Without Parallel – Croatia At The World Cup: Getting Their Kicks

The fairy tale for Croatia ended on a stormy evening in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Long before the clock struck midnight, time ran out on a Croatian team that had spent the past month defying the odds. They were finally laid low by an uber-talented French team 4-2 in the 2018 World Cup Final. Croatia, a country of only 4 million people, had wowed the world by coming back on three separate occasions in the knockout rounds, along the way defeating much more famous footballing powers such as Denmark, Russia and England. In the process, Croatia became the first Eastern European country to make the final since Czechoslovakia in 1962. It was also the first Balkan nation to ever make it that far. Even in defeat their achievement was cause for celebration. An Eastern European football side was back near the top at the World Cup.

Croatia’s runner-up showing also provided hope that one day we may see a country from the region raise the golden World Cup trophy as champions. It is worth remembering that the last team from Eastern Europe to make it into the latter stages of the World Cup was also Croatia in 1998. Since that time, the small Balkan nation most known for its stunningly beautiful Adriatic coastline, has qualified for five of the six World Cups and finished 3rd or better twice. This would be a remarkable feat by almost any standard, but for a country that lacks the footballing infrastructure of much larger or wealthier nations it is extraordinary feat. Just how extraordinary is worth reflecting on.

Croatian national team starters - Ready for the World Cup final

Croatian national team starters – Ready for the World Cup final (Credit: Kremlin.ru)

A Stellar Start – One Goal In Mind
In 1998 the World Cup Finals expanded to 32 teams for the first time in its history, coincidentally this was also when Croatia played as an independent nation in its first World Cup. It had achieved nationhood out of the wreckage of Yugoslavia following nasty wars with Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  To produce one of the world’s best football sides in the wake of such warfare and destruction was unprecedented. To continue to produce world class teams with limited resources has been nothing short of incredible. When measured against other nations, Croatia’s World Cup excellence becomes clearer. Since 1998 only France, Germany and Brazil have been in more World Cup semifinals while the Netherlands has managed as many as Croatia.

What this means is that Croatia’s two World Cup semifinals since 1998 are more than have been made by such traditional footballing powers as Argentina, Italy and Spain. This is not to say that Croatia produces anywhere near the amount of footballing talent that these countries do or that Croatia was as good as some of these nation’s best squads, for instance the 2010 World Cup Champion Spaniards. On the other hand, World Cup results do not lie. The record shows Croatia just one rung below the very best at the world’s premier football tournament. Consider that on the world’s biggest footballing stage Croatia has played at an extremely high level, not once, but twice. And during that twenty-year span, Croatia has failed to qualify for the World Cup just one time.

First Among Unequals – A Spirited Success
Finding a parallel to Croatian footballing success among other similar sized nations at the World Cup is difficult. Uruguay, World Cup champions in 1930 and 1950 were facing fields of 13 and 16 teams respectively. Their second championship came while many prominent nations were still trying to recover from the Second World War. Uruguay’s first championship came in the inaugural World Cup, against only a handful of top flight teams. Hungary and Czechoslovakia did enjoy a high degree of success between 1938 – 1962, but an argument can be made that this was before the World Cup was truly global in scope. The Netherlands comes closest in modern football to a smaller nation producing excellent World Cup results. The Netherlands also has four times the population of Croatia, is a wealthy, highly developed country with a very good domestic league.

Croatia has no such assets. It only became a member of the European Union in 2013, two decades after fighting a violent war. The Croatian domestic league is reflective of the nation’s politics, in other words it is riddled with dysfunction and corruption. None of the best domestic teams have the financial resources to keep homegrown talent from playing abroad. Even if they could, the level of play leaves much to be desired. Croatian players get better because they can go abroad to play in the world’s top leagues. To a large degree, they gain the coaching and experience at other’s expense. Then they come back home and tap into an unquantifiable spirit that seems to take hold of the players during their periodic runs to World Cup success. From a pure football perspective it does not hurt that the nation has produced a bumper crop of talented midfielders over the last thirty years.

Greater Things To Come – A Game Of Wait & See
Croatia’s 2018 World Cup runner-up showing has now placed it as the top national team in Eastern Europe since 1989, the era that followed the Iron Curtain’s collapse. This is all the more impressive because the Croatians had to overcome a late start in international play due to the Yugoslav Wars. Their first breakthrough at the 1996 European Championships was a harbinger of greater things to come. In that competition they qualified and then played in that tournament for the first time. Their they played Germany tough, before going down in defeat by a score of 2-1. The would dramatically avenge this loss, with a stunning 3-0 victory over the Germans in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinals. From that moment up through the present, Croatia’s national squad has been giving their fans more than they ever could have possibly expected.

Where does Croatia go from here? Judging by their record in World Cups after the 1998 semifinal finish there is bound to be a drop in results. In four World Cups from 2002 – 2014, the Croatians qualified for the finals three times, but only advanced to the knockout round once. It would be asking a bit much for the national team to repeat the success of 2018 at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That being said, there is no reason that Croatia cannot put themselves in position to make the knockout round once again. From that point anything can happen, as the teams in 1998 and 2018 showed. Croatia’s remarkable success in those two World Cups has already become part of the historical record. The Croatians now have only one other feat to accomplish at the World Cup, a championship.

The Benefits of Defeat – East Germany Versus West Germany At The 1974 World Cup

It was one of the few matches in World Cup history where both the winner and loser both ended up getting what they needed. The match took place in the first round of group play in the 1974 World Cup. It would be the only time East Germany and West Germany would face each other in the world’s most prestigious football tournament. The match coincided with the 1974 World Cup being held in West Germany. Fittingly, this was the only time East Germany qualified for the finals.

A match that was more than a game - West & East German captains shake hands before the historic match

A match that was more than a game – West & East German captains shake hands before the historic match

“To Prove To The World That We Could Play Football” – East Germany’s Challenge
The match took place before a packed crowd of 60,200 at the Volksparkstadion in the port city of Hamburg. The overriding majority of fans were West German supporters. In the same stadium eight days earlier, just 15,800 had shown up to watch the East Germans defeat Australia 2-0. The East German government had allowed only 2,000 hand-picked supporters to travel west of the Iron Curtain to cheer on their side. The majority of these were from the Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi. The secret police watched over and controlled every aspect of life on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. They were there to cheer, as well as keep a close eye on the East German team. As the lone vocal supporters of their national side, they gave a pre-planned cheer throughout the match, “7-8-9-10-Great.” The cheer was just as unimaginative as the communist system that had produced it.

West Germany came in to the match as heavy favorites, based on talent, form and history. They already had created quite a legacy in World Cup play, winning the title in 1954, a runner-up finish in 1966 and two semifinal appearances in 1958 and 1970. West Germany also came in to the tournament as European Champions. By comparison, the East Germans had achieved little in international play. Their greatest accomplishment up to that point had been a bronze medal finish at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. East Germany had produced many Olympic and World Champions in athletics. It was later discovered that much of their athletic success was due to doping, but drugs were of little help in fielding a world class football team. The 1974 squad was one of the best East Germany ever fielded. Yet no one believed they stood a chance against West Germany. As Bernd Brausch, the great East German midfielder later would say, “Everyone thought that we had no chance and we just wanted to prove to the world that we could play football.”  They would certainly do that.

“We Are Playing This For Schon” – West Germany’s Challenge
East Germany versus West Germany would be the final match in Group One play. While both teams had already qualified for the next round, the match result would determine future opponents for each team. Ironically, the winner would end up with a much tougher matchup in the second round of group play, though neither team thought much about this at the time. The truth was that both sides wanted to win badly, the West Germans to avoid embarrassment, the East Germans to prove they belonged on the same international football stage as their ethnic kin. One participant under immense pressure was the West German coach, Helmut Schon. Schon had been born in Dresden, a major city in what was now East German territory. Here was his chance for revenge and his players knew it. Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany’s star sweeper, made quite the statement when he said, “we are playing this for Schoen.” Those words would come back to haunt the team

Pressure was magnified by the heightened security situation. The World Cup was the first major international sporting event held in West Germany since the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics where eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group. There was a concerted effort by the West German authorities to ensure that this did not happen again.  The security measures were visible, police armed with guns all around the stadium and a helicopter hovering over the pitch throughout the match.

Jurgen Sparwasser (at left) scores the winning goal

Jurgen Sparwasser (at left) scores the winning goal

An Atmosphere Fraught With Tension – The Decisive Goal
Nerves certainly played a role in the shaky play of both teams during the first half. Neither team was able to capitalize on their best opportunities. The East Germans failed to score when they were gifted an open goal. The West Germans did not do any better.  Gerd Mueller, their brilliant striker, was denied when his shot hit the goal post. He created another excellent chance for Jurgen Grabowski who also missed. The first half ended in a scoreless tie. The second half was largely dominated by West Germany. They controlled play throughout, but were still unable to score.

The longer the game remained scoreless, the greater likelihood that the East Germans just might breakthrough. In the 82nd minute that is exactly what happened. Erich Hamann fed Jurgen Sparwasser the ball on the right, where he managed to get behind West German defender Berti Vogts. Sparwasser then unleashed a shot into the net. It turned out to be the decisive goal. When time expired a few minutes later, the East Germans had scored an upset for the ages. Their victory would be exploited by the regime for political purposes, but Sparwasser and the East German team got little reward. In the near term, the West Germans were devastated. Later that evening the team drowned its sorrows in a bout of drinking that continued until dawn. Strangely enough, they would realize the benefits of defeat.

To the loser goes the spoils - West Germany celebrates its 1974 World Cup title

To the loser goes the spoils – West Germany celebrates its 1974 World Cup title

Winning By Losing – West Of Victory, East Of Defeat

East Germany’s victory meant that they were the victors in Group One, while West Germany finished in second place. Unfortunately the East Germans had set themselves up for placement in the tougher of the two groups in the second round, having to face the Netherlands, Brazil and Argentina. Consequently they would not win another match in the tournament. Fortune smiled on the West Germans who were placed in a much weaker group with Poland, Sweden and Yugoslavia. They also reconfigured their lineup after the defeat against East Germany. The upshot was that West Germany went undefeated in group play and avoided facing the Netherlands until the final, a game in which they eked out a 2-1 victory. They had won the 1974 World Cup despite their devastating loss to East Germany. It was their reaction to that loss and luck with the draw that propelled them to their second World Cup title. They could not have asked for much more. The same could be said for the East Germans, who won the game that mattered most to them, their government and a nation that fifteen years later would cease to exist. Both East and West Germany had been victorious, even in defeat.

The Long Way Down To Nothing At All – Eastern European Football & The World Cup

On a Sunday afternoon in June of 1962 at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile the decline of Eastern European football in the World Cup began. Specifically, it occurred in the second half of the final between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. With the score tied at 1-1, Brazilian striker Amarildo sent a cross to midfielder Zito. Years later Zito would recall the moment, “When I got to the box, Amarildo cut past a defender and sent a cross in. It wasn’t any old cross either. He put it right on my head. I tried to jump as high as I could, thinking it was going to be a bit high, but no, he put it right on a plate for me and I couldn’t miss.” The goal was scored in the 69th minute. From that moment right up to the present day, Eastern Europe’s national football teams have been playing from behind in the World Cup.  They have progressively lost ground to the major footballing powerhouses such as Italy, Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina. In the context of recent World Cup football this may not seem like a big deal, but Eastern Europe used to produce elite national football squads. Four of the first ten World Cup Championship game finalists hailed from the region. Yet now its national teams struggle to win games in the group rounds. The decline has been long and steep.

Brazil celebrates their final goal against Czechsolovakia in the 1962 World Cup Championship game

Nail in the coffin – Brazil celebrates their final goal against Czechsolovakia in the 1962 World Cup Championship game

Recent Results – A Plague Of Poor Performance
Ever since the Iron Curtain crumbled in 1989 Eastern Europe’s national sides have been getting worse and worse in World Cup competition. Their play is representative of the poor state of football throughout the region, but the post-Cold War era started out rather successful. In the early 1990’s Eastern Europe produced several excellent national teams.  Many still recall the Cinderella squads from Bulgaria in 1994 and Croatia in 1998. Both made the semifinals in World Cups. Unfortunately, those teams are now little more than a distant memory. The 21st century has been marked by numerous poor performances to the point that when Eastern European teams qualify for the finals they are lucky to draw a game or two. In the 2014 World Cup Finals, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Russia combined to lose four matches, win two and draw two. The wins came over football lightweights, Iran and Cameroon.  Such results make mediocrity sound like a reasonable goal.

How bad has it been? Consider that in the last four World Cup Finals only one Eastern European team has made it as far as the quarterfinals – Ukraine in 2006.  Of the fifteen teams from the region that have qualified for the Finals since 2002, only two have made it as far as the knockout round, the last time was Slovakia in 2010. Eastern European teams continue to fail on football’s biggest stage. The reasons for this failure are many. With the exception of Russia, none of the countries from the region have the financial resources to train, coach and build a great national football team. Judging by Russia’s recent World Cup results they may have plenty of money, but thus far have little to show for it. This is the opposite of the situation during communist times. Back then, national football squads were the pride of their respective nations. They were heavily subsidized by authoritarian governments that viewed sport as an extension of ideology. Players were given first class training and coaching. They were treated as privileged members of the elite, receiving perks that were usually only reserved for Communist party members. This system resulted in top level teams that were primed to perform their best at the Olympic Games and World Cup Finals.

Kicked Out – The Era Of Low Expectations
The centralized communist sporting system no longer exists in any of the old Warsaw Pact nations or their offspring. The national football associations are beset by financial woes and endemic corruption. In Bulgaria, Ukraine, Poland and Russia there have been several instances where people involved in football have been murdered. Players are now free agents who spend most of their time playing in Central or Western Europe. If they do play for a club in their homeland, it is because they are not talented enough to go abroad or they may be getting kickbacks from vested interests. Even if a player from the region is top notch, a national team needs at least five or ten elite players just to compete with the world’s best national sides. There is little chance of mid-sized or small countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Slovenia producing such an abundance of talent.

The larger nations from the region such as Russia, Ukraine and Poland have a somewhat better chance, but are plagued by corruption. With neither the system nor population base, these nations stand little chance of making it to the final rounds. That being said, it is quite ironic that Eastern Europe was once a major force in World Cup play. Those days may be over, but their afterglow still emanates bright rays of hope to football fans throughout the region. The days of runner-up finishes in World Cup championships matches are likely a thing of the past. No one really expects an Eastern Europe’s national teams to be competitive with the world footballing elite anymore. Just qualifying and winning a game or two in the World Cup would now be considered a glorious success. Looking back, the success enjoyed by teams from the region in the first half century of World Cup play can now be considered an aberration.

Glorious Failure – The Czechoslovakian Moment
It is miraculous that a small nation such as Czechoslovakia could field a team that could come so close to winning the World Cup. The decline and fall of Eastern European soccer is not as improbable as Czechoslovakia being tied with Brazil through the 69th minute of the 1962 championship match in Santiago. The Czechoslovaks were less than half an hour from a victory that would be remembered forever. Instead they succumbed to the brilliance of Brazil. There is no shame in such a loss. The mere fact that they made it that far was a tremendous accomplishment.



A Brilliance Beyond 1954: The Last Triumph of Hungarian Football

For all the accolades showered on Hungary’s “Golden Team” there is one achievement that gets scant notice. After their 32 game unbeaten run was broken by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final, the Golden Team did not suddenly collapse despite a hostile Hungarian public and a government searching for scapegoats. Instead they continued to play at an incredibly high level. They did not give into defeatism or wallow in the sorrow of that stunning loss. For a year and a half they continued to beat one team after another, much the same as they had before the World Cup loss. Even after they lost a game in 1956, the Hungarians rose to the occasion one final time in Moscow to defeat what was soon to become their nation’s greatest foe.

Setting Records & Precedents – Kocsis Rises To The Occasion
Two months after the 1954 World Cup, Hungary began to play internationals once again. The loss to West Germany seemed to have little effect on their play. The star during this period was Sandor Kocsis. He had been the leading scorer in the World Cup, netting eleven goals. He kept up that pace for the rest of 1954 and into 1955. In the first ten internationals Hungary played after the loss, Kocsis scored 16 goals, including five multi-goal games. His prolific scoring ability helped carry the team as Kocsis set a standard unmatched in football history. He still holds the all-time record for average goals per game against FIFA Class A competition. In one of those matches, a friendly played in September 1954 against the Soviet Union in Moscow, he scored the lone Hungarian goal in a 1-1 draw. This was as close as the Soviets had ever come to losing at home. It would not be the last time the teams met in a precedent setting match in Moscow.

In the winter of 1954 Hungary traveled to Glasgow where they faced Scotland in front of a massive crowd of 113,000 at Hampden Park. This was the largest crowd the Hungarians would play in front of during the 1950’s. The Scots were well aware of what the Hungarians had done in their two earlier routs of England. Their strategy was very different from England’s. They launched fierce counterattacks in an effort to put Hungary on the defensive. These tactics were only partially successful. Hungary scored the first two goals and held the lead throughout the game, but the Scots showed great resolve. They pulled to within 3-2 a minute into the second half. From that point, the Scots narrowly missed on several shots that would have leveled the game. Only in the final minute did Hungary put the game away when Kocsis scored. The Magic of the Magyars was on full display that afternoon. They showed that even on the road, in the face of fierce resistance both on the field and in the stands, a top notch opponent was still no match for their brilliance. In the return affair in Budapest six months later Hungary triumphed once again, winning 3-1 before 100,000 of their countrymen.

Heading up the team - Sandor Kocsis

Heading up the team – Sandor Kocsis

Ending An Era – One For The Road
From September 1954 until the end of 1955, Hungary played 19 games, winning 16 matches and drawing three others. This was part of a six year run where they only lost once in 52 games. Then starting with their inaugural match in 1956 they hit a shockingly bad streak. First, they played poorly in a 3-1 road loss to Turkey. In their next match at home they tied Yugoslavia. The decline continued when they suffered their first home loss in an international match since 1943 as they were soundly defeated by Czechoslovakia 4-2. A couple of weeks later they traveled to Belgium where they would attempt to break a losing streak, something none of the Hungarian players had ever experienced playing for the national team. They raced out to a 3-1 lead, only to collapse in the second half, allowing four goals and losing 5-4. Changes would now have to be made. Blame focused on the coach, Gusztav Sebesz. For years he had been hailed as a footballing genius, a master of tactics, who had built the most brilliant team in football history. Ever since the World Cup loss, Sebes had become increasingly suspect in the eyes of the communist government. Following the loss to Belgium, he was relieved of his duties. Sebes would never again be allowed to manage the national team. The end of an era was close at hand.

The domestic situation in Hungary began to resemble the national team’s collapse. The Soviets removed the hardline Hungarian dictator Matyas Rakosi from power. Stalinist-era purges were denounced and victims were rehabilitated. This thaw unleashed pent up frustration about the country’s direction under the communist regime. Once the edifice of stability had cracked, it was not long before it began to crumble. The country was headed toward revolution. The Hungarian national football team dramatically inserted itself into this fraught situation when on September 23, 1956 they played the Soviet Union at Lenin Central Stadium in Moscow. The Soviets had never lost an international match at home. The 102,000 spectators on hand fully expected to witness another triumph by a team that was seen as an icon of what the Soviet system could produce. The Hungarians were seen as well past their prime, even though all the old war horses – Bozsik, Czibor, Grosics, Hidegkuti, Kocsis and Puskas – were still playing in the match. In the 16th minute, Czibor scored the lone goal of the game. It was an incredible upset in the backyard of worldwide communist officialdom.

The revolution to come in Hungary - autumn 1956

The revolution to come in Hungary – autumn 1956

Anything Is Possible – On The Edge Of Revolution
The Hungarians had conjured another remarkable victory. At the same time they helped stoke a patriotic fervor sweeping across the nation in what would be the final month before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The nation’s pride swelled as anything seemed possible. Their football team had defeated the best squad the Soviets had ever assembled. Once again it seemed that nothing could stop these Magical Magyars. That was until the outbreak of a revolution that would change Hungary and the Hungarian national football team forever.

The Road From Revolution – Hungarian Football Exiled Abroad

One of the great achievements in European football took place before 127,000 spectators at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland on May 18, 1960. The European Cup Final was played that Wednesday afternoon with the Spanish club of Real Madrid facing Eintracht Frankfurt of West Germany. Real had come back from an early deficit to take a 2-1 lead, but with the first half almost at an end the game was still a toss-up. Then Ferenc Puskas, the prolific forward so often associated with the glory days of Hungarian Football during the 1950’s, scored the first in what would be a barrage of goals. He single-handedly stretched Real’s lead from 2-1 to 6-1 by scoring four goals over a period of 27 minutes. Such a one man offensive assault has never been seen again in a European Cup Final.

Ferenc Puskas - star striker for Real Madrid

Ferenc Puskas – star striker for Real Madrid

At the time of the match, Puskas was 33 years old. He had been exiled from his homeland for over three years and many thought to be well past his prime. Then in less than half an hour of match time he had reminded everyone of the superb power and precision of his left foot shot, one of the best in football history.  “The Galloping Major” as Puskas had been known while playing for the army sponsored club of Honved in Budapest for years, galloped off to Spain after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a move that revitalized his career. He was one of several Hungarian players who just a few years before had been part of the famous Magical Magyar team of the 1950’s. This team had revolutionized the game of football with their training, tactics and innovation of an early form of Total Football. Ironically, another revolution, one based not on sport, but that of politics cast much of the team adrift, ending the golden age of Hungarian football forever.

Soldiering On – Honved Hits The Road
On October 23, 1956 an uprising exploded in the streets of Budapest. Tens of thousands of Hungarians had started out by protesting peacefully. The protest grew larger and more virulent throughout the day. Then in the evening violence broke out. Hungarians demanded an end to the one party communist state that held the nation in its iron grip for far too long. On that mid-autumn day Hungary was transformed. These changes were also felt by a group of Hungarians who were outside the country when the revolution broke out. Several members of the Hungarian national football team played for the Budapest Honved club. At the time of the uprising they had just lost the away leg of a two match series in the European Cup against the Spanish team, Athletic Bilbao by a score of 3-2.

The home match for Honved was to take place in Budapest, but was postponed due to the unrest. Despite the outbreak of fighting, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) announced that Honved would have to play the match or forfeit the game. It was rescheduled and played at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. This time Honved managed a tie, which was quite a feat considering the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the team. Unfortunately the tie did not allow them to advance. They ended up losing the series on aggregate score 6-5. All was not lost though, as this was just the beginning of their autumn adventure. The revolution had ended in defeat, but Honved soldiered on. Instead of returning to a homeland suffering in deep despair, Honved’s players had their families join them and went on the road for a fundraising tour.

Exiles abroad - Sandor Kocsis, Laszlo Kubala & Zoltan Czibor with FC Barcelona

Exiles abroad – Sandor Kocsis, Laszlo Kubala & Zoltan Czibor with FC Barcelona

Stateless Wonders – Kocsis, Czibor & Puskas Soar
The fiercest opposition to the tour did not come on the field of play. Officials at the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) were against it since Honved did not have the support of the Hungarian Football Association. In effect they were stateless when it came to official support. Nevertheless they played throughout southern Europe and as far afield as Brazil on the tour. While ostensibly for a good cause, the tour was also an opportunity for Honved’s top players to showcase their talent before prospective foreign clubs. These auditions might possibly lead to a lucrative contract for a lucky few. Playing for pay as a professional in the west was a much better proposition than playing for the perks doled out by the Communist Party back in Hungary. Who would return and who would stay was an open question. Honved was not the only Hungarian club to tour abroad. MTK Budapest also left the country and went on the road. The difference was that the MTK players would return home, while some of Honved’s best players decided to stay abroad.

Three of Hungary’s greatest players, Sandor Kocsis, Zoltan Czibor and Ferenc Puskas eventually signed contracts to play in Spain, the first two with Barcelona and the latter with Real Madrid. Kocsis and Czibor were the kind of world class players any time would have been grateful to acquire. FC Barcelona was able to sign them due to the efforts of Lazslo Kubala, another Hungarian exile who had left the country in 1949 when it became apparent that a hard line Stalinist regime was being implemented in Hungary. Kubala’s efforts paid immediate dividends for the club as the additions of Kocsis and Czibor led to Barcelona winning the La Liga championship. In 1961 Barcelona made it all the way to the European Cup final. Ironically, the final was being played in Wankdorf Stadium in Berne, Switzerland, the same place where Kocsis and Czibor had experienced defeat in the 1954 World Cup Final. The second time was not a charm for them either as Barcelona lost 3-2 to Benfica. After Kocsis retired he opened a restaurant in Barcelona. He lived out his life in the city. Czibor eventually would return home.

The flag of Hungary with the center cut out - these became symbols during the 1956 Revolution when the communist coat of arms were cut out

The flag of Hungary with the center cut out – these became symbols during the 1956 Revolution when the communist coat of arms were cut out

Losing Twice – A Nation & Its Football Team
As for Puskas he played world class soccer for Real Madrid up into the mid-1960’s helping lead them to multiple European Cup finals. He then took up coaching, enjoying a fair amount of success. Never more so then when he took the Greek team Panathinaikos to the 1971 European Cup final. Only after the collapse of communism would he return to Hungary. Puskas was feted as a national hero. His long and notable adventures as a foreign exile were behind him. So were the glory days of Hungarian soccer. The national team had never been a threat to win the World Cup after Kocsis, Czibor and Puskas fled abroad.  Puskas was made coach of the national team in 1993, but this did little good. He failed to resurrect a team that was lacking in talent. Miracles rarely happen twice. The Magical Magyars of the 1950’s were a once in a lifetime team. No one knew this better than Puskas. Their brilliance and mystique had been damaged by their loss in the 1954 World Cup Final. Two years later, it disappeared entirely with the outbreak of revolution. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 had transformed both the nation and its national football team. In both cases, Hungary lost. These are defeats from which the nation has yet to recover.

Losses On & Off The Football Field – Shadows Of Defeat: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Six)

It was an uneventful and quiet journey from Berne back to Budapest for the Hungarian national football team following their upset loss to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final. The trip could not have been long enough for each member of the team. Every one of them knew that nothing would be the same when they arrived back home. They had no idea who or what would greet them, but it would certainly not be good. Much of the capital had been festooned with bunting prior to the final in anticipation of a victory. Following the loss all of the bunting disappeared in a matter of hours. What appeared on the streets was much more ominous and foreboding. In the working class districts of Budapest thousands gathered together to vent their frustrations resulting in localized riots. Some of them went even further. Among their targets was the National Football Lottery which they set on fire. Prowling the streets, shouting and inebriated, these vandals made their way to the National Radio Station, a prime target since it had broadcast the catastrophic loss. In vain they would shout for commentator Gyorgy Szepes to be brought out. They were searching for a scapegoat. The government would find one soon enough. These incidents were symbolic of the heartbreak and frustration of an entire nation now seething with discontent. Into this fraught situation, the Golden Team – its luster turning rapidly to rust – returned.

Losing the blame game - Ferenc Puskas

Losing the blame game – Ferenc Puskas

The Search For Scapegoats – “I Knew They Had It In For Me”
Much of the anger was directed at Ferenc Puskas. The star of the team became a lightning rod for much of what had gone wrong in the final game. Puskas had convinced the team’s coach Gusztav Sebes to add him to the lineup. Not only was Puskas still injured and unfit for match play, but his presence in the lineup also denied a place to Laszlo Budai who had been one of the stars in the victory over Uruguay. Later it was said that Puskas did this out of jealousy and a habitual dislike for Budai. After the loss Puskas was kept out of the limelight for many months, both for reasons of personal safety and fear that his appearance might provoke the public further. For his part, Puskas accused the Germans of doping. His complaints were loud, but few were listening. Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics and the team’s coach Gusztav Sebes bore the brunt of the Hungarian communist regime’s wrath for the loss. Grosics was already under suspicion for attempting to defect several years before.

Fall guy - Gyula Grosics

Fall guy – Gyula Grosics

Because of his checkered past, Grosics became a convenient fall guy for the communist regime. Who could be guiltier than the man who allowed all three goals by the West Germans? This was despite the fact that he had been named to the all-star team for the 1954 World Cup.  Many years later Grosics would recall the greeting given to the team upon their arrival in Budapest by Hungary’s communist dictator Matyas Rakosi. “None of you should be punished for this game. I get the sound of his voice still in my ears…I knew that this means exactly the opposite. I knew that something bad would happen. I had often clashed with state security…now I had the feeling to be in danger. I knew they had it in for me.” Grosics was correct. Soon thereafter he was arrested, charged with smuggling goods and espionage. He could have been given the death penalty, but instead was banned from football for a year, then exiled to the mining town of Tatabanya, where he played for the local team when he was not being taken in for weekly interrogations. Only after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 did the pressure on him subside. He would be allowed to rejoin the national team, playing in both the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.

A Failure Of Nerves – The Plight Of Sebes
As Hungary’s coach, Gusztav Sebes found himself shouldering much of the blame. His decision to play Puskas was seen as a fatal error that helped cause the loss, but that decision was not just Sebes’. Other officials in the Ministry of Sport also put pressure on him to start Puskas. Sebes made some other odd lineup and position changes that directly impacted the team against West Germany. He included Mihaly Toth in the starting lineup though he was not a regular starter. He also switched Zoltan Czibor from his traditional position on the right wing to the left. Perhaps Sebes’ decision making was influenced by the immense pressure of trying to win the championship. During the tournament he said, “I never suspected the World Cup would be such a test of nerves.”  An even greater test of nerves awaited him back home in the aftermath of that dreadful defeat. Sebes was a fierce communist ideologue, but he had let the regime down on one of the biggest international stages. Such a failure could not be easily explained away.

Coach and scapegoat- Gusztav Sebes

Coach and scapegoat- Gusztav Sebes

Sebes reputation was badly damaged, though he did manage to continue as the team’s coach for another two years. Then in 1956 after Hungary lost a friendly to Belgium and with the political situation in the country growing to a combustible level, Sebes lost his job. He was denounced by officials in the Ministry of Sport for being too bourgeois, a code word for ‘enemy of the people.’ His notoriety likely saved him from a worse fate than being fired. Eventually Sebes would find his way back to the game as an administrator and coach at the club level, but he would forever be shadowed by the 1954 World Cup Final. Sebes saw in the defeat a monumental political, as well as sporting loss. He once said, “If Hungary had won the football World Cup there would have been no counter-revolution, but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country.” Such a statement might be dismissed as ideological nonsense. Then again what else did Hungary have in the 1950’s except an extraordinary football team, a team that represented an entire nation’s hopes and dreams? When those Magical Magyars were defeated, so was the state. At least that was the way it worked in the mind of Sebes.

The Greatest Loss
Sebes, Grosics and Puskas were all vital components in one of the greatest football teams ever. Yet each of these men also received much of the blame for Hungary’s stunning defeat. Hungarian football had ascended to such stratospheric levels that a single loss ended up obscuring the team’s many spectacular achievements. That was the way it had to be for a government and a nation that lost the one thing they could believe in together. It was a horrible loss, but more horrible ones were to come for Hungary and the losses would not be on a football field.

A Strange, Schizophrenic Quality – German Restoration & Hungarian Devastation: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Five)

During the Cold War it was a thinly disguised secret that communist bloc nations were involved in doping to enhance athletic performance. East Germany was among the worst offenders. Their state sponsored program was successful in helping the hardline communist nation win many international championships and Olympic gold medals. Today East Germany is remembered for little more than rampant cheating in sports. What is less well known is that West Germany also had a state sponsored doping program. Its most important sporting victory was most likely assisted by performance enhancing drugs. The drugs used were not illegal at the time, but are now banned. Because of this, great controversy swirls around West Germany’s upset victory over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup final.

Getting Their Fix – Assuming The Offensive
To have any chance at all against a Hungarian team that was likely the strongest in football history, the West Germans needed every advantage they could get. This was why prior to the game doctors may have injected the West German players with Pervitin, a powerful type of methamphetamine that boosts stamina and energy level. This was a crucial aid in a tight game, played in deplorable weather conditions, that was deadlocked late into the second half. Reports of the methamphetamine injections were later denied, but 35 million doses had been manufactured for use by German soldiers during World War II, thus there were large quantities still available in Germany. Officials did admit that West German players had indeed been given injections, but of vitamin concoctions. A damning report, Doping in Germany From 1950 To Today, which was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee in 2008, told of systemic support by West German officials for the use of performance enhancing substances in national athletics. Though the report did not specifically refer to the 1954 World Cup team, the implication was clear. A person who worked on that study later stated that the 1954 World Cup team had received regular injections of Pervitin in the run up to the tournament, as well as during it. Players had sometimes shared the same needle and syringe for these injections.

In the months following the match several German players became seriously ill, contracting jaundice or black fever with two eventually dying from cirrhosis of the liver.  The price of victory for some unlucky players may have been their lives. Such controversies would arise after the final, but as the second half opened with the game tied at 2-2, both teams focused on probing for an opening that could lead to the decisive goal. The Hungarians again assumed the offensive. Star striker Ferenc Puskas was a shadow of his pre-injury self, unable to convert opportunities into goals like he had so often in the past. Nevertheless he was still extremely dangerous. This became apparent in the opening minutes of the half when Puskas came close to scoring with two shots on goal expertly saved by Toni Turek. A few minutes later, Golden Head Sandor Kocsis hit the bar with a header. Such close calls kept the partisan German crowd on edge, over half the crowd of 64,000 in Berne that day were estimated to be rabid West German supporters.

A moment that will last forever - the restored match clock outside the Stade de Suisse

A moment that will last forever – the restored match clock outside the Stade de Suisse (Credit: Sandtein)

Tiebreaker – The Ultimate Goal
The second half turned into a continuation of the last two-thirds of the first half with neither side able to score. It was not so much a defensive stalemate, as it was a series of missed opportunities. The match had a strange schizophrenic quality to it. In the first 16 minutes four goals had been scored, then for over an hour the match was scoreless, this was followed by a frantic finish with two goals in two minutes, but only one of them would be allowed. Though the Hungarians had come close to scoring several times in the second half, it was the West Germans who finally broke through. In the 84th minute, Hans Schaefer on the left wing sent a cross that just barely eluded Hungarian defender Mihaly Lantos. The ball reached Helmut Rahn, who advanced with it, seemed to pause momentarily, then used his weaker left foot to put a shot past Hungarian goalie Gyula Grosics into the left corner of the goal. The Germans had finally taken the lead. All they needed to do now was hold Hungary scoreless for a few more minutes. This turned out to be rather difficult as the Hungarian offense unleashed a frantically attack.

Desperation suddenly elevated Puskas’ play. In the 86th minute he broke free to receive a precision through pass from Mihaly Toth, entering a gap, he was able beat Turek. His shot found the goal. For a precious few moments it looked like the game was tied once again, but the flag of Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths was raised calling an offside penalty on Puskas. To this day the call is still debated. Replays seem to show Puskas onside. Many still believe – and not just Hungarians – that the goal should have counted. To this day, the offside on Puskas is one of the most controversial calls in World Cup history. No one will ever know if the Hungarians would have been able to win the game in extra time. Hungary had one last golden opportunity in the waning seconds of the match when Zoltan Czibor broke free and sent a shot toward the corner of the goal, but Turek was there just in time to knock the ball away.

West German captain Fritz Walter and friends celebrate the Miracle of Bern

West German captain Fritz Walter and friends celebrate the Miracle of Bern

More Than A Game –  West Germany Rising
When the final whistle blew West Germany were the 1954 World Cup champions. It was the nation’s first major post-war international success and called the Miracle of Berne (Das Wunder von Berne). A country that had nearly ceased to exist less than a decade earlier, that was still occupied in some parts by foreign armies, were now world champions of the most popular global sport. An improbable victory had been won against incredible odds. The West Germans had defeated a Hungarian team that had not lost in four years, a team that exactly two weeks earlier had beaten them by five goals and led them by two goals eight minutes into the final. Was a victory ever this improbable? The West Germans may have been helped to victory by a powerful stimulant, but it was not illegal at the time. They may have been the recipient of an official’s error, but that is debatable. Nothing could take away from the emotional thrill and restoration of national confidence that the West German football team’s victory gave to the German people. For the Hungarian team as well as the nation losing the 1954 World Cup would be too much to overcome. The recriminations were about to begin.

Click here to read: Losses On & Off The Football Field – Shadows Of Defeat: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Six)

The Making Of A Miracle – Rise Of The West Germans: Hungary & the 1954 World Cup (Part Four)

Some losses can never be overcome and some victories are bigger than they seem at the time. No two teams in the history of international football represent these two extremes better than Hungary and West Germany in the wake of their 1954 World Cup championship match. The legendary magic of the Magyars ran out in a stinging 3-2 defeat to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final in Berne, Switzerland. This loss sent Hungarian football into a death spiral from which it has never really recovered, while the victory boosted West Germany’s national self-confidence and propelled their national team into the top tier of world football for decades to come.

A ticket to a miracle - 1954 World Cup final ticket

A ticket to a miracle – 1954 World Cup final ticket

A Miracle Made From A Matchup – Final Reckoning
Hungary came into the final heavily favored with an unbeaten streak of 32 games. The Golden Team as they were known had defeated both the 1950 World Cup finalist (Brazil) and champion (Uruguay) in the previous two rounds and scored at least four goals in every game. Their only real shortcoming concerned the defense, which had allowed seven goals in five games. Still, this total was less than the eight goals they had scored in trouncing West Germany earlier in the group round. Conversely, the West Germans came without any great expectations of success. This was the first major international sporting tournament they had been allowed to compete in since the end of World War II. West Germany had not been allowed to field teams in either of the two post-war Olympic Games nor the 1950 World Cup. Even their 1954 World Cup squad could not choose players from all of western Germany. Saarland – a region that included the Saar River valley and its tributaries in southwestern Germany along the border with France – had fielded its own national team which failed to qualify.

In the group round, West Germany’s play was unexceptional, but during the knockout rounds they stepped up their game. First was a shut out of Yugoslavia, then a convincing 6-1 victory over a strong Austrian team in the semifinals. This meant they would once again face Hungary. The West Germans fielded a very different team in the final from the one Hungary had shellacked earlier in group play. Their coach Sepp Herberger had not used several of his best players in that match, relying on reserves instead. He changed out six different players for the final. Many also believe the West Germans had given less than their best effort in the group round loss. It was a masterful strategy, because it lulled the Hungarians into a false sense of superiority.

Captains before the kickoff - Fritz Walter and Ferenc Puskas with referee William Ling

Captains before the kickoff – Fritz Walter and Ferenc Puskas with referee William Ling

A Matter of Minutes –  Shattering Confidence
The West German strategy was almost derailed by their dreadful start in the final. It was only matched by the awful weather in Berne on that memorable day. A drenching rain soaked the sod, making the field soft and muddy. This did little to stop Hungary from opening with their usual display of offensive firepower. In the sixth minute a shot by Sandor Kocsis hit a West German defender, the ball then found its way to the half-fit and hobbled Ferenc Puskas who hammered home a left footed shot. A mere two minutes later the West German goalie Toni Turek mishandled a back pass. The ball suddenly came into the possession of Zoltan Czibor who drove it in for Hungary’s second goal. No one knew it at the time, but it would also turn out to be their last. At this point the West Germans looked done. They were actually in a worse position score-wise than in their earlier match with Hungary. In that game Hungary did not take a 2-0 lead until the 17th minute. The difference this time was that the West Germans fielded a much better team. They proved that a two goal deficit was just a temporary obstacle.

The West Germans managed to shatter Hungarian confidence in a matter of minutes. The period of the match from the 10th through the 16th minute was transformative. First the West Germans enjoyed a fortuitous stroke of luck when a centered ball was deflected by a Hungarian defender toward Max Morlock, who was able to stretch out and stab it into the goal. Then just six minutes later a corner kick by Fritz Walter escaped the grasp of the Hungarian goalie Gyula Grosics. The ball made its way to Helmut Rahm who knocked it in to tie the game. The Hungarian lead had evaporated. The West Germans had showed grit and determination. For the first time, the match was bending to their will. They now had their feet under them, figuratively and quite literally. This was due to the football boots they wore, developed by Adi Dassler, the man who founded and gave his name to the sporting goods firm Adidas. The boots had screw-in studs that allowed the West German players much better traction on the drenched turf. They were surer of foot while the Hungarians slipped and slid about on a muddy field which only got worse as the match progressed. Their usually powerful offense got bogged down in this quagmire.

Max Morelock stretches out to score the West Germans first goal

Max Morelock stretches out to score the West Germans first goal (Credit: DPA/Press Association)

A Grinding Match In The Mud – Grinding To A Half
A closely fought, tense match now ensued. The Hungarians did their best to press the offensive. The German defense held, but just barely. This was partly due to the magnificent play of the goalie Turek. He made one of his most memorable saves when he stopped an excellent shot from the Golden Head of Sandor Kocsis. One of the few times Turek was beaten, the goal post provided an extra defense as it denied a shot from Nandor Hidegkuti. Then it was the Germans turn, as they besieged the Hungarian goal for an extended onslaught. Despite several openings, their efforts came to naught. The first half ended in a 2-2 tie. What had started out as a rout, was now a hard fought match among equals. The final had turned into a contest of will more than style, a defensive battle rather than an offensive assault, a grinding match in the mud that had become a test of strength and stamina. All of these developments favored the Germans and consequently, a miracle upset.

Click here for: A Strange, Schizophrenic Quality – German Restoration & Hungarian Devastation: Hungary’s 1954 World Cup (Part Five)

Uruguay At Twilight – Magical Magyars In Starlight: Hungary & the 1954 World Cup (Part Three)

The Battle of Berne had tested Hungary’s physical and mental resolve like never before. The fouling and fighting took its toll, but the Hungarians had triumphed over Brazil. They moved on to the semifinals where they would face an even tougher test against Uruguay. In the space of just two matches, the Hungarians would go from playing in one of the most embarrassing matches in football history to possibly the greatest match up to that time. The Uruguayans offered a completely different test based on skill and strategic play. It was a truly remarkable matchup as the current Olympic champions went up against the defending World Cup champs. The Uruguayans were undefeated in World Cup play, winning both times they entered in 1930 and 1950. The latter had produced the greatest upset in World Cup history when they defeated hosts Brazil in Rio before a crowd of 200,000 – the largest ever for a football match – cheering against them. The Uruguayan squad that traveled to Switzerland for their first World Cup overseas was in fine form. In the preliminaries they defeated Czechoslovakia 2-0 and annihilated a good Scottish team by the surprising score of 7 -0. They then faced England in the quarterfinals. Many contemporary observers believed that the English played their best World Cup match ever. Nevertheless, Uruguay still prevailed 4 – 2. The forthcoming Hungary versus Uruguay contest was much anticipated. Many experts thought that these were the two best teams in the tournament.  The match would certainly live up to expectations.

Uruguay's 1954 World Cup team

One goal away from greatness – Uruguay’s 1954 World Cup team

Under Siege From The Start –  Hungary Attacks
A notable aspect of Hungary’s 1954 World Cup performance was the speed with which they were able to score their first goal. In four of six matches they scored by the eight minute mark. The longest they took to score in any match was the thirteen minute mark against Uruguay. This was certainly not due to a lack of opportunities. Minutes after the opening kick Hungary was in all-out attack mode. The Uruguayan goalkeeper Roque Maspoli was under siege right from the start. First he saved a shot from the unsung forward Peter Palotas, next he watched as a shot from Josef Bozsik went just wide. Then the always prolific Nandor Hidegkuti narrowly missed a shot from an acute angle on the left. It seemed that the Hungarians might score at any moment. That is precisely what they did when Hidegkuti lofted the ball to “Golden Head” Sandor Kocsis who sent it on to Zoltan Czibor who volleyed it into the net. Maspoli could only look on in disbelief.

Down a goal the Uruguayans discovered their offensive energy. They began to control the ball more, but failed to create a breakthrough. Much of the Uruguayan’s inability to score was because of the Hungarian keeper-sweeper Gyula Grosics. True to his reputation Grosics came out from beyond the goal to sweep long balls clear before they could do any damage. Just before half it was Hungary’s turn once again. Kocsis measured up another fierce header, but Maspoli anticipated perfectly. As both sides went to the locker room Hungary held a 1-0 advantage. The first half had been played at near warp speed. These were two teams at the height of their powers, a display of marvelous technical skill and total confidence.

Uruguayan goalkeeper Roque Maspoli watches as Hungary scores

Uruguayan goalkeeper Roque Maspoli watches as Hungary scores

Tied Up & Knocked Out – Uruguay’s Comeback
The high quality of play by both teams continued after the half with the Hungarians once again in the ascendant. They came out once again pressing the attack. A golden opportunity arose when the Hungarians intercepted a bad clearance shot. Midfielder Laszlo Budai – who would controversially be replaced for the final match by star striker Ferenc Puskas – sent a cross that was headed in by Hidegkuti just a minute into the 2nd half. With a two goal lead it seemed that nothing could stop the Hungarians now. They came close to scoring a couple of more times. It looked like the game was about to turn into a rout, but Uruguay had other ideas. Perhaps they drew on confidence sustained from their previous World Cup comeback four years earlier, when they overcame a one goal deficit to defeat Brazil in the final. Whatever the case, Uruguay began to surge.

They were led by the creative playmaking of Juan Schiaffino and the shooting prowess of Juan Hohberg. The duo teamed up on two scores in the 75th and 86th minutes. On the latter goal Hohberg rifled a shot into the top of the net. A wild celebration ensued that ended up with Hohberg being knocked out by his own teammates. He would soon return to his feet. The Hungarians were the ones who were truly reeling. Their supposedly insurmountable lead had vanished in eleven minutes. Uruguay looked to be on the verge of another incredible comeback.  Hohberg came within inches of a hat trick in the first period of extra time when Schiaffino fed him the ball once again. This time his shot smacked the bottom of the post. Victory was that close, but it would not come any closer.

Zoltan Czibor celebrates a goal getting past Roque Maspoli in extra time

Zoltan Czibor celebrates a goal getting past Roque Maspoli in extra time (Credit: ullstein bild)

All Downhill From Here – A Last Grasp For Greatness
The second period of extra time started with the game now at 120 minutes and counting. This time the Hungarians were able to deliver two lethal blows. First Kocsis hit one of his trademark headers off a cross from Budai to give them the lead. Then Kocsis struck again a few minutes later as he headed home Boszik’s center. The Magical Magyars went on to close out a closely fought 4-2 triumph in a game that was talked about for years to come. The Uruguayans had shown their determination once again. Sadly the game would be their last high point for many decades. Uruguayan football went into terminal decline following the 1954 World Cup. It would take over a half century before they would return to the semifinals. Ironically the Hungarian victory was also their last real feat of World Cup acclaim. They have yet to return to a World Cup semifinal. No one knew this at the time though. For the moment, Hungary looked forward to a return match with West Germany, a team they had destroyed in the group round. It looked nearly certain that Hungary would win the championship. That was until they played the actual game.

Click here for: The Making Of A Miracle – Rise Of The West Germans: Hungary & the 1954 World Cup (Part Four)

Giving Them The Boot – The Battle Of Berne: Hungary & The 1954 World Cup (Part Two)

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.

Sandor Kocsis shoots as Castilho moves in for the save

Getting their kicks – Sandor Kocsis shoots as Castilho moves in for the save

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.

Slugging it out - Hungary & Brazil fight for a place in the 1954 World Cup quarterfinals

Slugging it out – Hungary & Brazil fight for a place in the 1954 World Cup quarterfinals (Credit: Popperfoto)

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.

Battle of Berne - Violence on the pitch between Hungary & Brazil

Battle of Berne – Violence on the pitch between Hungary & Brazil

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.

Coming here for: Uruguay At Twilight – Magical Magyars In Starlight: Hungary & the 1954 World Cup (Part Three)