The Miracle of Bern

The 1954 World Cup final is known to Germans as the ‘Wunder von Bern’, as West Germany managed to topple the heavily favoured Hungarian side to secure Germany’s first World Cup triumph.

The game is not only significant because it was Germany’s first win in the competition but also due to the Mighty Magyar’s (Hungary’s golden team) dominance in international football coming to a surprising end.

The Teams

The Hungarian side had been unbeaten in 31 games prior to the final, an unbeaten period that spanned five years and included victories at the Olympics and the Central European International Cup. Their team was filled with full time professionals and including the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor, who after the Hungarian Revolution would go on to play for Real Madrid (Puskás) and Barcelona (Kocsis & Czibor).

Ferenc Puskás playing for Hungary in the 1954 World Cup

This side was revolutionary themselves in that they were the first to interchange positions and allow players freedom to roam as opposed to having fixed positions. They used a false nine striker that would drop deep to pick up possession and leave space behind the defense for wingers and they encouraged full backs to be part of the attack and wingers would cover marauding defenders to maintain a balanced formation.

West Germany, one of the three German sides at the time, were a bit of an unknown leading up to the Finals. They were no permitted to play in the 1950 World Cup and only had two qualifying games in the lead up in which they beat Norway and the Saar protectorate (a briefly partitioned part of Germany). As a result, West Germany were one of the eight unseeded teams in the tournament. On top of that, their players were only semi-professionals and most worked a full time job at the time. Now you can begin to see why this victory is seen as somewhat of a miracle.

The Group Stages

In 1954, the group stages were made up of 16 teams drawn into four groups. Interestingly, teams didn’t play all other group opponents but only against two and a third game would be played only if there was a tie for second place. Hungary and West Germany were drawn in the same group.

West Germany were surprising victors against Turkey in their first game, coming from behind to win 4-1. At the same time Hungary strolled past South Korea 9-0 who were possible the weakest team in the tournament as they also lost to Turkey 7-0. In the second game of the group stage, the two teams faced off but Sepp Herberger, the German manager decided to play a weakened side against the favourites to rest his players. The game ended up being lopsided and Hungary defeated the Germans 8-3.

Tied with Turkey on two points after two games, West Germany played the Turks against and maybe even more suprisingly than the opening game dispatched of them in a comfortable 7-2 win.

The Knockout Rounds

In the knockout stages, Hungary continued to show their brilliance and established themselves as the heavy favourites going into the final. They had another historic match against in the quarter-finals against the second favourites Brazil in what is now known as the Battle of Bern. Three red cards were shown in what has been described as one of the most violent matches in football history. Hungarian manager Gustav Sebes needed four stitches in his face after fighting continued between the two sides in the dressing rooms after the game.

Hungary had themselves one hell of a tournament as the semi-final game against the then reigning world champions Uruguay is regarded as another classic game due to the high quality of attacking play that both sides displayed. Sándor Kocsis scored two goals in extra-time to secure the victory for the Hungarians and book their place in the 1954 World Cup Final.

West Germany continued to beat the odds as they were the underdogs in both their quarter-final and semi-final games. They beat the 1952 Olympic silver medalists Yugoslavia 2-0 and then went on to dispose of a strong Austrian side 6-1 in the semis. That Austrian side beat Uruguay 3-1 in the third place playoff which goes to show how good this unsuspecting West German side really was.

The Miracle of Bern

Wankdorf Stadium, Bern, July 4th, 1954. The place and time of the final of the World Cup watched by over 60,000 spectators. Despite the West Germans previous showings in the competition, Hungary were still clear favourites as they had managed to knock out the other two teams deemed most likely to take home the trophy.

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Helmut Rahn, the decisive goal scorer

Puskás returned to the Hungarian lineup after being sidelined for both the quarter-final and semi-final after suffering a hairline fracture in his ankle in the group stages. Helmut Rahn, the German right winger who would prove to be instrumental in his sides victory only earned himself a staring position after a strong performance in the quarter-final match against Yugoslavia.

In the first eight minutes, things seemed to be going as expected when Puskás and Czibor put Hungary up 2-0 after two defensive errors by the German side led to easy finishes for the attackers. Hope was quickly restored to the German side  just two minutes later as Rahn played a ball into the box from the left wing that bobbled around and failed to be cleared before striker Max Morlock poked the ball into the back of the net.

Eight minutes after West Germany got their first, Rahn again was at the centre of things when he got on the end of a corner to equalise. According to radio reports of the game, Hungary dominated most of the game from then on. The Hungarians amassed a total of 26 shots in the game with 16 of those being on target. They hit the crossbar and the post and a Puskás goal was disallowed when he was ruled offside.

West Germany scored the winning goal and their first World Cup triumph six minutes from the end of the game when once again, Helmut Rahn, latched onto a poor clearance and faked out a defender before driving the ball into the bottom corner. At the final whistle, West Germany were champions, the favourites lost, Hungry’s dream team were finally defeated and Germany finally had something to cheer about.

Allegations

Following the game there were allegations that claimed the game had been fixed to dethrone the Hungarian golden team. A couple of incidents that were scrutinised: in the lead up to the West German equaliser, Hungarian goalkeeper Grosics was obstructed which allowed Rahn a clear chance to score and many also claim that Puskás’ disallowed goal wasn’t offside at all however, in footage of the game Puskás is not in the frame when the ball his played through so there can never be a definitive answer.

There were also allegations that the German side had been doped with performance enhancing drugs. Players admitted that they had been given glucose and the team physician many years later said the players had only been given vitamin C. However, a study by the University of Leipzig hypothesized that the German players may have been given a stimulant drug unbeknownst to them. Either way, doping was not made illegal until 1966 but it does raise questions about the legitimacy of the win.

The Aftermath 

In Hungary, the loss was a massive upset and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Budapest to protest, blaming coach Sebes for poor tactics and accusing goalkeeper Grosics of treason which ultimately led to him being placed under house arrest. The demonstrations were also thought to have been a fire starter for protests against the communist-authoritarian regime which had used the golden team to boost its popularity. The World Cup final loss then can be seen as the reason for the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

After the 1956 revolution, many of the Hungarian players emigrated, mostly to Spain and continued their careers there. Some, including Puskás also went on to represent the Spanish national side. At the following World Cup in 1958, only four members of the golden team were in the squad which failed to get passed the group stages.

In Germany, things were a lot different. July 4th, 1954 was seen as a turning point in Germany’s history. It was the first time since World War II that the German national anthem was played at a global sporting event and it brought some positivity back into German life which was much needed after the Second World War.

The players became known as the ‘Heroes of Bern’ and the occasion as the ‘Miracle of Bern’. Such was the importance of the event to the German people. Many of the squad member received offers to play abroad professionally but they all rejected and opted instead to remain semi-professionals.

Players of both sides met on numerous occasions over the years in both Hungary and Germany to celebrate an unlikely friendship formed between opposing national team members.

Horst Eckel (87), the starting central defensive midfielder for the West German side is the only player from the 1954 World Cup Final still alive (as of February 2019).

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