Think brilliant Brazil of 1982. The revolutionary Dutch total-footballers of ’74. Or the stereotype-defying Azzurri of Antognoni, Tardelli and Bettega in ’78. Even the swashbuckling Riquelme-inspired Argentines of four years ago, in Germany. History’s catalogue of failure by the most luminescent team of a World Cup finals is a long and often inglorious one.
One such case – perhaps even more notorious than those above – arose during the Swiss-hosted finals of 1954. As Brian Glanville puts it in his comprehensive tome The Story of the World Cup:
“Never had there been so hot, so inevitable, a favourite as Hungary; the team which had brought new dimensions and horizons to the game.”
The magical (or magnificent; masterful; mighty...) Magyars went on a 36-game unbeaten run between 1950 and the World Cup final of ’54, en route winning the 1952 Olympic gold, and ruthlessly crushing England both home and away. Ferenc Puskás, known as the Galloping Major due to his military background and powerful running style, was the nominal leader of a fearsome band of troops including the heavenly talents of Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik and Nándor Hidegkuti – the original exponent of the deep-lying centre forward position (to devastating effect, as a bewildered England found when he netted a hat-trick at the previously impregnable Wembley). It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the Hungarians’ tactical innovations influenced the future of the game; their radical adoption of out-and-out wingers; Hidegkuti’s no.10 role; and a ‘sweeping’ goalkeeper still resonate in today’s more tactically conservative times.
Coached by the pioneering Hungarian Deputy Minister for Sport, Gusztáv Sebes, the white-hot favourites opened with seventeen goals in their first two games. Eight came against Germany – only just returning to the FIFA fold after missing the 1950 finals in Brazil in the bitter aftermath of the War. It was a game remarkable for not only the number of goals scored against a perceived challenger for the title (8-3 was the final score) but also for an incident which saw the all-conquering Puskás limp from the field, having taken a kick on the ankle from the towering German defender Werner Liebrich.
Brazil and defending champions Uruguay were subsequently put to the sword (their dramatic extra-time semi-final triumph was, in fact, Uruguay’s first-ever defeat in a World Cup game). Final opponents Germany’s apparently Lazarus-like resurrection from their group stage mauling raised many eyebrows and later drew accusations that they’d effectively ‘conceded’ the game as a ruse to lull the Hungarians into believing their own hype. This perception has been long-disputed by either side, but what is certain is that the side crafted by legendary coach Sepp Herberger and led out by captain and chief-goalgetter Fritz Walter at Berne’s Wankdorf Stadium was a team transformed – and more than a match for their more illustrious opponents.
Puskás returned to his preferred inside-left role and seemed to have shaken off any doubts about his fitness when he scored a trademark left-foot thunderbolt after just six minutes. Three minutes later, winger Zoltán Czibor put Hungary 2-0 ahead and all was going to script. Incredibly, however, the Germans fought back to equalise within ten minutes. Max Morlock and Helmut Rahn drew the underdogs level, and that’s how it stayed until half-time.
The second half was a rainy, muddy battle of attrition, with the Magyars mounting attack after attack on the German goal. But, as time ticked by, a number of unique factors began to hold sway on the destiny of the world title. Germany’s innovative screw-in studs were particularly beneficial on a pitch increasingly resembling a mudbath; their oft-struck woodwork remained resilient and Horst Eckel's man-to-man marking assignment on Hidegkuti gradually eroded the playmaker’s iridescent influence. Hungary were also physically spent: Puskás had never fully recovered from Liebrich’s group-stage ankle-hack, while the entire squad had been embroiled in a post-match brawl with Brazil, in which Puskás allegedly attacked the Seleção’s Pinheiro with a broken bottle.
With six minutes left and the Germans still holding out at 2–2, Rahn, known as ‘The Boss’, received the ball 20 yards from goal. Unexpectedly shooting with his weaker left foot, he netted his second and Germany's third goal with an accurate drive to the bottom-left corner, leaving Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics helpless. Bowed but not beaten, Hungary launched themselves forward in desperate search of extending the game into extra-time.
Two minutes before the end, Puskás raced through the opposition defence to crash home what looked like the perfect winning goal – something which the admittedly grainy TV footage appears to bear out. But the Welsh linesman, Mervyn Griffiths, waved his flag, and English referee Bill Ling gave Puskás offside. The Galloping Major remained convinced, to the end of his long and varied life, that he was not. A further penalty claim for a clear penalty-box foul on Kocsis was also rejected a minute later: the match and Hungary’s magnificent unbeaten run then ended in one of the biggest upsets in the history of football.The ‘Miracle of Berne’, as the final was soon christened by the Germans, was perceived in Hungary as a wrong the Magyars would never get the chance to right, as their international careers were soon to be over. They’d never again grace a World Cup together as, within two years, Puskás and several others had defected to the West to escape a Russian invasion in reaction to the Hungarian revolution.