No.5: The Miracle of Bern (Switzerland, 1954)
The wonderful Hungarian team of the 1950’s are one of the most commonly forgotten when it comes to the greatest soccer sides of all time. They played with a class, a quality and a swagger that made them a truly formidable outfit and on the cusp of the 1954 tournament they were by far the strongest team on the planet; unbeaten in four years, in fact.
In the early rounds of the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, they cemented that status further. Inspired by mercurial figures like Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas, they tore into South Korea and West Germany in their first two clashes, by scores of 9-0 and 8-3 respectively, no less.
The West Germany side they struck eight past early in the tournament were finding things a little tougher. World War Two had brought the nation to its knees. Star players had been sent off to posts with the army—sadly some would never return—and international games ceased in 1943. Domestic action would also grind to a halt in 1944.
After the conclusion of the war, German football effectively had to start over. Teams began to rebuild and re-establish, but such was the scale at the task at hand, the German Football Association wasn’t back up and running until 1949. The West German national team played their first post-war international in 1950.
It was slow progress, and the team only managed to scrape through to the World Cup finals in 1954 after a narrow playoff win. But remarkably, they would find themselves in the final along with the Hungarian juggernauts at the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern.
After thrashing the Germans 8-3 just a fortnight before, naturally, the Mighty Magyars were the overwhelming favourites. And the game seemed to be going according to script early on, as Hungary raced into an early lead courtesy of a Puskas tap-in. Inside ten minutes, they doubled their lead, as Zoltan Czibor netted for the Hungarians.
That should have been the game. That should have been Hungary’s first ever World Cup win. But what transpired in the remaining 80 minutes of football was arguably the greatest comeback in the history of the World Cup:
What happened next?
West Germany had done it. They’d dragged themselves back from the brink. They’d beaten a team that hadn’t lost in four years. They’d won their first ever World Cup. All in the most dramatic of circumstances.
In terms of excitement, shock and drama, the 1954 final is arguably the greatest ever played in the history of the competition. The win for the Germans expedited their progress back to the top of the international game. It gave the country some spirit back and even to this day, it’s a moment drawn upon as a source of inspiration by the German people.
For Hungary, it was to be the beginning of the end for the incredible side of the early 1950’s. They’d construct another unbeaten run in the aftermath of their shock defeat, but according to the Hungarian striker Tibor Nyalsi—who lined up for the international side in the 70’s and 80’s—that moment had a lasting effect on the nation’s football, per Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid:
“It is as though Hungarian football is frozen at the moment, as though we have never quite moved on from then”.
The runners-up in the 1954 World Cup, along with the Brazilian squad of 1982 and the Dutch team of the 1970’s are amongst the greatest sides never to have won the biggest prize of them all.
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