lost love back. He became a regular outfield player for the camp team and widely popular by the name “Bert”, as the English had trouble pronouncing “Bernd”. However, while playing against amateur team Haydock Park, he suffered an injury that forced him to switch his centre-half position with goalkeeper Gunther Luhr. Since then he made 553 senior appearances for three different clubs.

Bert Trautmann dives through the air to tip a shot from Wolves’ Ronald Flowers past his post (Source:
Bert Trautmann dives through the air to tip a shot from Wolves’ Ronald Flowers past his post (Source:

After the closure of the PoW camp, Trautmann declined an offer of repatriation and stayed in England. He took a job in a bomb disposal unit in Huyton but his love for the game started to write a different future of fame for him. The first of which came his way in August of 1948 when he signed for the non-league Liverpool County Combination club in St Helens Town. Over the season the big German’s reputation grew steadily and, almost inevitably, he became the centre of everyone’s attraction. He pulled up a record number of crowd to witness his acrobatic display between the posts regularly contributing to the club’s revenue. With his success, St Helens Town got promoted to second division of the Lancashire Combination League in 1949–50 season and Trautmann caught the eyes of the leading first division clubs. Burnley initially became favourites and landed him at Turf Moor; but in November 1949 Manchester City acquired his signature, and within a few weeks, Trautmann found himself in first division action. Moreover, his friendship with Adolf Dassler, founder of the German sportswear company Adidas, helped him to become the first sportsman in Britain to sport Adidas.

As the news of the big German’s signing spread across the media, all of England including the home fans reacted furiously. Season ticket holders threatened to boycott, and various groups in Manchester and around the country flooded the club with protest letters. Adding to the difficulties, Trautmann replaced Frank Swift, one of the greatest keepers in the club’s history and that turned out to be something unacceptable to the fans. The club captain Eric Westwood tried to minimize the hatred amongst the home crowd by announcing “There’s no war in this dressing room”. Dr Altmann, the communal rabbi of Manchester wrote an open letter stating “Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans, we would not try to punish an individual German, who is unconnected with these crimes, out of hatred. If this footballer is a decent fellow, I would say there is no harm in it. Each case must be judged on its own merits”. Yet the situation continued to worsen in the away matches. This reached its peak in January 1950, when City travelled to Craven Cottage, which was also Trautmann’s first visit to London. The match became the centre of widespread media attention as most of the leading British press were London-based. Amongst the crowd, several leading sports writers came to watch the German in action for the first time. During the 90 minutes of action, the crowds yelled “Kraut”, “Nazi” and “Heil Hitler” chants as Fulham managed a narrow 1-0 victory in the end. After the final whistle a different chant surrounded Craven Cottage. Trautmann’s magnificent display resulted in the majority of the crowd giving him a standing ovation and the Fulham players formed a spontaneous guard of honour as he left the pitch.

Bert Trautmann takes to the skies to deny Fulham at Craven Cottage in 1950 (Source:
Bert Trautmann takes to the skies to deny Fulham at Craven Cottage in 1950 (Source:

In spite of this wide spread hatred and his cult image, he remained calm. His dignified reaction spoke volumes for his strength of character. Only few would have known how much the war had changed him. The deaths and bloodshed that he faced tore him inside out. Talking about the true horrors of war, Trautmann recalled the memory of one dark cold night in Russia in October, 1941 when he and his fellow paratrooper Peter Kularz went out to investigate the sounds of shooting and they saw an area in the forest lit up with floodlights. “It was hard to take in. There were trenches dug in the ground about three metres deep and fifty metres long, and people were being herded into them and ordered to lie face down, men, women and children. Einsatzgruppen officers stood above, legs astride, shouting; a firing squad was lined up at the edge of the trenches, shooting into them. For a while everything went quiet, then another group was ordered forward and the firing squad shot another salvo into the trench”. Both of them crawled away from the place and ran for their lives as there could not be any witnesses. But these scenes made a deep impact on his later life and views. “Of course it touched me seeing this. If I’d been a bit older I’d probably have committed suicide.” But luckily he lived and became one of the most-loved and widely respected artists of the beautiful game.

The opening season at the Maine Road went dreadfully for Trautmann as City were relegated to the second division but Trautmann and company bounced back immediately. They were promoted to the first division again in the next season. By then the German had caught the eye of the country and even further. Trautmann was heavily influenced by the Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics who used to create attack by throwing the ball to a wing-half. Trautmann’s huge commanding figure combined with agility and sharp reflexes along with his fearless attitude made him a showman. His astonishing ability to grab powerful shots calmly into his enormous arms and the precision with which he stopped spot kicks made him a worthy successor of Frank Swift. Over the course of his career he stopped 60% of the spot kicks he faced. Manchester United manager Matt Busby once mentioned during his pre-match team talks: “Don’t stop to think where you’re going to hit it with Trautmann. Hit it first and think afterwards. If you look up and work it out he will read your thoughts and stop it.” Almost a similar statement was recorded from his fellow club mate Neil Young: “the only way to beat him with a shot in training was to mis-hit it”. All these testimonials only enriched his career but he was still yet to enter the football folklore.

Manchester United manager Matt Busby once mentioned during his pre-match team talks: “Don't stop to think where you're going to hit it with Trautmann. Hit it first and think afterwards. If you look up and work it out he will read your thoughts and stop it.”

In 1955, City went on to the FA Cup final for the fifth time, having won only twice in 1904 and 1934. Les McDowall and Don Revie’s newly formed system “Revie Plan” had worked out their way and they were only 90 minutes away from ending the two decade draught of winning the trophy. Unfortunately, Doug Livingstone’s men turned out to be even stronger than “The Sky Blues” of Manchester. Foggy weather and nerves got the better of McDowall’s men. Jackie Milburn took only 45 seconds to give the lead to the “Magpies”. Jimmy Meadows’ injury after 18 minutes added further to the problem as City were left with 10 men for the remaining 72 minutes as in those days the substitute rule hadn’t yet taken effect. The match ended in a comfortable 3-1 victory for Newcastle. Trautmann became the first German to feature in a FA cup final but he was still a long way from the glory.

Bert Trautmann turns his back on the play as snow is whipped into his face during Manchester City’s chilly FA Cup tie against Luton in 1955 (Source:
Bert Trautmann turns his back on the play as snow is whipped into his face during Manchester City’s chilly FA Cup tie against Luton in 1955 (Source:

City captain Roy Paul promised after the defeat that he would return to lift the trophy himself 12 months later and with him Trautmann also made a promise to himself: One must cross a mountain between the sticks to help the ball cross the white goal line. They both kept their words. City reached their consecutive second FA Cup final in 1956. City’s road to the final had drawn more sweat from them than Birmingham, the other finalist in that season. They had several close finishes, and even had to play a replay against Liverpool after failing to break the deadlock at Maine Road. On the other hand, Birmingham scored 18 goals in their last five games to reach the final. Quite naturally they were considered “firm favourites” to win the tie but despite the struggling run, Roy Paul and company vowed that they would fight till the final whistle all guns blazing. Who would have thought that their custodian Trautmann, who became the first goalkeeper to win the FWA Footballer of the Year award only two days before the match, was about to create history.

Manchester City keeper Bert Trautmann bows his head as he is introduced to HRH, The Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Phillip) before the 1956 FA Cup Final (Source:
Manchester City keeper Bert Trautmann bows his head as he is introduced to HRH, The Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Phillip) before the 1956 FA Cup Final (Source:

Both teams implemented similar formation typical of the era, 3-4-2-1. However, they deployed different tactical approaches. Birmingham, with a strong their defence, relied on powerful tackling and strong final challenges. They had a conventional open direct English approach: getting the ball to the outside-forwards as quickly as possible. But City successfully deployed their “Revie Plan” this time. The system involved using Don Revie in a deeper position than a traditional centre-forward in order to draw a defender out of position. City took only three minutes to break the deadlock. Don Revie created the move, exchanged quick passes with Roy Clarke and then back-heeled into the path of an unmarked Joe Hayes who rattled the back of the net to shake Birmingham’s confidence.

1 – 0 to City.

City kept pressing Birmingham with a series of counter attacks resulting in a number of corners but the opponents replied on the 15th minute mark. Gordon Astall poked a loose ball to Eddy Brown who suddenly felt optimistic and fired a powerful inbound shot which took a deflection off a City defender into the path of Welsh international inside‑forward Noel Kinsey. He fired home through Trautmann’s far post.

1 – 1.

With the sudden blow, Birmingham gained momentum and kept the pressure on City for the remainder of the first half. Eddy Brown twice netted the ball but both times he was ruled offside. In the second half, City made some strategic changes in their play. They concentrated on a possession-based football that made their opponents chase the ball, while Ken Barnes maintained a high line of defence and started to play in a more advance role. The change of plan worked for them. Right after the hour mark, Bobby Johnstone and Jack Dyson struck twice to take the lead to 3 – 1 in City’s favour. Just when it looked like City were going to lift their third title, something unexpected happened. With 17 minutes remaining, Birmingham forward Peter Murphy outpaced City defender Dave Ewing and rushed into the 18 yards box. Trautmann made a decisive call and dived at the feet of Murphy to win the ball only to end up suffering a fatal collision as Murphy’s right knee hit Trautmann’s neck with a forceful blow. Trautmann was knocked unconscious. Referee Alf Bond stopped play immediately.

The save that could have cost Trautmann’s life (Source:
The save that could have cost Trautmann’s life (Source:

City trainer Laurie Barnett rushed on to the pitch and treatment continued for several minutes. Barnett knew that Trautmann would not be able to continue for the remaining part, hence full back Roy Little was chosen to keep the goal and while they would play with ten men as substitutes were not permitted in those days.

Manchester City trainer Laurie Barnett checks on the condition of groggy goalkeeper Bert Trautmann during the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham (Source:
Manchester City trainer Laurie Barnett checks on the condition of groggy goalkeeper Bert Trautmann during the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham (Source:

When it seemed that City’s hope for the silverware had been dealt a big challenge, Trautmann did something supernatural. He stood up on his feet dazed and unsteady and insisted on keeping goal until the final whistle. City defenders tried to clear the ball as far as possible whenever it came near the box but in spite of that, Trautmann had to make two further crucial saves from Eddy Brown and Peter Murphy to deny Birmingham from coming back into the match. One such save resulted in another collision with City defender Dave Ewing that left Trautmann in complete agony. After the final whistle, City registered their third FA Cup title, ending the two decade drought and with it, Bert Trautmann entered football folklore. As the players left the field, the crowd sang a chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as a tribute to Trautmann’s bravery.

Bert Trautmann is escorted to the touchline by his Manchester City teammates after injuring himself in the line of duty during the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham City at Wembley (Source:
Bert Trautmann is escorted to the touchline by his Manchester City teammates after injuring himself in the line of duty during the 1956 FA Cup Final against Birmingham City at Wembley (Source:

Three days after the final, doctors at Manchester Royal Infirmary revealed that he had dislocated five vertebrae, the second of which was cracked in two. The third vertebra had wedged against the second, preventing further damage which could have cost Trautmann his life.

Trautmann took a long time before coming back to the field again which resulted in him missing a large part of the 1956-57 season. Even after he regained his place in the starting XI, he lacked his confidence. The following 1957-58 season, City became the only English first division side till date to both score and concede 100 goals in a season. He could sense that he was not the same keeper he used to be but he didn’t give up. He slowly picked up the pieces and in 1960, he became the first German to be selected for the Football League, an honour compounded when he was awarded the captaincy.

 Manchester City after winning the 1956 FA Cup (Source:
Manchester City after winning the 1956 FA Cup (Source:

Being a football romantic, I’ve considered this question many times. How did it feel to be Bert Trautmann? A man having his hands stained with the blood of innocents. Should I detest him for his actions as a German soldier or should I respect him for the artist he was on the green field? Then Trautmann answered “I volunteered when I was 17,” he said. “People say ‘why?’, but when you are a young boy war seems like an adventure. Then, when you’re involved in fighting its very different, you see all the horrible things that happen, the death, the bodies, the scariness. You can’t control yourself. Your whole body is shaking and you’re making a mess in your pants.” He also recollected how England had changed him. “When people ask me about life, I say my education began when I got to England. I learnt about humanity, tolerance and forgiveness.” Bert Trautmann showed us the way of reforming ones character. Of course he made terrible mistakes in his life. Being a part of Hitler’s army that killed millions of innocent people, leaving behind Margaret Friar, his first wife while she was pregnant…they all seem unforgivable sins but we must remember that human beings tend to make mistakes and the greatest example of humanity is set only by learning from the mistakes and rectifying them. Trautmann did exactly the same. He became such an icon whom people followed, not only for his goalkeeping excellence but also for his humanist ideology. Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, England international Gordon Banks, these are some of the names who had cited Trautmann as their inspiration. What’s interesting is that in order to come back to a normal life, he chose a lifeless object that over the ages had spread life into countless lives. Football.

In spite of being considered as one of the best goalkeepers of his era, he never got the opportunity to represent his homeland. He met with the German national coach Sepp Herberger in 1953 who explained that travel and political implications prevented him from selecting a player who was not readily available but he could consider including Trautmann if he were playing in a German league.

Bernhard Carl Trautmann played his testimonial match for Manchester City in 1964 where more than 47,000 people came to watch the master for the very last time.

Police struggle to get Bert Trautmann through the swarm of fans who mobbed him after his testimonial at Maine Road in 1964 (Source:
Police struggle to get Bert Trautmann through the swarm of fans who mobbed him after his testimonial at Maine Road in 1964 (Source:

After his retirement, he had hoped for the managerial role at Maine Road but he was left disappointed. An initial financial setback struck him but his love for the game never faded away. He started his managerial role from Stockport County. Later he went back to his homeland to manage Preußen Münster and Opel Rüsselsheim. Though he lacked silverware as a manager, his work caught the right attention and, subsequently, took him to managing Burma, Tanzania, Liberia, Pakistan and North Yemen. On 19th July, 2013, when Trautmann breathed his last, he didn’t have his Iron Cross with him, but had only the love of the people he earned through his transformed life in the green field.

There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester – Trautmann. Lev Ivanovich Yashin


Last rays of sunshine before the clouds of war

The winning Italian team with their coach Vittorio Pozzo holding aloft the trophy

The times were dark and difficult in Europe when the World Cup was awarded to the land of its founders – France, by FIFA. The second tournament had given the people a glimpse of ‘Fascism’. By 1938, the entire continent was reeling under the spectre of fascism and its leaders, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.  The outlook in the continent was bleak and depressing as the people could feel that they were hurtling towards a war which none of them wanted but had to endure due to the whims of their leaders.

Italians came into the tournament as overwhelming favourites to retain their trophy. The charismatic Italian coach, Vittorio Pozzo had retained only three players from the 1934 World Cup winning team – Guiseppe Meazza, Eraldo Monzeglio and Giovanni Ferrari. To this were added three good players from the Olympics team- Alfredo Foni, Pietro Rava and Ugo Locatelli. This time there was only one South American – the Uruguayan, Michele Andreolo who was playing in the same position as the great Luis Monti. Above all, the Italians had the best forward in Europe- Silvio Piola.   The team whom the Italians had defeated in the Olympics final, Austria, were still a very strong side despite their ageing forward line of Matthias Sindelar and Josef Bican.  Hungary had developed into a side with very fluid ball playing skills and a lot of goal scoring ability with Gyorgy Sarosi and Gyula Zsengeller. Czechoslovakia, the last runners up were back with Frantisek Plánička, Oldrich Nejedlý and Antonin Puč, the heroes of the 1934 tournament. Brazil had not played an international in a year but they had in their ranks a then unknown genius by the name of Leonidas who had not played for the national team for four years. Spain was embroiled in a bitter civil war and did not participate. There were a lot of debutantes amongst the nations with Cuba and Dutch East Indies, the first Asian country to play in the finals.  The first match was scheduled on 4th June in Paris, and the rest of the seven matches in seven different cities the following day.

Leonidas the top scorer in 1938 Silvio Piola player of the tournament

On March 12, the Third Reich under Hitler invaded Austria under their policy of Anschluss, which aimed at integrating all German speaking countries. The Austrian FA subsequently informed FIFA that they had ceased to exist as a national federation and team. This was later dubbed as ‘Shame of 1938’ in the football world. The Germans immediately drafted seven Austrian players into their national team. It was very unfortunate that one of the best teams was out of the tournament even before the matches had started. England was offered Austria’s place in the tournament, which they refused. Had England played, with players like Sir Stanley The Magician Matthews, Cliff Bastin, Ted Drake and Eddie Hapgood, they might have made an impact. Mexicans also pulled out allowing Cuba to make their debut in the tournament. Uruguay refused to participate as their bid to host the tournament had been rejected by FIFA. Argentina, the Copa America champions also refused to participate protesting against the FIFA decision to hold the tournament in Europe. Finally fifteen teams played in the tournament, with Austria being the only casualty from the confirmed list.

The format of this tournament was the same as the last edition with all matches being knock-outs and subsequent replays in case of a draw. The replays were luckily not on the very next day, allowing the teams some recovery time.  The previous World Cup had only a single match which was drawn; in contrast this edition had a spate of draws and replays. The opening match pitted the German team, complete with five Austrians in their starting line-up, against the industrious Swiss who were a good team in their own right. The Germans dominated the match and took the lead in the 29th minute. The Swiss equalised through a defensive error in the 43rd minute and held on till the end of extra time due to the heroics of their goalkeeper, Willy Huber who pulled off a string of spectacular saves. The replay was held five days later and this time it was the Swiss who prevailed in a 4-2 victory. The media proclaimed that the brave little Swiss had humbled the mighty Nazis, but in reality the German team with its mix of Austrians did not gel well enough to be a good team.  Cubans, who were making their debut, surprised the Romanians holding them to a 3-3 draw. The replay was possibly the first big upset of the World Cup as the Cubans defeated their more fancied European opponents 2-1, mainly due to the acrobatic saves by their keeper, Juan Ayra. In the first real World Cup mismatch, Hungary played the Dutch East Indies. The French press had dubbed the Asians as diminutive dynamos and terrific dribblers. The captain of their team played in glasses and their goal keeper brought a man-sized doll which he placed behind his goal for good luck. The Asians though very good dribblers were very poor passers and even worse in defensive acumen. The Hungarians scored four goals in the first half and then availed themselves of passing practice and still managed to score two further goals for a 6-0 win. The hosts, France defeated Belgium easily using a crisp passing and attack oriented game, 3-1. The last three matches of the 1st round were all classics.

Czechoslovakia was held to a goalless draw in normal time by a plucky Dutch side playing with ten men due to an injury to a player in the second half as there were no substitutions allowed then. Eventually, the finalists of the last tournament began to have some cohesion in the play of their forwards in extra time. Nejedlý and Josef Zeman scored after Josef Košťálek had put them ahead with a long range shot. The Czechoslovakians won with a 3-0 score line which did not reflect how closely contested the match had been. The Italians had won the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics where they met stiff resistance from two sides – Austria, in the final and Norway, in the semi-finals. The former was no longer a threat due to Italy’s ally, Germany and their military forces, the latter was the opponent of the defending champions in the first match. Italy took an early lead when the Norwegian goalkeeper could not keep control of Ferrari’s shot. After that, Italy were on the mat for the rest of the ninety minutes. Piola was marked and the wingers made ineffective by the Scandinavians. The Norwegians were also a constant threat in the front. Eventually they equalised through Arne Brustad in the 83rd minute skipping past Eraldo Monzeglio, his designated marker. Pozzo dropped Monzeglio for the rest of the tournament. Italy’s chances were kept alive in the game by two players – Pietro Rava, the left back who kept the speedy opposition winger Knut Brynildson at bay and the other saviour being Aldo Olivieri, the goalkeeper who was so outstanding that even the opposition forwards shook hands with him after a few of his phenomenal saves. The Italians managed to find the winner in extra time due to the error of the opposition goalkeeper, Henry Jacobsen who dropped a weak shot by Piero Pasinati and Piola pounced to send the ball in the back of the net. The referee, Alois Beranek was another Austrian making a guest appearance for Nazi Germany. The best match of this round was the clash between Brazil and Poland, a genuine contender for the ‘greatest match of football’.  Brazil took the lead through Leonidas, only to see the bizarre sight of his defender, Domigos bringing down Ernest Wilmowski with a perfect Rugby tackle to concede a penalty which was converted by Fryderyk Scherfke. The Brazilian forwards were luckily much better than their defenders and Romeu and Jose Perácio put them 3-1 ahead at half time. The pitch was muddy and Leonidas had torn the sole of his boot in the 10th minute. He took the shoes off and tried to play bare-feet, but was promptly ordered by Eklind, the referee not to do so. He just ripped off his sole and played the rest of the match wearing his boot minus the sole. The second half belonged to the 21 year old young Polish striker, Ernst Wilmowski. He scored a hat-trick to take the match into extra time. His third goal came in the 89th minute to equalise a Perácio goal which had put Brazil up 4-3 in the 71st minute. In extra time, Leonidas took over and scored two goals in the first half of added time. Wilmowski scored in the 118th minute and also hit the post a minute later to end up with four goals and on the losing side. Wilomowski was made to play in friendlies representing Germany, after Poland was invaded from 1939 to 1944 albeit having to change his first name Earnst to please his Nazi rulers. Sweden did not have to play in the first round due to the absence of Austria and qualified directly to the quarter finals.

The quarterfinals had Italy against France, Sweden playing the giant killers Cuba, Hungary taking on Switzerland and an intriguing clash between Brazil and Czechoslovakia.  The Swedish team routed the Cubans, who looked out of their depth. Two Swedes scored hat-tricks in an 8-0 trouncing.  The Swiss were without two of the heroes from the match against Germany, Minelli and Aeby, who had not recovered from the replay. The Hungarians bossed the match with goals by Sarosi and Zsengeller in each half. The Swiss just couldn’t get past the excellent defensive pair of Lajos Koranyi and Sandor Biro, the match finished 2-0 in favour of Hungary. The last two editions of the tournament had been won by the hosts. The French supporters were expectant of a repeat of the same. The Italian coach, Pozzo after the tribulations of the Norway match rung in the changes. Monzeglio, a hero of 1934, made way for Alfredo Foni, and two new wingers,  Amadeo Biaveti and Gino Colaussi were included. Italy scored early through Colaussi, and France equalised two minutes later when Oscar Heisserer rifled in his shot. The best French player, Guisti Jordan suggested during halftime that Piola be man marked by Etienne Mattler. Mattler, the French captain also vetoed the idea, stating that it was not the right moment to initiate his career as a man marker. The manager did not seem to have supported the idea as well. This decided the match as Piola scored a brace in the second half to end the participation of the hosts, with the Italians winning 3-1.

The last quarterfinal was dubbed as the battle of Bordeaux, the first match in the tournament to gain such a sobriquet. Paul Von Hertzka, the Hungarian referee, just could not take control of a match where both sides were prone to clumsy defending. The Brazilians took the lead through Leonidas, the film shows him to be in a possible offside position. After the goal, the Brazilians used some physical tactics. Zeze was sent off after a wild tackle on Nejedlý, who later converted a penalty. The match then degenerated into a fighting competition which resulted in Plánička with a broken arm and Nejedlý with a broken leg. Machado had earlier stamped on Puč which left him with torn ligaments. Riha retaliated with a punch and both were duly sent off. The game ended as a 1-1 draw with bodies strewn all around the ground. The replay was just a day later and both teams were forced to make a number of changes due to the bruising match played earlier. The important Czech players could not play while Leonidas could, that was the difference between the two teams.  Leonidas scored the equaliser and set up the winner by Romero to cancel Kopecky’s opening goal enabling Brazil to win 2-1. The semi-final line-ups were complete with Hungary playing Sweden and Italy clashing against Brazil. The first semi-final started like a dream for Sweden, with Nyberg scoring what was then the fastest goal in any edition of the tournament in 35 seconds. After the dreamy start, the Scandinavians came crashing back to the ground as the Hungarians equalised due to a Swedish own goal and their forwards ripped their defence to shreds. Playing their only match against the Cubans was not ideal practice for the Swedes as they were being hammered with Pal Titkos and Zsengeller adding further goals to put Hungary 3-1 at the break. The situation did not improve after the break as Sarosi and Zsengeller scored again. The final score was 5-1 in the favour of the Hungarians. The only flip side was that the Hungarian defender Koranyi was injured and missed the final. One half of the best defensive pairing who had only conceded a single goal in the tournament till then, did not play in the final and it hurt their chances a lot.

The Italians were slowly getting into their stride and improving with every game. Their coach, Pozzo was not afraid to make necessary changes to his side. Brazil was still a dangerous opponent. However, the danger was much reduced when Leonidas did not start. There have been many conspiracy theories behind this omission, the main being the overconfident coach Adhemar Pimenta saving him for the finals. In an interview many years later, the coach revealed that Leonidas had not recovered after playing the two brutal encounters against the Czechoslovakians with a single day of rest. The match was controlled by Italy on a bald pitch, with their mid-fielders and defenders keeping possession. The forwards created quite a few chances with the Brazilian goalkeeper Walter making some good saves to keep the game goalless at halftime. The Italians started imposing their physical superiority on the tiring Brazilians in the second half. Colaussi scored, banging in a shot off a cross from the right wing. Then Piola was brought down by Domingos in the penalty area. To be fair to the Brazilian defender, the foul was that of exasperation as he was being battered by the forwards who liberally used their elbows. The penalty was a great talking point as just when he was placing the ball, the elastic of Meazza’s shorts snapped. The great man now visibly slower had the panache to hold his shorts up by his hand and score high to his left. Brazil pulled one goal back three minutes from the end through Romeu. The Italians then kept possession to round out the match. The defending champions were in their second consecutive final facing yet another fluid and free passing Carpathian nation of Eastern Europe.

As with the last edition, there was a match to determine third place between Brazil and Sweden. Leonidas was back and made captain. Sweden took a 2-0 lead totally against the run of play. Romeu reduced the margin a minute before the break. In the second half, Leonidas imposed himself and scored two goals to give the Brazilians a deserved lead. Peracio added a fourth Brazilian goal for a final score of 4-2. Leonidas finished the tournament as the highest scorer with seven goals; one is but left to wonder what could have been achieved had he played in the semi-final.

Paris was the city which hosted the final at the stadium built for the 1924 Olympics. Before the start of the final, a telegram was sent to the Italian team by their leader Mussolini. It was believed to have contained three ominous words: “Vincere o morire” – “Win or die.” Historians later have debated over the authenticity of the telegram with many dismissing it as a prank. For the Italian team under the iron fist of Fascist rule it must have been a terrifying experience. The French press had huge articles on each of the players of both teams. Sarosi’s running style was showcased in series of photographs.  Italian winger, Amedeo Biavati’s foot over the ball feint was a subject of many debates. On their way to the stadium, the Italian team’s motorcade was held up due to a large number of supporters. Pozzo ordered the driver to turn back to their hotel so his players wouldn’t have to wait in a bus before such an important game. He was possibly the earliest coach who understood that the game is played between the ears as well as on the ground. The Italians made it to the stadium at their second attempt. Both teams employed a 2-3-4-1 formation with Piola and Sarosi as the lone striker. The question was – whether the flowing style of the Danube valley could breach the Italian defensive walls?

Guiseppe Meazza(L), Georges Capdeville- referee(C) & Gyorgy Sarosi(R)

The third World Cup final started on the same ground where the legendary Uruguay side had won their first Olympic gold medal fourteen years ago. The Hungarians brought in Polgar to partner Biro in the defence in place of Koranyi, but the defence was unsettled and lacked the assurance of the previous matches. In the 6th minute, the Italian left half, Ugo Locatelli passed to Meazza in the right wing, who passed to Biavati to run ahead and cross the ball from the right. The Hungarian defence was totally absent and an unmarked Colaussi poked the ball home from close range (1-0). The goalkeepers did not come off their lines then as coming off the line would usually entail the attention of the elbows and fists of the opposing forwards. In the very next minute Hungary was level with Tiktos, the outside right, scoring with a crisp high shot to the near post (1-1). The Italians were not giving the Hungarians the opportunity to play their languid passing style by increasing the pace of the game, another stroke of brilliant strategy from their manager. Sarosi, the Hungarian captain was marked out of the game by Andreolo, the Uruguyan born successor of Luis Monti.

Titkos and Sas the Hungarian wingers were the only threat, and the Italian midfield of Serantoni and Locatelli made sure that they were starved of possession. In addition, the Italians had Silvio Piola the player of the tournament and possibly the best striker of those times. In the 11th minute, Giovanni Ferrari, the Italian inside left hit a twenty yard shot which was fumbled by the Hungarian goalkeeper Antal Szabo; Piola was first to the rebound and his shot came back off the post to maintain the status quo momentarily. In the 16th minute, Piola went through the middle unmarked and passed to Ferrari on his left. Ferrari, who had just the goalkeeper to beat instead of scoring passed it to the right to Meazza, who in turn laid it back to Piola who put an end to this passing around by hitting a right footed drive high into the net inside the near post (2-1). The Hungarian defence did not make a tackle in the midst of all this passing and committed the cardinal sin of not marking Piola. Szabo again stayed on the line. Colaussi scored his second goal of the match in 35th minute by walking in the ball from the same position as his first goal, this time he had Polgar for company with arms around his waist trying to prevent the his scoring (3-1). The defending champions looked in command during the break, two goals up with Hungarian defence in disarray.

Alfredo Foni (ITA)(L) &  Gyula Zsengeller(HUN)
Szabo(R) saves a Piola(L) shot with Biro in centre

The Italians shut up shop in the second half and relied on Biavati’s pace for counter attacks. The Hungarians with all their ball possession could not feed their wingers or penetrate the tight Italian defensive system.  In the 69th minute, Sarosi turned in a left wing cross initiated by Sas from close range to reduce the margin (3-2). All hopes of a Hungarian fight back were quashed when Biavati in a lightning counter attack from the right broke through and crossed for Piola to score his second of the match with a grounder, eight minutes from time (4-2). The rest of the match was a series of hopeful balls into the box by Hungary which were efficiently dealt with by the Italian defence. The final whistle was blown by the French official, Georges Capdeville and Italy became the first nation to successfully defend their trophy. Pozzo became the only coach to have won back to back World Cups. Meazza received the trophy with a fascist salute. The Hungarian goalkeeper later commented that he may have lost the match but saved eleven lives referring to the infamous Mussolini telegram. Mussolini met the winning team minus his sailor’s cap this time, but the entire team wore sailors cap to please their ruler.

The winning Italian team wearing sailing caps with Benito Mussolini (C)

FIFA had a moderately successful tournament where few spectators turned up as they had a lot more on their minds. Soon the conflict moved from the football fields to the battle fields of Europe and there was no World Cup for more than a decade and Italy was the defending world champion for a period of twelve years – the longest ever.


Kinshuk Biswas is an architect by education, a consultant by profession, a quizzer, writer and an absolute football fanatic by choice. Follow him at