Post-Nazi Germany’s 1954 win restores nation’s standing in the world

Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas

Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas (third right) congratulates Germany's players after their victory over Hungary in the Fifa World Cup final match, in Bern on 04 July 4, 1954.

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • This World Cup was also a prelude to the modern era since the tournament received televised coverage
  • Puskás, latching onto a loose ball deflected in his direction in the penalty box, slammed the ball past goalkeeper Toni Turek in the sixth minute to put Hungary up 1-0
  • Public displays of patriotism were still taboo in the post-Nazi period, but the victory did go a long way in restoring the nation’s standing in the world

Four years after Uruguay’s shock victory, the World Cup was held in Switzerland. It would be a tournament dominated by European teams and one noteworthy, even all these decades later, for its high-scoring games.

The hosts, awarded the tournament in 1946 to coincide with Fifa’s 50th anniversary, and the defending champions qualified automatically.

Of the remaining 14 places, 11 were allocated to Europe (which at the time included Egypt, Turkey, and Israel), two to the Americas, and one to Asia.

Before qualification was even completed, Fifa determined the eight seeded teams for the finals: Austria, Brazil, England, France, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and Uruguay. That process was thrown into disarray when Turkey eliminated Spain.

Fifa resolved the situation by handing Turkey the seeded spot previously allotted to Spain. Here’s what the final draw yielded:

Group 1: Brazil, France, Yugoslavia, and Mexico

Group 2: Turkey, Hungary, West Germany, and South Korea

Group 3: Austria, Uruguay, Czechoslovakia, and Scotland

Group 4: Italy, England, Switzerland, and Belgium.

Fifa, once again, tinkered with the tournament’s format.
Rimet gave his blessing to combining an opening-pool format with the knock-out system.

Rimet’s successor, a sports journalist-turned-administrator named Rodolphe Seeldrayers, took over the presidency on the eve of the tournament, officially ending Rimet’s 33-year reign.
The tournament’s 16 finalists were divided into four groups of four teams. Oddly, each group contained two seeded teams and two unseeded teams.

Instead of a round-robin format, only four matches were scheduled per group, each pitting a seeded team against an unseeded one.

Another oddity that was introduced included the use of extra time—used in most tournaments only in the knockout rounds—during the group stage if games were tied after 90 minutes.
The draw would be recorded as such if another 30 minutes of play failed to yield a winner.

Two points were awarded for a win and one for a draw. The top two teams with the most points from each group qualified to the knockout round.

If the first and second-placed teams were level on points, lots were drawn to decide which one would top the group instead of using goal differential as is used today.

Complicating the formula even further, if the second and third-placed teams were level on points, there was a play-off game to decide which team would progress.

Another unusual feature was that the four group-winning teams were to be drawn against each other in the knockout stages to produce one finalist, while the four second-placed teams played against each other to produce the second finalist.

In subsequent tournaments it would become customary to draw group winners against second-placed teams in the first knockout round.

If knockout games ended in a draw after regulation, 30 minutes of extra time would be played. If the game ended in a draw after that, lots would be drawn to decide who advanced.

The final was the only exception.

A draw after extra time meant the game would need to be replayed the following day. If that game also ended in a draw, then lots would be drawn to determine the champion.

Thankfully, it never came to that. Instead, the tournament would produce an avalanche of goals.

Six venues across six Swiss cities hosted the tournament’s 26 games. The most used facility, St. Jakob Stadium in Basel, hosted six matches. The venues in Bern, Zurich, and Lausanne each hosted the second most with five. Wankdorf Stadium in Bern hosted the final.

This World Cup was also a prelude to the modern era since the tournament received televised coverage.

Though limited to Europe, it was the first sign that the World Cup would someday grow into a global commercial event. The Swiss, in turn, showed early signs of marketing savvy by issuing the first-ever World Cup coins—the type of trinkets that would come to dominate the tournament in the coming decades.

Final: West Germany v Hungary

The championship game would be one for the ages and another upset on the heels of the Maracanazo. Beyond the playing field, the game had a lasting impact on both German and Hungarian societies.

The West Germans, still in a postwar rebuilding process, were allowed to express their love of country without the menace of Nazism. After all, this World Cup was the first time the German national anthem had been played for a global audience since World War II.

For the Hungarians, in the grips of a totalitarian regime that would stay in power until 1989, the result would include a student-led revolt in 1956 that challenged Soviet control.

On the field, West Germany would begin a period of dominance that continues to this day—even after reunification with the east in 1990. Hungary, on the other hand, went from revolutionizing the game in the 1950s to soccer anonymity.

Never before in the history of the game did the result of a final so impact two nations in the decades to come.

A heavy rain on July 4 at Wankdorf Stadium greeted fans and players alike. Despite the weather, a crowd of 62,500 showed up for the game. Bill Ling of England was chosen to referee the match. By game’s end, the decisions of an English official cast a cloud over the result.

True to form at this tournament, the game featured goals galore. The opening 10 minutes featured three.

Puskás, latching onto a loose ball deflected in his direction in the penalty box, slammed the ball past goalkeeper Toni Turek in the sixth minute to put Hungary up 1-0.

Puskás, with his hair slicked back, stuck out his chest and raised his arms in elation as teammates rushed to hug him. The Hungarians scored again just two minutes later through Zoltán Czibor.

West Germany, not to be outdone, pulled one back in the 10th minute. After the Hungarian backline failed to swat away the offense threat, the ball clumsily fell to Morlock.

The West German slid into the ball, pushing it past Grosics to the delight of the crowd. Hundreds of West Germans had crossed the border to watch the game, many of them unable to get inside when the $8 tickets were selling for more than $100 on the secondary market.

Fans inside and outside the stadium cheered once again in the 18th minute when West Germany tied the score. Grosics attempted to clear a corner kick by Fritz Walter in the air, but collided in the six-yard box with Hans Schäfer, a foul that Ling failed to whistle.

As a result, the ball fell to Helmut Rahn, who scored. The Hungarians, with their fluid passing and offensive air, pushed for the win. The West Germans, defensively solid thanks to center back Werner Liebrich, kept pace with their opponents for much of the first half and into the second.

Fritz Walter, meanwhile, was the main reason West Germany was able to create chances. Six minutes from time, Rahn latched onto a ball from just outside the penalty area, following a poor clearance, and drilled a left-footed shot that just beat Grosics to his right.

Four minutes from the end, West Germany, hanging on to the upset, gave up a goal after Puskás appeared to tie the score.
But Ling disallowed it, changing his mind after conferring with the linesman who had deemed Puskás offside. Witness accounts differ on whether Puskás was offside. Television footage allows no clarity since it fails to show Puskás’s position at the time he received the pass. The dramatic finale was befitting a tournament that had featured plenty of goals.

United Press International reported that 300 police officers and soldiers were needed to keep the “spectators from breaking through the fence and pushing on to the field.”

The surprise win brought with it a wave of pride throughout West Germany. Public displays of patriotism were still taboo in the post-Nazi period, but the victory did go a long way in restoring the nation’s standing in the world.

It was an example of the power of the World Cup— whether a nation hosted the tournament or won it—in the post–World War II period.

Rimet, following a brief speech, presented Fritz Walter with the trophy, telling the West German captain: “You have won well. Guard this trophy carefully for the spiritual value it represents.”

Tomorrow: 1958 triumph - Ghosts of 1950 exorcised, Pelé and teammates treated like kings, feted like heroes in the streets with carnival-like ecstasy after first World Cup win.