World Cup Moments: Das Wunder von Bern, 1954
It may surprise the casual fan or those new to the sport to learn that Hungary were once, bar none, the greatest team in all the lands. In fact the Aranycsapat – the Magnificent, Magical, Marvellous or Mighty Magyars – still reign as a team of such hushed majestic legend you wonder if they existed in reality at all. They were tactical revolutionaries, the brainchildren behind Brazil’s dash to prominence and much of the modern game in general, and football’s unparalleled juggernaut; within a frame of six years, they lost one solitary football game.
That one game happened to be the 1954 World Cup final, Das Wunder von Berne (The Miracle of Bern).
To understand the scope of this “miracle”, it takes understanding their years of dominance and impact on the sport.
They hadn’t entered the World Cup in 1950, but on May 14th of that year they begun their streak of games which landed, six years later, at 46-6-1, and saw them tear through some of the greatest sides of the time. They won the 1952 Olympic gold medal with a squad that, as was the case with many communist sides of the time, featured top-class players as amateurs. They beat, by a score of 6 to 3, an England side at Wembley which hadn’t lost on home soil to a foreign team since 1901 – though the Irish have a bone to pick with that – in what was dubbed the Match of the Century. They confirmed their superiority later that year in Budapest with a 7 to 1 return win. They are, even after the World Cup, still the highest ranked team in the history of the Elo rankings. They did all this with a revolutionary 4-2-4, a blueprint to Total Football, which unleashed on the world a new weapon now known as the deep-lying playmaker, in the form of Nandor Hidegkuti (not forgetting, of course, the legendary Ferenc Puskas, Jozsef Bozsik, Sandor Kocsis or Zoltan Czibor). They beat two-time defending champions Uruguay, the prized jewel of South America, in the extra time of semifinal, a game which you’ll often find in the annuls followed by “one of the greatest games ever played”.
And then came West Germany.
The Magyars had already beaten West Germany in the groups by a very comfortable 8 to 3 scoreline, taking their totals over the two group games to 17 goals scored. And despite the heavy loss, this is where West Germany laid the groundwork – as the legend goes – for one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. Six of the eleven who would play in the final hadn’t featured in the group stage, because Sepp Herberger sat them, famously saying,
“I believe we would have lost today, even with our strongest team.”
He surmised they could beat Turkey again in the playoff, as they had in the first group game, and they did, by 7 to 2. This meant Gusztav Sebes, Hungary’s coach, was only afforded a half-look at West Germany, whilst Herberger was afforded the magicians in their entirety.
West Germany would go the European route through Yugoslavia and Austria to the final as Hungary preferred a more South American flavor, dispatching of Brazil, a brutal “battle”, and Uruguay.
There were mixed fortunes for Hungary going into the game. Jonathan Wilson describes it in his book Behind the Curtain:
Hungary’s sleep was disturbed by brass bands practising in the street for the Swiss national championship and their team bus was prevented by police from entering the stadium, forcing the players to battle their way through the crowds to the dressing room. And then there was the weather. It rained throughout the day before the final, and then it rained heavily during the game, transforming an already soft pitch into a quagmire that hampered Hungary’s passing game. On the positive side – or at least, so it seemed at the time – Puskas* was declared fit and played.
* – Puskas had an ankle fracture.
Hungary, as they’d done in every match of the tournament thus far, stampeded out of the gates to an lightning quick 2-0 lead in the 8th minute. West Germany, as Uruguay had done before them, answered back to equalize – only West Germany did so by the 18th, whereas it took a last dash in the 86th for Uruguay to force extra time. Helmut Rahn, scorer of the West German second, then unchained his inner hero, cut to the left, and filled the back of the Hungarian net in the 86th minute, hardly enough time for the world to believe what had just happened.
And then the controversy began.
While this is regarded as easily one of the greatest upsets, it’s also remembered as one of the most controversial finals in World Cup history. The hobbled and wasteful Puskas, the historic face of a historic giant, scored to take it to 3-3 in the 89th, only to see it controversially called offside. As written in Wilson’s book, Ferenc was seething:
“I couldn’t believe it. It was almost a minute afterwards when he raised his flag. I could have murdered him. To lose a World Cup on such a decision just isn’t right.”
There were also rumblings of a penalty in injury time and, as you’ll see in the video, claims Rahn’s first involved a touch of foul on Gyula Grosics, the Hungarian keeper.
Yet it was not to be, and West Germany, who’d lost by five goals to the same side not weeks before, had pulled off the miracle of miracles. Enough to spawn a movie, to cement Rahn as a goal goal-scoring legend, and to see Sepp Herberger placed on the shelf with war’s greatest strategists.
West Germany, having been banned from the 1950 World Cup on the back of World War II, had won their first World Cup of three, while one of history’s greatest teams was left without a trophy and then left to rubble in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Neither of these instances would turn to be coincidence: West Germany, and furthermore Germany, have dug themselves in as a sporting superpower since that first World Cup back and Hungary have reversed from superpower to afterthought on the global scene. They would manage two quarter-final runs in ‘62 & ‘66, but in the 11 World Cups since, they’ve qualified for three, none since 1986, and exited in the groups each time.
When speaking on the 1954 World Cup final, Das Wunder von Bern, the focus must shift almost entirely to convey how utterly brilliant the Mighty Magyars were: Rahn, Herberger and West Germany stopped the unstoppable.
- You can find more World Cup Moments here.