Switzerland seemed like an incongruous choice to host the fifth
It was supposed to be Hungary’s World Cup . The Magyars, mere months on from their 6-3 and 7-1 humiliations of England, were seen as being indisputably the finest force in world football. In Ferenc Puskas they possessed the best player in the world, an attacking conjurer with an outstanding left-foot who had once been a Major in the Hungarian army. Puskas was ably supported by his fearsome strike partner Sandor Tocsis and midfield schemer Nandor Hidegkuti, the first genuine playmaker of the modern game. The Hungarians served notice to the rest of the field by scoring 17 goals in their first two games. They opened with a 9-0 demolition of South Korea before beating West Germany, the team who would ultimately upset them in the final, 8-3. The loss of Puskas to an ankle problem in the clash with the Germans cast a shadow over the Magyars’ impressive exploits.
Unseeded West Germany were the un-fancied outsiders. Permitted to play in the World Cup for the first time since the Second World War, they were nevertheless galvanised by a strong core of players from Kaiserslautern, most notably the Walter brothers, Fritz and Otmar. Though the result against Hungary seemed a damning indictment of their tournament credentials, in fact Coach Sepp Herberger had rested six key players, gambling, correctly as it turned out, that his men could defeat seeded Turkey in a Play-Off.
England’s hopes were carried on the shoulders of 39-year-old Stanley Matthews, still in dazzling form a year on from his finest hour in the 1953 FA Cup Final. The spine of the team was provided by Champions Wolverhampton Wanderers – they shared a captain in Billy Wright, while his Molineux team mates Mullen and Wilshaw also had strong tournaments, netting a goal apiece as England brushed aside the hosts 2-0 in Berne.
England’s hopes were crushed in the quarter-finals by Uruguay, who had won every World Cup they had entered. The Uruguayans had already sent Scotland home in the first round with a 7-0 thrashing. La Celeste boasted the brilliant forward Schiaffino, who tormented the English as Uruguay ran out 4-2 winners.
Hosts Switzerland advanced to the quarter-finals by twice shocking Italy. Their opponents were Austria, and the match would be among the competitions most memorable. The Swiss raced into a 3-0 lead after just 20 minutes, only for Austria to manfully fight back. An insane seven minute spell saw five goals scored and the Austrians led 5-4 at the interval, going on to win 7-5. Key to their rout had been the indifferent performance of Switzerland’s star player Roger Bocquet, a normally assured centre half who spent the game, in the words of one Swiss official, “playing as if in a trance.” Bocquet was revealed to have been playing whilst suffering from a brain tumour.
The most notorious game of the finals was the “Battle of Berne” between Brazil and Hungary, another quarter-final tie. What appeared on paper to be a mouthwatering clash between two pure footballing nations descended into a brutal kicking match. Hungary surged into a two goal lead before Santos revived Brazilian hopes from the spot. The livewire Julinho again pegged back the Magyars after Lantos had previously redoubled Hungary’s lead. Two of the competition’s stars tarnished their reputations when Nilton Santos and Jozsef Bozsik were dismissed for brawling. Young Brazilian forward Tozzi would also be sent-off for kicking out at Lorant at the death, but by that time Kocsis had made the game safe for the Magyars. The violence continued off the pitch when the Brazilian players invaded the Hungarian dressing room, allegedly brandishing broken bottles. A fight ensued which left Coach Gusztav Sebes nursing facial lacerations.
Spectators feared further bloodshed in the semi-final between Hungary and Uruguay, but what they got instead was the game of the tournament between two excellent sides. In spite of Hohberg’s two strikes, the match would mark the end of the golden age of Uruguayan football as La Celeste were beaten 4-2 in extra times. Kocsis netted his 10th and 11th goals of the tournament en route to the Golden Boot.
As the final kicked off in front of 64,000 at Berne’s Wankdorf Stadium, it was widely anticipated that the coronation of Hungary as World Champions was inevitable. Puskas returned, still not completely recovered from his ankle injury. Nevertheless, the Hungarians were 2-0 up within the opening 15 minutes, Puskas himself scoring the opening goal. The resilient Germans battled back however, and the tide turned with Helmut Rahn’s second half equaliser. Hidegkuti then uncharacteristically missed the simplest of chances, and five minutes later the tenacious Rahn fizzed a left foot effort beyond goalkeeper Grosics. There was still time for controversy as Puskas’ leveller was ruled offside by the Welsh linesman. West Germany held on to win their first World Cup in a triumph for the unity and discipline of Herberger’s underdogs.
The magnificent Magyars would never again scale such heights, with Puskas leading an exodus of stars defecting from behind the Iron Curtain to ply their dazzling skills in the West. Hungary’s loss would be Real Madrid’s gain.