The Limping Major and the Comeback Kings

The 1954 World Cup was held in picturesque Switzerland. In fact, they were elected unchallenged to host the tournament. The Swiss, famed for their precision in watch-making, cheese and chocolates, were expected to organise a very efficient and memorable tournament.

As many as 45 teams entered the qualifying round. In a major shock, Sweden was eliminated by Belgium and Spain defeated Turkey 4-1 at home but lost 0-1 away. Since there was no concept of aggregate goals, a decider was held at Rome, a neutral venue, but the match ended goalless. Luigi Franco Gemma, the son of the stadium gardener, was chosen to draw lots blindfolded, and Spain lived up to the sobriquet of being the unluckiest national team to be eliminated thus. Uruguay had lost their best player, Alcides Ghiggia to Italy but still had Juan Schiaffino, Obdulio Varela, Roque Máspoli and Rodríguez Andrade, and was yet to be beaten in the tournament.

West Germany was making their World Cup debut with a good bunch of players in their captain Fritz Walter, his brother Ottmar Walter, Helmut Rahn and Max Morlock. They had been playing under the same manager, Sepp Herberger since World War II. Herberger was a brilliant tactician and shrewd manager.

England and Scotland were both participating. Hungary were the overwhelming favourites coming into the tournament, unbeaten for four years and thirty matches. They had claimed an Olympic gold and their breathtaking brand of teamwork was unmatched in the footballing arena. They were one of the first teams to use a separate manager and a coach in Gusztav Sebes and Gyula Mandi, respectively. Sebes resorted to classic Swiss coach and forerunner of total football, Hugo Meisl’s tactics. Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti and Zoltan Czibor were all world class players. The team was nicknamed ‘Magical Magyars’ after they demolished England 6-3 in Hungary at Wembley on 25th November 1953. This was the first time England had ever lost at home to a foreign country. The misery was compounded when England seeking retribution for their earlier loss were trounced 7-1 in Budapest on 23rd May 1954. Austria, the last team to defeat Hungary, was a good but aging side whose best days were behind them. Yugoslavia, the Olympic silver medallists also had a good team, but the Hungarians were head and shoulders above the rest.

Hungarian Golden Team

The Golden Hungarian team or the Magical Magyars


FIFA had decided after the dual league of 1950 to tinker with the system again. The new system they devised was unique and bizarre. There were four groups, each with 2 seeded and unseeded teams. There were only four matches in every group with the seeded teams playing the unseeded ones. One seeded or unseeded team would not play against another of same kind. In case of a match ending in a draw, extra-time would be played. The top 2 teams would qualify; in case the teams were tied with equal points, a draw of lots would decide the positions. If the second and third placed teams were level on points, there would be a play-off match. It was a strange system with an even stranger seeding criteria for the teams. As a result, a lot of good teams remained unseeded while many average teams got a seeding. FIFA decided against the round robin final group and went back to the knock-out quarterfinal, semi final and final with a third place play-off. If the knock-out matches were drawn, there would be a replay. If that too was drawn, the winner would to be decided by a draw of lots. So basically, the champion could well be decided upon by simply a draw of lots!

The Groups

Group 1

The first match of the tournament featured France against Yugoslavia. It was a mystery why the French were seeded and their opponents were not, as the Yugoslavs were by far the better team. They dominated possession and created chances after chances, eventually winning by a single goal by Milos Milutinovic. Milutinovic’s brother, Bora later became a famous national coach managing five different teams in the World Cup finals in the 90s and 2000s. The second match featured Brazil against Mexico. The famous three forwards Ademir de Menezes, Jair da Rosa Pinto and Thomaz Soares da Silva better known as Zizinho, were not selected post the infamous loss to Uruguay in the previous World Cup. They still had very good players in Didi and Julinho. Mexico was promptly dispatched for 5-0. In the second round, France defeated Mexico 3-2 in a match featuring the weaker teams of the group. Brazil met Yugoslavia in a repeat of the last group match of 1950. Both sides displayed great skills only to end the match in a 1-1 draw even after extra time. Both sides finished on equal points and progressed to the quarter finals. Brazil topped the group after the draw of lots.

Group 2

Hungary were the only team to be correctly seeded in this group. Turkey were seeded only because they qualified by defeating Spain (albeit by the draw of lots) who were seeded before the tournament started. It was a case of presumption of the worst kind by FIFA. Hungary played South Korea in one of the biggest mismatches in the history of the tournament. The Koreans, one of the three debutants in the tournament, had no training and were exhausted by the middle of the first half chasing after the quick passing Hungarians. The final score was 9-0 with Sandor Kocsis scoring a hattrick, Ferenc Puskas and Peter Palotas scoring a brace each and Czibor and Mihaly Lantos also on the score sheet. The West Germans, also debutants in the tournament, played Turkey and Herberger introduced a novelty. It was not in tactics or strategy but in equipment. Herberger had appointed Adolf (Adi) Dassler as the consultant for team shoes. Dassler invented adjustable spikes, which could be adjusted based on the condition of the pitch. Though it sounds rather simple, it was a revolutionary concept back in those days. Dassler went on to use his innovations and experience to establish Adidas, a company synonymous with football, till today. The West Germans promptly dispatched the Turks 4-1 making a mockery of the FIFA seeding system. Hans Schäfer, Morlock and Ottmar Walter were all on target. The second round of matches pitted the West Germans against the Hungarians. Herberger, the shrewd manager, put out a skeleton side with only four regular starters playing for a draw against Hungary. The Hungarians however were impressive as ever with a thumping 8-3 victory. Kocsis scored 4 goals, Hidegkuti and Puskas also scored a goal each. However, this match had the most key moment of the entire tournament when Werner Liebrich, the West German defender tackled Puskas and left him with a sprained ankle. This would put him out of the next two matches. The Turkish team steamrolled past the South Koreans 7-0. Hungary had qualified as group winners, West Germany and Turkey met in a play-off to decide the second team to qualify and the full strength Germans cruised to a 7-2 victory on the back of a Morlock hattrick.

Adolf (Adi) Dassler with his adjustable spikes in the West Germany bench

Group 3


Uruguay played Czechoslovakia on a heavy pitch which did not suit their style of play. They still had enough class to win 2-0 through a goal from Oscar Omar Miguez and a Juan Schiaffino free-kick which was curled in from the edge of the box over the Czech wall. Austrians who were touted as the best team in Europe after Hungary, made heavy weather of their match against the debutant Scotland team. They dominated play but could not find the net. Eventually Erich Probst scored to give them a hard fought 1-0 victory. The second round of matches featured Scotland buoyed by their narrow loss to Austria against Uruguay and Austria against Czechoslovakia. The Austrians showed that their result against Scotland was merely an aberration as they ran out 5-0 winners with the goal-scoring problems seeming a distant memory. The Uruguayans ran riot against the Scots, winning 7-0. It was a comprehensive defeat which made the Scottish team realise that they were not in the same league as the big boys. Uruguay and Austria both qualified and Uruguay won the group on the draw of lots.

Group 4

The first match featured England against Belgium, the shock conquerors of Sweden in the qualifying round. It was a brilliant match where Sir Stanley Matthews was outstanding, creating all the four English goals. At nearly 40 years, he was the best player on the field. However, the English defence could not emulate the great man and allowed four goals. The final score was 4-4 after extra time.

The hosts, Switzerland shocked Italy 2-1 in a match which was dominated by counterattacking wing play by both sides. Italy, to be fair, was rebuilding but still had a world class player in Benito Lorenzi. The second round matches featured England against the hosts. With Matthews and Nat Lofthouse both unfit, it was a refreshingly attacking English team who dominated the Swiss and won 2-0. The Italy-Belgium match promised a lot based on the Belgians’ performance against England. The Italians were in control and won easily 4-1. England topped the group to qualify for the quarters but Switzerland had to play Italy in a play-off match. The Italians started confidently but soon allowed the hosts to dominate possession. Eventually a 4-1 loss was greeted by Italian press as a complete ‘disaster’. Some Italian players complained of boredom in the training camp at Vevey. In reality, they were a side which was rebuilding itself and was a decade away from becoming the great team the Italians expect their national team to be.

Quarter Finals

FIFA, after the faux-pas of the groups and seeding system, went on to have a free draw for the quarterfinals which meant that the group winners might have to play each other. That’s what exactly happened with Uruguay drawn against England and Hungary against Brazil. Austria was playing the hosts Switzerland and West Germany met Yugoslavia. Uruguayans were superior to the English who were discovering that international football was not a stroll in the park. The South Americans comfortably controlled the game to win 4-2 with goals from Schiaffino and Varela. Stanley Matthews was again England’s only shining light. England played their best match of the World Cup yet but still ended up losing to a far better side.

The Austria-Switzerland match was a classic. The hosts quickly went up 3-0 by the 18th minute. The Austrians scripted one of the greatest resurrection stories since Lazarus of the New Testament. They were level (3-3) by the 28th minute and went into the break 5-4 up, a remarkable score-line. The second half did not have as many goals as the first, with only three. At the final whistle, the score was Austria- 7, Switzerland- 5. Till date, this remains the highest aggregate of goals scored in a World Cup match. The first match of this tournament was dubbed ‘The greatest match ever’, however this was an aperitif. Two more matches were played later in the tournament which laid claim to the same title. West Germany-Yugoslavia match was an evenly matched contest, with both sides attacking in earnest. The Yugoslav problem of scoring goals finally caught up with them and they were defeated 2-0 with an own goal and a Helmut Rahn strike late in the match.

Battle of Berne

The last quarterfinal featured the tournament’s highest scoring teams till then – Hungary and Brazil. With the array of attacking prowess on show, it should have been a spectacle. However, it ended up in a brawl which was dubbed ‘Battle of Berne’.

Both sides were not very good defensively. Hungary had two very average defenders in Gyula Lorant, a standard stopper and Lantos, much too well built for a full-back. Brazilian defenders were a bit too robust and rough in their style as well.

Hungary was given a flying start by the opposition defence when Joao Carlos Pinheiro tried to dribble out of his penalty area to lose the ball to Hidegkuti who blasted a shot which was saved by the keeper. The rebound came to Hidegkuti again who hit a high shot to the roof of the net. Then Hidegkuti’s shots were ripped by a Brazilian defender who took his job of man-to-man marking a bit too seriously. After that he clipped a magnificent cross which was headed in by Kocsis to give the Hungarians a 1-0 lead. Djalma Santos pulled a goal back from a penalty given when Jeno Buzanszky pulled down Indio in the area. Arthur Ellis, the English referee had lost control over the match as fouls were flying in from both ends. Ellis then gave a penalty to Hungary for a foul on Kocsis, who looked astonished. The penalty was duly converted to give the Hungarians a two-goal advantage. Julinho, one of Brazil’s greatest wingers, later overshadowed by a certain Garrincha, scored a fine goal cutting in from the right to make the score 3-2, in favour of Hungary.

In the meantime, Jozsef Bozsik was brought down by the large Brazilian defender, Bauer. He was infuriated and following treatment started an impromptu boxing match with Nilton Santos. Both were duly sent off by Ellis. Then the Brazilian mid-fielder, Humberto Tozzi jumped with both feet on Kocsis who had attempted a sliding shot off a rebound. The leap by Humberto was reminiscent of the jumps performed by athletes in the now defunct Olympics event of standing long jump. Of course, the referee was not impressed with his athletic prowess and sent him off. Kocsis remained on the field to score the final goal of the match with a driven shot from outside the box to give the Hungarians a 4-2 win.

Meanwhile the fighting continued along the touchline with Djalma Santos, a former bouncer at a Rio night club, chasing Czibor and Hidegkuti – the best player on the field, stamping on Indio who was trying to kick him while lying on the ground. The referee was at a total loss and strangely did not send off any of the players. After the final whistle, the brawl continued into the dressing rooms where the injured Puskas retaliated with bottles and broken glass. It was a shame that the best attacking teams of the tournament gave the world a glimpse of their hand-to-hand combat skills instead of the footballing acumen that they possessed.

Semi Finals

In the semi finals, due to FIFA’s draw, West Germany met Austria and Uruguay played Hungary. Austria had to play their second choice keeper Walter Zeman, considered one of the most reputed in Europe. Unfortunately he had the worst game of his career. Ernst Happel, one of the best defenders of the tournament, also had an off day. Together it spelt catastrophe for Austria as they were thrashed 6-1. Both Walter siblings scored a brace of goals while two other goals were scored by Morlock and Schafer.

West Germany were into the final on their World Cup debut but would be underdogs to the winner of the other semi-final which was arguably between the best two teams of the world at that time. The second semi-final was ‘one of the best games of football ever played’ – a term used for a lot of matches, but very befitting for this contest. Hungary started with an all out attack but the opposition defence was resolute. Then Roque Maspoli, the Uruguayan goalkeeper and hero of the last World Cup, gifted the Hungarians the lead when he could not hold on to a cross cum shot by Czibor. Schiaffino went around Gyula Grosics in the Hungarian goal but could not keep his balance and missed the target. The Hungarians held a slender lead at halftime.

After the break, Hungary was two goals up with a fantastic diving header from Hidegkuti off a Budai cross. Uruguay was facing their first ever defeat in the World Cup. The Uruguayans were then known as the comeback masters of international football and they lived up to their reputation (the tag would pass on after this tournament final). Juan Eduardo Hohberg, a naturalised Argentinean of German origin playing in the Uruguay forward line was put clear by a Schiaffino pass in the 76th minute and he beat Grosics with a low cross-shot. With only three minutes remaining in normal time, Hohberg got a through pass from Schiaffino; he beat two defenders with his pace and pushed in the rebound after the first shot was saved by Grosics, to make it all square. The Uruguayan celebrations with the goalscorer were so robust that he had to undergo treatment. In extra-time, Hohberg hit the post after going through on the Hungarian goal again. The ageing Uruguayan players started tiring and Hungary regained the lead through a Kocsis header. Hungarians made the game safe with another header from Kocsis.

Sandor Kocsis, the highest scorer using his head


Kocsis was considered one of the greatest headers of the game ever. Standing only 5’9”, his thick neck which almost looked deformed on his slim frame gave him immense power from headers in around the edge of the box. The stage was set for a final between Hungary and West Germany. In the third placed match, a visibly tired Uruguay was overpowered by the Austrians 3-1.


Fritz Walter (L), Mervyn Griffith (C) and Ferenc Puskas (R)


Final Miracle of Berne

The final of the 1954 World Cup has gone in the history and lore of football. The Hungarians, who had crushed their opponents 8-3 in a group match, were quietly confident. They had not been beaten for 34 matches. The biggest question was whether their talismanic captain, Ferenc Puskas would play in the final. He looked half fit, to be fair he often was, he looked rather rotund around the middle: his team seemed to do fine without him. Yet he was the most talented and inspirational player of that time. Legends have been woven around his left foot which was said to have juggled soap bars in the Real Madrid dressing room. To tell the truth, Hungary was always a better team with him playing. On the opposite end, Fritz Walter, the West German captain was a consummate team man. He was a survivor of a Soviet war camp who hated playing in the sun and loved it when there was a light drizzle. That type of weather is still called ‘Fritz Walter weather’ in Germany. Plus their manager, Sepp Herberger after studying the opponents decided that it was not Puskas or Kocsis but Hidegkuti who must play in the hole behind as the key to Hungary’s attacking system. He instructed his defender, Horst Eckel to follow Hidegkuti like a shadow even when he was dropping back (England should have thought of it during their two drubbings). Then it suddenly rained and the West German underdogs were gaining in confidence, equipped with flexible spikes on their shoes.

The Wankdorf stadium in Berne was filled to the rafters. There was a buzz in the stadium when the match started in a heavy pitch, sodden due to the rain. It did not seem to bother Hungary very much though. In the sixth minute, Bozsik passed to Kocsis in the penalty area. Kocsis took a prompt shot which rebounded off Liebrich to the left and Puskas beat Toni Turek, the goalkeeper with a low shot (1-0). Two minutes later, Bozsik tried to find Kocsis again only to have his pass intercepted by the opposition defender, Werner Kohlmeyer. Kohlmeyer then attempted a back pass to his goalkeeper which was intercepted by Czibor who kicked the ball into the goal (2-0). The repeat of the group stage match seemed imminent. The West Germans were rescued by their teamwork and understanding – six players in the starting line-up played for the same club (Kaiserslautern), and an instant comeback goal. Just two minutes after the second Hungarian goal, their defender, Jozsef Zakarias lunged facing his own goal, trying to intercept a cross from the left but only managing to push it back towards his keeper. Before Grosics could dive in to gather the ball, Max Morlock slid in to divert the ball past the goalkeeper’s right hand into the goal (1-2). The West Germans visibly lifted by the goal, attacked and gained a corner in the 19th minute. Fritz Walter took the corner; Grosics could only flap the ball sideways, being challenged by Schäfer,and Helmut Rahn was on hand to stab a half volley past two Hungarian defenders on the line (2-2). The West Germans were now level against the best team in the world. The Hungarians were at last facing a team who were not intimidated by them. The scores were level till half-time.

FIFA World Cup 1954

West German celebrations after the equaliser


The Hungarians, stung by the reversal of their fortunes, came back with all guns blazing. Hidegkuti’s snap shot hit the post. German defender, Karl Mai was given the envious duty of marking Kocsis — a job he did quite successfully. Still Kocsis managed to hit the bar with one of his trademark headers. A shot from Mihaly Toth was cleared off the line by Kohlmeyer. It was a continuous procession of Hungarian attacks on the West German goal. The West Germans were still dangerous in the counterattacks through their wings led by Helmut Rahn. Five minutes from the end, Schäfer dispossessed Bozsik by a shoulder charge, and crossed. Hungarian defender, Lantos headed away under pressure only to find the dangerous Rahn. Rahn took it away from Lantos to the left and hit a low left footer past the right hand of Grosics (2-3). The ultimate comeback was complete but could the West Germans hold on till the end? In the dying minutes, Puskas ran from the inside left channel and slid the ball into the goal under Turek. The Welsh referee, Mervyn Griffiths deemed that he was off-side; a decision which has been discussed by football fans ever since. The videos are not conclusive either. Czibor hit a piledriver which was brilliantly saved by a 35-year old Toni Turek. The final whistle was blown and the West Germans had won the World Cup on their tournament debut. It was a great gift for a nation struggling to cope after the ravages of World War II and the guilt that they were responsible for it. It was the greatest final match of the tournament till then, which had both the ingredients of spectacle and drama. The West Germans were tagged as ‘comeback kings’, a name which they have lived up to, time and again, over the years.

Memorial at the Stade de Suisse which was built after demolishing the Wankdorf Stadium


Czibor and Kocsis of the Hungarian team played another final in the same stadium seven years later – the European Cup final for the Barcelona team. They both scored but once again ended up suffering a 2-3 defeat after being overwhelming favourites to win. Sandor Kocsis has the best-goal-per-match record for a player with more than 2 goals in the World Cup till date.


It was a spectacular tournament with most goals scored per match. There were huge crowds and FIFA was elated at the culmination of such a resounding success. The Hungarian golden team was destroyed by the Hungarian uprising of 1956 when nearly the entire team defected. Many of their players went on to achieve spectacular success at club level in Europe. They will still be remembered most for being the greatest team to have never won the World Cup.


West German players after the final whistle