1954 Switzerland

With only three minutes to roll
Hungary's Puskas was through for a goal
But although it was wrong
Griffiths' flag went up strong
To put the Magyars' hopes down a hole

When I finally save up enough money to buy my TARDIS, I am going to travel back in time to watch the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. It was truly a festival of attacking football, with the highest goals per game, 5.4, of any World Cup in history. There was only one problem: the wrong team won! West Germany had lost 8-3 to Hungary, the world’s finest team, in the group, but managed to turn the tables and win the final 3-2. The 1954 competition remains the only World Cup tournament in which no team was undefeated.

What was going on in the world in 1954?

Notable events in the first half of 1954 before the World Cup were:

  • Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio
  • USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine was launched
  • RCA manufactured the first colour TV set
  • President Eisenhower coined the phrase “domino theory” to explain the advance of communism
  • Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4 minute mile

And 1954 saw the birth of some future famous people:

  • Oprah Winfrey, John Travolta, Jerry Seinfeld, Jackie Chan, and Elvis Costello from the entertainment world
  • Socrates, Mario Kempes and Chris Evert from the sporting world
  • Hugo Chavez and Condoleeza Rice from the political world

Back to the World Cup – The format

After the logistical difficulties of the World Cup in the 1930s, especially to ensure the presence of the strongest teams in the world, and the hiatus of World War II, whose aftermath caused challenges for the 1950 World Cup, the 1954 tournament was the first genuinely world football event, with only Argentina and the USSR missing from the game’s powerhouses.

FIFA, of course, managed to make a mess of it. Given 16 qualifying teams and hence four groups of four teams, surely even FIFA could devise a well structured tournament? But unfortunately, FIFA came up with a half-baked format, and decided to nominate two teams from each group as seeds, so that these would not play each other. Hence each team played only two group games rather than the more obvious three. In a further oddity, extra time would be played if the teams were level after 90 minutes in the group games, with the result being a draw if the scores were still level after 120 minutes.

The group structure problems were compounded by the decision to announce the seedings before qualification, so when seeded Spain failed to qualify, losing out on a drawing of lots to Turkey, Turkey became a seeded team. This had a direct impact on the outcome of the World Cup as Germany’s coach, Sepp Herberger, exploited the imperfection of the group format by playing a largely reserve team against Hungary and ensured qualification via a play-off against a weak Turkey. The seeding system also did not prevent a fiercely difficult path to the final for the favourites.

Rookies and other participants

The tournament was still not especially global, 12 of 16 teams were from Europe, joined only by South Korea and Mexico, along with powerhouses Uruguay and Brazil.

Scotland, Turkey and South Korea made their World Cup debuts at this tournament. None fared very well and indeed all were subjected to at least one right hammering, each conceding at least 7 goals in a single game. Turkey managed to beat South Korea 7-0, but lost the group playoff to West Germany 7-2; South Korea had a goal difference of 0-16 after their two matches; and Scotland succumbed to a narrow 7-0 hiding to Uruguay.

German teams were allowed to qualify again, having been banned from the 1950 FIFA World Cup. West Germany qualified against fellow Germans from the Saarland (which then was a French protectorate), while East Germany had not entered, cancelling international football games after the East German uprising of 1953. Argentina, along with Hungary, perhaps the strongest team at the time, abstained from participation for the third world cup in a row. This was a theme of the early World Cups after the inaugural 1930 event; if Uruguay entered, Argentina stayed away.

Who Should Have Won, But Didn’t?

Hungary, the “Magical Magyars” as they were known, were by a country mile, the best team in the world. They were fully expected to win and thoroughly deserved to do so. They were reigning Olympic champions, and the World Cup has never had a hotter favourite.

The 1954 Hungarian side is arguably the finest team in football history with the highest ever team ELO rating of 2166. This Hungarian side would certainly be on a very short shortlist for the accolade of ‘greatest ever team’, along with the 1970 Brazilians and very few others. Consider the facts:

  • Hungary were unbeaten for 4 years
  • Going into the final they were on a 33 match unbeaten run
  • In their 5 games in the tournament they scored 27 goals at an average of close to 5.5 goals per game
  • They had beaten a powerful England side 6-3 at Wembley in November 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest in May 1954
  • They were superbly fit; their training regime set new standards and included mountaineering

The nucleus of the team was drawn from Budapest’s Honved club, and most of the players were capable of playing anywhere on the pitch. Their system is seen as the earliest ‘total football’ system, later developed further by the 1974 Dutch side.

What Went Wrong?

  •  Puskas, “The Galloping Major” Hungary’s captain was injured in the 8-3 win over Germany in the group. He missed the quarter final and the semi final, and perhaps should not have played in the final, as he was not fully fit.
  • Hungary had a very tough path to the final, with “the battle of Berne” against Brazil, followed by “the match of the century” against Uruguay.
  • The weather; it was described as “Fritz Walter Wetter”. Fritz Walter was Germany’s captain and was a specialist wet weather player. This perhaps makes him sound more like a formula one driver or a golfer than a football player, but he was noted for his ability in the rain. Furthermore Adidas had developed a new boot with exchangeable studs, which certainly helped the German cause in the wet conditions.

Heroes And Villains

But there were two other key factors behind the result; one a brilliant piece of goalkeeping and the other a critical refereeing decision.

Hero: Toni Turek

Hungary led 2-0 after 8 minutes and the Germans hit back to level the match on 18 minutes. With the game level in the 24th minute Toni Turek, Germany’s goalkeeper, pulled off the best save in World Cup history. “Best” in this context is not just a feat of superb athleticism, which it certainly was, but is also a measure of the importance of the save.

The astonishing save by Gordon Banks from Pele’s header in 1970 certainly rivals any save in terms of reactions and athleticism, but ultimately did not matter; the result of the match was unchanged and both Brazil and England progressed to the second stage as if the save had not been made. However, Turek’s save from Hidegkuti in the 1954 final, kept Germany in the game. Surely Germany would not have come back again. The reaction from the German radio commentator, Herbert Zimmerman, “Turek, du bist ein FussballGott!” (‘Turek, you are a football God!’) encapsulated the brilliance of the save, and is perhaps the only incident in football history which has culminated in an apology to the Pope.

Watch Turek’s save here (make sure to see the slow motion):

Villain: Mervyn Griffiths

The refereeing incident was to disallow an equaliser from Puskas in the 87th minute. A diagonal pass from Toth found Puskas running into space through the German defence, to flash the ball past Turek. To all watching, it seemed a vintage Hungarian goal. All, that is, except one.

With English referee, William Ling, pointing to the centre spot to indicate a goal, Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths put his flag up to signal offside. After a one-minute consultation, Ling disallowed the claimed equalizer. The final chance for this great and worthy Hungarian side was gone.

With only three minutes to roll
Hungary's Puskas was through for a goal
But although it was wrong
Griffiths' flag went up strong
To put the Magyars' hopes down a hole

The camera filming the official footage was in a bad position to judge the situation. However, eyewitnesses including German replacement player Alfred Pfaff, claimed that the referee was wrong. Since then, footage evidencing no offside has surfaced (as shown on North German regional public channel NDR in 2004).

More Controversy

For the Hungarians, the defeat was a disaster, and remains controversial not only due to the refereeing but also claims of doping to explain the better condition of the German team in the second half. Though teammates steadfastly denied this rumour, German historian Guido Knopp claimed in a 2004 documentary for German public channel ZDF that the players were injected with shots of vitamin C at half-time, using a needle earlier taken from a Soviet sports doctor. This would also explain the wave of jaundice among team members following the tournament. A Leipzig University study in 2010 posited that the Germany players had been injected with the banned substance methamphetamine

Tournament Lowlights – The Battle of Berne

“The Battle of Berne” quarter final between Hungary and Brazil, refereed by England’s Arthur Ellis, has gone down in history as one of the most brutal ever played.  There were:

  • 42 free kicks and 2 penalties
  • 4 players cautioned and 3 sent off (two for brawling, including Boszik, a Hungarian MP)
  • Dozens of police called on to the field to restore order
  • Hidegkuti managed to score Hungary’s first goal despite having his shorts ripped off in the act. There were also rumours that the brawling continued in the dressing rooms after the game and included the use of broken bottles.

Tournament Highlights – The Match of the Century

The semi final clash between Hungary and Uruguay was later described as “the match of the century”. Hungary were 2-0 up with 15 minutes to go, against a nation who were still unbeaten in World Cup history after 11 matches (having won in 1930 and 1950 and been absent in 1934 and 1938). Somehow Uruguay fought back and equalised with 3 minutes to go, before hitting the post in extra time. Hungary hit back in the second period of extra time with two headed goals from Kocsis to win an epic encounter.

Record Breaking Game

The game with the most goals in World Cup history was Austria’s 7-5 quarter final win over hosts Switzerland. Switzerland went 3-0 up in 20 minutes, before Austria hit back with 5 goals in 7 minutes to lead 5-4 at half time. Austria’s successful tactic was to shoot from long range and the half time press release attributed all 5 of Austria’s goals to “the sun”, possibly the feeblest excuse in World Cup history.

The game was refereed by a Scotsman by the name of Mr Faultless.

Some 1954 Trivia

  1.  Who were the first brothers to play in a World Cup winning side?
  2. Which country represented Asia in the 1954 World Cup?
  3. Which country was eliminated in qualifying for the 1954 World Cup via a “lucky draw” in favour of Turkey?
  4. Which player scored two goals in the 1954 World Cup final?
  5. Which countries lost in the semi finals of the 1954 World Cup?

Quick Facts

  • When: 16 June 1954 to 4 July 1954
  • Goals Scored: 140 (average 5.4 per match)
  • Attendance: 768,607 (average 29,561)
  • Matches: 26
  • Teams: 16

Verdict: Good, Bad or Ugly?

Definitely good. The icing on the cake would been a Hungarian win, but the Germans were underrated and made the most of the conditions, playing to their undoubted strengths. The goals per game tally was so strong and the quality of Hungary v Uruguay semi-final stands out to make this a memorable tournament.




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