‘TheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. Today we look back at a game that’s one of a kind. A game which changed the fortunes of two nations forever. The miracle of Bern in 1954.
The purpose of sport in human civilization is worth debating. It might have started off as a form of entertainment, but with time it has evolved into a profession and a way of life. But at every stage of its evolution, there remains a constant – sport has essentially always been a source of inspiration; inspiring us to reach new heights, to get over our limitations (remember Oscar Pistorius?) and to dream big.
But there is another aspect of sport that isn’t highlighted often enough. Every nation in this world has their own folklore, some rooted in history while others that are more tall tales than truth. But back in 1954, Germany and Hungary would play a football match that would qualify as folklore.
There are few sports that can spur on human spirit like football can. That was certainly at the forefront when West Germany defeated Hungary to lift the World Cup back in 1954.
After World War II
The 1954 FIFA World Cup hosted by Switzerland was the second edition of this tournament to take place after the World War II ended back in 1945. The world was a troubled place back then. The whole of Europe was undergoing sweeping political change. The Soviet Union was imposing its power all across Europe and Hungary was no exception.
After the fall of Nazi Germany, Hungary was occupied by Soviet troops. A coalition government came into existence in Hungary with Communist, Social Democrats and Conservatives joining hands. But the Communist Party soon ousted others and established an autocratic government in 1948. A police state came into existence and all political opponents of the Communist party were either imprisoned or executed.
Hungarian football expert (Editor of Hungarianfootball and contributor in InbedwithMaradona) Tomasz Mortimer spoke to us regarding the political situation back then and how it affected football.
“Football, of course, was not immune to these seismic social reforms. The administration of the sport was placed under government control and clubs in domestic leagues were formally associated with various institutions of the state. Although war and the Final Solution had decimated the Hungarian population, the game did show signs of recovery under the disciplined guidance of the Communist Party, greater levels of organisation from the top down seeing gradual improvements.
“Keen to reflect the regime’s ideological principles through the medium of football, the ruling party looked to transform the national team into a flagship for Communist ideals and a positive advertisement for the fledgling regime. Sebes, a man deeply committed to both football and socialism, was seen as the perfect candidate to lead the side and best use the wealth of resources the government was willing to allocate to the game.” – Mortimer said.
Gusztav Sebes was one of the most significant figures in football history. He was the deputy minister of sports and the coach of the greatest Hungarian team ever, the Mighty Magyars. He along with other Hungarian coaches pioneered the 4-2-4 formation back then and he believed in “socialist football” – all players should carry equal responsibility and can play in any position; the earliest version of total football. (Look out for the next edition of ‘THT Whiteboard’, it will be a tribute to the exploits of Sebes.)
Germany, to put it simply, nearly ceased to exist after the World War II. It was occupied by the Allies forces and split into four zones. Later on, two separate states would emerge – viz. West Germany and East Germany. The nation lost its identity in the war – cities were destroyed beyond repair, the economy ravaged and perhaps most importantly, German nationalism was gone. The soul of a nation was on the brink of extinction.
We caught up with German football expert Kit Holden (contributor to the Independent and Bundesligafanatic) to talk about the political situation in Germany before the 1954 World Cup.
“The most important thing to remember with regard to how politics influenced the World Cup victory is that in those 9 years, the national situation – both in its abstract sense of identity and its more concrete political sense – was utterly indefinable. It wasn’t until much later that the GDR and the FRG finally arrived at mutual acknowledgement of one another as separate states, and even by 1954 it still wasn’t completely certain how long the country would go on separated. The Wall was yet to be erected, and while Konrad Adenauer’s main focus in the post war years was on western integration rather than reunification, there were some serious, albeit failed, attempts to reunify Germany in the years leading up to 1954.
“All this added up to the fact that the people of West Germany had very little idea how to define themselves. Patriotism and nationalism were obviously already completely taboo, and with Adenauer’s popularity not yet consolidated, there was no one and indeed nothing under which the Germans could think of themselves as unified or together. Unable to work through the raw cultural wounds of WW2 and the Holocaust by simply replacing them with a major political project as in the East, the West was, in terms of identity, a lost nation in the early years. Add in the fact that many cities had been damaged to the point of obliteration and the economy was not so much on its knees as on its face in the mud, and you have a pretty bleak outlook in terms of national unity.”
In short, Germany lost more than just the war; Germany had lost Germany.
Das Wunder von Bern (The Miracle of Bern)
The World Cup hosted by Switzerland in 1954 is one of the most dramatic in football history. Hungary were favorites to win the title along with defending champions Uruguay. It was the golden generation of Hungarian football. The national team went into this tournament unbeaten for four years; a run of 32 games. The team had the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti and Sandor Kocsis, each a legend in his own right.
The Hungarian team was fresh from its victory in the Central European International cup and also won the Olympics gold in 1952. The ‘Golden team’ is one of the greatest collections of individuals the world has ever seen. They looked destined to win the 1954 World Cup and their performances on their way to the final only strengthened that belief. They decimated South Korea 9-0 in their opening group game and thumped West Germany 8-3 in their next match. They defeated a strong Brazilian team in the quarter-finals and the reigning World Champions Uruguay in the semi-final. Only 90 minutes and a supposedly weak (in comparison) West German side separated them from their destiny.
West Germany, on the other hand, recovered well after the humiliation they suffered at the hands of Hungary in their opening game. Few would have backed them to go through to the final after the first match, but they beat Turkey in the group stages to qualify for the quarterfinal where they beat Yugoslavia. In the semi-finals they defeated a very strong Austrian side and that was perhaps the first time people sat up and took note of the team.
The final was held in Wankdorf Stadium at Bern. Considering the way Hungary defeated West Germany in the group stage, the final was considered merely a formality before crowning Hungary as champions. Eight minutes into the match, Hungary had already raced to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Puskas and Czibor. It looked all but over.
But somehow the German spirit was rekindled and unbelievably Morlock and Helmut Rahn scored in the 10th and 18th minute of the match to draw level. Hungary were shocked, perhaps they expected a nation down on its knees would give up without a fight. But they were in for an even bigger surprise; West Germany came out fighting in the second half once again.
In the 84th minute of the match something special happened. Helmut Rahn collected the ball outside the penalty box on the right, dribbled past two Hungarian defenders and fired in a low shot to the left hand corner of Gyula Grosics’ goal and he scored. It was something to behold, the scenes at the stadium were absolutely incredible. Helmut Rahn scored the most important goal in German history and little did he know back then, he had also scored the most significant goal in Hungarian history as well. It is perhaps the most ‘influential’ goal in the history of football, something that had unimaginable ramifications on the future of both these nations.
West Germany won the World Cup; their first title in football history and one that would prove to be the first of many. It is hard to describe how ‘that’ Hungary team might have felt in words; perhaps just too shocked to feel anything.
For most of the population in Hungary, football was one the few things in nation that provided them hope. It was the only thing that eased their pain of suppression under an autocracy. So the defeat left them shattered and their patience reached a breaking point.
“The reaction in Hungary was terrible. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in the hours after the match. On the pretext of football, they demonstrated against the regime… In those demonstrations, I believe, lay the seeds of the 1956 uprising.” – Goalkeeper Gyuli Grosics said.
Grosics was never forgiven by his country for conceding three goals. He was later arrested. Relatives of the players lost their jobs, while some players left the country.
“A few kilometers from Budapest, we had to get off suddenly around noon, were taken to a training camp and could not leave it all day. In the evening came the highest politicians – Rakosi, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, including the interior minister and the military ministers and people of the Hungarian secret police. Rakosi made a speech, and the second place was a great result, and then he said: None of you should be afraid to be punished for this game. I get the sound of his voice still in my ears. Fell as this set, I knew that it means exactly the opposite. I knew that something bad would happen. I had often clashed with state security AVH, now I had the feeling to be in danger. I knew she had it in for me. I was right.” – Grosics remembers the fateful day when they travelled back to the country from Switzerland.
The 1956 revolution changed the nation forever. Thousands were killed during the revolution as they clashed with the Soviet troops, while many left the country. Tomasz Mortimer elaborated to us how there has been a gradual decline in football after the World Cup final.
“By 1955 the Mighty Magyars had entered something of a decline, the World Cup defeat seemingly shattering the confidence this wonderfully gifted group of players had possessed for so long. Sebes was sacked by the Ministry of Sport in the summer of 1956, the decline being compounded by the Hungarian revolution that October, the Soviets crushing the uprising and the team being broken up as a result.
“Politics and fear of playing football within Hungary were the reasons for the decline. The once great side of Honved were no more with their best players including Puskas searching for Political Asylum.
“They were the once in a lifetime side. And for a 10m strong population, we’ll never see a team like it in Hungary again. Money isn’t there, and since the fall of communism within Hungary, football is no longer a priority.” –Mortimer explains.
“We really had no idea how important it was or what was waiting for us back in Germany. We only realized when we returned to Germany — as soon as we crossed the border.” – Horst Eckel said in an interview later on.
The team was given a hero’s welcome, and they more than deserved it. People were out on the street and railways tracks in great numbers. And for the first time in many years, people had to reason to come together, to celebrate and perhaps most importantly feel proud to be Germans.
“People didn’t say that the national team players were world champions. They said: ‘We are world champions.’ The feeling of togetherness of the Germans was suddenly there again.” – Eckel recalled in an interview.
Historians like Arthur Heinrich and Joachim Fest later argued that this was arguably among the biggest turning points in post-war German history, this was the moment when a nation was reborn. The German economy boomed soon after this and soon it became a European powerhouse; a nation that boasts of being most stable economy presently in Europe even as countries around them fall apart financially.
Kit Holden explained to us the effect that World Cup victory had over Germany –
“Against all the odds, a team of young men (of the generation who had inherited the post war crisis) managed to beat the best team in the world to claim a title that no one, repeat no one, even dreamed they could win. Even more significantly, the game was broadcast on national radio (TV was still a luxury, but radio was universal), and the iconic words of commentator Herbert Zimmermann were listened to by millions of people around the country. It was arguably the first time that football, or any shared experience, had crossed boundaries of economic class and regional division since the war. Thus, the victory represented possibly the first opportunity for real national euphoria and pride that post war Germany had ever experienced.”
But Holden isn’t someone who believes that football was alone responsible for turning the country’s fortune and healing its disintegrated soul although he concedes that this victory did provide the people a reason to celebrate like none other.
“Another interesting theory which I’m not altogether in agreement with is that football was able to neatly fill the gap which the now unquestionably obsolete penchant for military nationalism had left. The argument goes that this generation of Germans had, since unification in 1871, only known patriotism and nationalism in its martial manifestation in the Second and Third Reich’s respectively. The language of football and this particular victory (attack, defense, comradeship, underdogs etc) transcended sport and appealed to a lost but still partially ingrained sense of militaristic patriotism which most Germans had. Though I stress, I’m not particularly fond of this theory as it is rather simplistic and, if we are honest, a little superior.
“As for the aftermath, the unifying nature of it all wasn’t all positive. When the German national anthem played at the final whistle, many fans started singing the taboo first verse of the Deutschland lied, much to the horror of the rest, and the president of the DFB infamously made a congratulatory speech which made vague but worrying allusions to old Nazi ideas of innate German superiority.
“Largely though, this was a joyous occasion, and one which elated a nation which, to all intents and purposes, had nothing else to be elated about. The unexpected nature of the victory made it even more influential. West Germany were serious underdogs. Hungary had beaten them 8-3 in the group stages, and even the team’s stars – who were largely Kaiserslautern players – had come to the tournament on the back of a shock defeat in the Championship Final to lowly Hannover 96. Coach Herberger was under pressure, and victory was out of the question. But it happened. And the nation finally got something to cheer about. Though I’d say it’s important to remember that that, essentially, was all it was. Aside from in very small ways, the actual economy and political situation was not greatly changed by the World Cup win. But culturally, it was arguably the biggest event of any in the post war period.” – Holden explained.
The End Of One Legacy, The Start Of Another..
Hungary did manage to win Olympic gold in 1964 and 1968, but they never really reached those dizzy heights on the biggest stage of all.
“It is as though Hungarian football was frozen at that moment, as though we have never quite moved on from then.” former international Tibor Nyilasi said.
It was the end of one dynasty, but for Germany it was the beginning of their legacy in world football. The Germans went on to claim lot of honors after that, the 1954 victory still remains the most important of them all. As Eckel once said –
“We can still see how important it is today. It’s now 52 years after the Miracle of Bern and people hardly talk about the championships from 1974 and 1990. All the attention is still focused on 1954 — that tournament was a very important event in German history.“
The political and social effect of this World Cup victory is hard to measure, but in football, this was the point when Hungary and Germany traveled in opposite directions as footballing nations. Perhaps never before, or after, has football’s ability to influence nations been more evident. This is now part of folklore, a tale which shows how some things in sport, as in life, will always be beyond human comprehension.