When one thinks of Brazilian soccer the last thing that comes to mind is thuggish play on the pitch. Today Brazil is seen as the ultimate exemplar of the beautiful game, a stylistic tour de force of a team, where spontaneity and individual artistry with the ball take football to the highest aesthetic level. Brazil reinvented the game with such play and in the process helped transform modern football. Their brilliant play has resulted in five World Cup titles, but in the early 1950’s the team was a long way from the footballing juggernaut that came to dominate international play during the last half of the 20th century. At the time Brazil was a nation without a world title. Uruguay and Argentina were South America’s footballing superpowers. While on the world’s biggest football stage, Brazil had made an infamous name for itself in two notorious matches both against Eastern European teams.
Brazil’s international coming out party at the 1938 World Cup was marred by a brutal quarterfinal match against Czechoslovakia, which has been termed the Battle of Bordeaux. Two Brazilians and one Czechoslovak were thrown out of the game for rough play. Each side had three players suffer injuries, but the Czechoslovak’s got the worst of it. Two of their star players, Oldrich Nejedly and Frantisek Planicka were gravely injured. Nejedly who scored his team’s lone goal of the game suffered a broken right leg which effectively ended his career. Planicka broke his right arm when he was kicked by the Brazilian striker Peracio in the midst of a shot. The wounded Planicka actually played out the game which ended in a draw, but was unable to show for the rematch which Brazil subsequently won. The referee in the Battle of Bordeaux was a Hungarian, Pal von Hertzka. What von Hertzka witnessed that day would reoccur against his home nation sixteen years later at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. In the quarterfinals that year, Hungary and Brazil played one of the most violent matches in football history, it has been forever known since as the Battle of Berne.
A Rain Soaked Sunday In Switzerland – The Battle Begins
On a rain soaked Sunday afternoon in late June, Hungary and Brazil met on the muddy turf of Wankdorf Stadium in Berne. A less than capacity crowd of 40,000 were on hand to witness what would become one of the most violent matches in World Cup history. Both teams were known for their attacking style of play, but by the end of the match they would be known for a very different type of aggression. The match started late in the afternoon amid a torrential downpour. The soggy conditions did nothing to slow the Hungarian attack which put the Brazilian defense under intense pressure from the start. Almost immediately the Brazilian goalkeeper Castilho had to fend off two shots. This was followed by an unstoppable shot from Nandor Hidegkuti at the four minute mark. In the process of scoring the goal Hidegkuti had his shorts ripped off, a precursor of much worse things to come. The Hungarians did not wait long to strike again when Hidegkuti crossed to “Golden Head” Sandor Kocsis who promptly scored.
Eight minutes into the game and Hungary already held a two goal lead. Both teams began to commit annoying fouls that only served to exacerbate ill tempers. The horrendous weather conditions only worsened the mood. The Hungarians soon lost their early momentum. In the 17th minute, the Brazilians gained a penalty kick after Indio was brought down in the box. Djalma Santos dutifully drove the ball into goal. For the rest of the first half the Brazilians were in prime form, they proceeded to outplay the Hungarians, but could not level the game. Fifteen minutes into the second half a crucial foul was called on Brazil when Kocsis collided with Santos in the penalty box. English referee Arthur Ellis ruled that the Brazilian mid-fielder Pinheiro had touched the ball. The ensuing penalty kick was put through by Mihaly Lantos. It looked as though Hungary was about to run away with the game. Yet the Brazilians surged back once again when Julinho made an amazing run with the ball, breaking free to rifle through a right footed shot. With twenty-five minutes left the Brazilians were now just one goal down. Unfortunately, the last third of the game became more about settling scores with fouls and fisticuffs rather than playing championship football.
Barely Controlled Chaos – Field Of Fiends
Six minutes after the Brazilians scored, Nilton Santos laid a vicious tackle on Hungarian Jozsef Bozsik. They then took it upon themselves to engage in a bare knuckle brawl. This resulted in both men being thrown out of the game. The police ended up having to lead them off after they refused to leave the field. This did not stop bad blood from continuing to flow. In one of the more bizarre incidents Djalma Santos chased Zoltan Czibor around the field while spitting and wildly gesticulating. Amidst incessant fouling and barely controlled chaos on the field, the Brazilians came close to leveling twice, with Julinho getting an open shot, but missing just wide. Soon thereafter Didi hit the goal post. This all-out attack of the Brazilians left them vulnerable on defense. The Hungarians exploited an opening in the 88th minute when a cross from Czibor was headed in for another goal by Kocsis. Brazil’s fate was now sealed. The final whistle blew and Hungary advanced to the semifinals. The violent nature of the match was reflected in a final tally of 42 free kicks, 2 penalty kicks, 4 cautions and 3 dismissals issued. The match may have ended, but the fighting between the teams did not stop.
Reports are unclear about exactly who was at fault, but some witnesses reported that Hungarian star striker Ferenc Puskas – who did not play in the game due to injury – struck Brazilian midfielder Pinheiro in the face with a bottle. A melee ensued afterwards with the Brazilians entering the Hungarian locker room for a final round of fighting. The Hungarian team manager Gusztav Sebes was struck during the brawl with a boot which led to four stitches. World Cup football had never seen such an outbreak of violence between two teams. The aftermath was almost as disappointing as the game itself. FIFA, the world football governing body, did not take any action, nor did the Hungarian or Brazilian Football Associations discipline their players. Years later, referee Ellis recalled that the players had “behaved like animals. It was a disgrace…It was a horrible match.” It really was a wretched match that will forever be remembered for the wrong reasons. Two great teams had allowed their play to degenerate into a violent free for all. In the process they had embarrassed themselves and the game of football.