Post-1945, football was still reeling from the effects of the Second World War. For many countries, they were still in a rebuilding phase.
After the end of the fighting, one nation emerged as clear world beaters; Hungary. They were essentially an army team they were orchestrated by the ‘Galloping Major’, Ferenc Puskas. He was backed by able deputies in Zoltán Czibor, József Bozsik, Nándor Hidegkuti and Sándor Kocsis.
Many of the squad were chosen from the top Hungarian side at the time, Honved. From those players just mentioned, only Hidegkuti played elsewhere.
After WWII Hungary was under the grip of communism lead by the Soviet Union. Living in a police state, the national football team soon became a release for many in the country. They were coached by Gusztáv Sebes, a visionary who changed the way football was played.
For most of the twentieth century, football had been played by teams adopting a ‘W’ formation. Sebes brought in a formation we now know as 4-2-4. He believed in a socialist style in that every player had equal responsibility and should be able to play in any position. Fast forward to 1974 and the Dutch Total Football wasn’t as revolutionary as you thought.
Puskas was the talisman. Probably the best player in the world at the time, and despite his slightly podgy build, was capable of bringing the best out of his teammates. He also possessed a powerful left-foot shot. Alongside him was Kocsis. Top scorer in European leagues in 1952 and 1954, he was known as ‘Golden Head’ for his fierce heading ability, but he was also skilled on the deck.
One tactic which undid the English was the use of Hidegkuti. Teams generally played with one up front and two on either side. But at Wembley, Hidegkuti dropped deeper into a sort of ‘number 10’ or ‘false nine’ position, giving opposition defences the problem of whether to move out to mark him, or leave him unmarked The space he created was then occupied either by Puskas or players like Czibor.
One other important aspect of their play was the link between Puskas at inside-left and Bozsik at right-half. The two were friends since childhood and had an almost telepathic understanding, with Bozsik’s diagonal passes from right midfield finding Puskas’s runs.
Formations back then were still pretty rigid, so the changes Sebes brought in took time for opposing coaches to come to terms with.
West Germany were complete unknowns. Since the war they’d been banned from competing in FIFA competitions, so 1954 was their first chance of qualifying. Their players were part-time with many having other jobs to fall back on. Coach Sepp Herberger had looked to build his team around several of the successful Kaiserslautern team, including captain Fritz Walter. He was joined in the team by his brother, Ottmar, as Die Roten Teufel contributed five players to the squad. No other club had more than two representatives. Fritz Walter was by far the most experienced member of the squad with 39 caps to his name. Only six other players had reached double figures in terms of caps, with Hamburg defender, Josef Posipal the next most experienced with 16.
Fritz Walter was as influential for the Germans as Puskas was for the Hungarians. Herberger built his team and tactics around his captain. But it could have been so different for Walter had events after the war taken an alternative route.
In 1945, Walter’s airbase surrendered to the Americans as Germany was collapsing. They were then handed over to the Russians and sent to Siberia, along with 40,000 German prisoners of war. On his way to almost certain death, they stopped at a Ukrainian detention centre. The camp police were playing a football match, and Walter was invited to take part. One of the guards recognised him as having played for Germany, and the next day his name was taken off the list of those heading to Siberia. He was allowed to return home to Kaiserslautern and his life changed forever.
Herberger employed tactics that included giving his defensive players structured roles, but demanding his attackers make constant positional switches. This became known as the ‘Herberger Whirl’.
Herberger was the first in a long line of German coaches who believed his job was to field the best team, rather than a team of the best players. He was big on team spirit and many of his squad were chosen in the belief they’d contribute to the collective of the group.
Post-war Germany was split into two countries, West and communist East. By 1954 there were doubts as to whether Germany could survive as two nations. Cities had been destroyed, the economy was wrecked and the soul of the nation had gone. Any talk of nationalism was taboo and so supporting anything German was a difficult matter. The embarrassment of having allowed such a regime as Nazism to take over was to grip the nation for many years.
For many observers, West Germany were there just to make up the numbers. Nobody knew anything about their players and up against the footballing might of Hungary, Uruguay, Brazil and Austria, surely they’d be no more than casual observers?
The two teams were drawn into the same first phase group. FIFA had decreed each group would have two seeded and two unseeded teams. The two seeds would play the two non-seeds with the top two moving into the knockout stage. If two teams were level on points in first and second, they would draw lots to see who topped the group. If second and third were level, a play-off would decide the outcome. This is how West Germany progressed.
They were a little fortunate in the other seeded team alongside Hungary were Turkey. Originally it was supposed to be Spain but Turkey caused an upset by knocking them out in qualification. FIFA had already decided the seeds, so they just put Turkey in Spain’s place. West Germany saw them off 4-1.
Hungary put nine past South Korea and then beat West Germany, 8-3. Kocsis scored a hat-trick against the Koreans and then helped himself to four more against the Germans. They were flying.
Unbeknownst to them though, was an incident that would come to bite them later on. Puskas scored to put them 2-0 up, but later in the game, a clumsy challenge from Werner Liebrich caused a hairline fracture of his ankle. He wouldn’t be seen again until the Final.
After the victory against the Turks, Herberger rested some of his players, believing a long tournament could take its toll on their fitness. Regulars such as Toni Turek, Max Morlock, Ottmar Walter and Hans Schäfer all sat on the bench for the Hungary game.
Denied the opportunity of confirming qualification by beating South Korea, the Germans were forced to negotiate the lottery of a play-off against Turkey. They were back to full strength winning 7-2.
In the Quarter-Finals, West Germany eased past Yugoslavia, before casting aside Austria in the Semis. In the 1930’s Austria were the ‘Wunderteam’, but after being annexed by Hitler’s Germany, post-war Austria wasn’t quite the same force. However, it was still a surprise to see West Germany make it to the Final.
Hungary had a much harder task in front of them. They met the South American rivals, Brazil and Uruguay. The Brazilians were utterly desperate to put right the injustice of losing the 1950 World Cup to their bitter neighbours. These were two classic matches, which have gone down in history. Hungary beat Brazil 4-2 in a match which was named ‘Battle of Bern’ as two Brazilians were sent off. The nasty, tough challenges on the pitch made their way into the dressing room afterwards with several players and officials receiving injuries.
In the Semi-Finals Hungary had to take on Uruguay. This was the Olympic champions against the World champions. Olympic football was a big thing in those days, long before any age restrictions were put in place. Uruguay had also been Olympic champions before they won the first World Cup in 1930. After sitting out travelling to the next two tournaments, Uruguay’s second World Cup appearance was in Brazil in 1950 and they won that too. They were yet to lose a World Cup match.
Hungary were 2-0 up but Uruguay came back to level things and take it into extra time. Two headers from Kocsis saw Hungary into the Final.
The Final was expected to be the sort of mauling the earlier meeting had been. Hungary were unbeaten in their previous 32 matches going back over four years. They had some of the best players in world football. West Germany were a group of part-timers few people outside the country had heard of. It looked to be all set up for a thumping.
However, heavy rain had made the pitch muddy and difficult to come to terms with. This is where things began to swing in Germany’s favour. Firstly, their captain was known for excelling in such conditions, so much so there was a phrase in Germany, ‘Fritz Walter Wetter’, or Fritz Walter weather. But crucially they were playing in boots with screw-in studs, which could be adjusted to adapt to the conditions. This meant they were wearing footwear more familiar to them, rather than having to change.
Another factor was where Hungary had based themselves, in the town of Solothurn. As the Semi-Final against Uruguay went into extra time, they missed their bus back and only got back late at night. The night before the Final the town had a fair near the team’s hotel and the noise disrupted many of the players’ sleep.
The early stages of the match did little to suggest there would be anything other than a Hungarian success. The game was barely six minutes old when Bozsik intercepted a pass from Liebrich. He played Kocsis in and his shot was blocked, but Puskas was on hand to tap the ball in for the opening goal.
Just two minutes later they’d doubled their lead. A misunderstanding in the German defence saw Werner Kolhmeyer’s back-pass wrong foot the keeper, and Czibor burst in to score the second. 2-0.
But just as some were beginning to wonder whether this would be another eight-goal drubbing, the Germans hit back. Fritz Walter played Rahn in down the left. His low cross into the area wasn’t cleared and Morlock turned the ball in to make it 2-1 to Hungary.
Eight minutes later and the two sides were back level again. Walter took what was Germany’s third corner in succession, and his high ball to the far was turned in by Rahn. 2-2. What a start to the game, with four goals in just 18 minutes.
Hungary soon resumed control. Hidegkuti had a couple of good chances to score, with the second hitting the post. Then just before the break, Rahn thought he’d scored again only to see Jenő Buzansky clear off the line.
2-2 at the break, and in the second period Hungary really took the game to their opponents. Puskas fired a shot straight at Turek. Kocsis headed against the crossbar, and both Czibor and Hidegkuti probably should’ve done better with their opportunities.
With six minutes left, Schäfer crossed into the box. Rahn picked up the loose clearance and feinted to pass, giving himself room to drive a low left-foot shot past Gyula Grosics. Amazingly, West Germany were now leading 3-2.
Undeterred, the Hungarians came back straight away. Puskas was sent clear and beat Turek to equalise. Or so they thought. Immediately the linesman flagged for offside. The Hungarians were incensed, surely this was too close to call? Then Czibor had a chance, but it was denied by Turek.
Eventually, the final whistle went and West Germany had pulled off a remarkable shock result. Hence the Miracle of Bern.
The fallout couldn’t have been more different for each nation. In Budapest, there were demonstrations in the streets. They were welcomed as heroes after their Olympic gold medal in 1952. Two years later the players were hiding in a nearby town waiting for things to calm down. There were some who believe the seeds of the 1956 revolution were sown in the days after the Final.
Hungary carried on their incredible record after the competition, with one defeat in 49 over a five year period. Eventually, the run petered out, Sebes was replaced and everything began to dismantle. Hungarian football would never be the same again.
In contrast, the Germans couldn’t really believe what had happened to them. Herberger’s plans had worked perfectly. Hungary looked a little tired when they got to the Final, whereas the German coach had rested some players to make sure they were fully fit once they reached Bern.
Where the seeds of the 1956 revolution were sown in Hungary, West German football started its inexorable rise to world domination into the 1970s and right up to 1990. For the country, it was just the fillip they needed. One writer described it as “a guilt-ridden, inhibited nation was suddenly reborn”. National pride was no longer a taboo subject, they’d regained their self-esteem. The birth of a nation can be identified as soon as Rahn’s left-foot shot hit the back of the net.
During the following years, many deliberated on how it was the Mighty Magyars failed at the final hurdle. But if you pick apart the tournament and you can see how gradually a number of factors started to build up, which would ultimately thwart the Hungarians.
- They had a much tougher route through the knockout phase than West Germany.
- A late finish in the Semi-Final, then disruptive local celebrations outside their hotel on the eve of the Final.
- Sebes brought back Puskas, who was less than 100% fit.
- The heavy rain made Hungary’s passing game less effective.
- West Germany wore boots that were able to adapt to the conditions.
- Puskas goal was ruled offside.
The Miracle of Bern remains, for many Germans, their country’s greatest sporting achievement. Mainly because it represents so much more than just a game.