If justice was done, Hungary would have won the 1954 World Cup held in Switzerland. Instead, it was the West Germans who lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy in one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history. It’s hard to equate the name “Germany” with “upset”, unless, of course, they are on the receiving end of it, but in 1954, Hungary were red hot favourites.
But was the 1954 final one of the early examples of “gaming” the system by the Germans? If Ferenc Puskas was fit, would Hungary have won at a canter? And did the Germans deliberately injure the “Galloping Major”? And was it all a conspiracy to ensure that, whatever happened, a communist nation would not win the World Cup?
The last theory is an interesting one. The Cold War had started, anything “red” was viewed upon with great suspicion and there was no small degree of tension in Europe. Hungary was not Russia, but it was behind Sir Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain”. Germany was rebuilding after the war and emerging from the rubble of its bombed-out cities. It was in Europe’s economic interest that Germany continued its recovery from the war.
Hungarians had endeared themselves to a lot of people over the previous two or three years. Even England supporters applauded the Mighty Magyars when they walloped the “home of football” in 1953 and 1954, running up 13 goals in the process. The whole of Europe applauded the Hungarians back to Budapest when they returned home, garlanded, by train from London.
Hungary went into the World Cup highly confident. In their group, they were drawn against South Korea and West Germany. They beat South Korea 9-0 in their first game, with Puskas and Sandor Kocsis scoring five between them. Then came the clash with West Germany, making their first appearance after the war. Nobody expected the Germans to win the World Cup in 1954, although they did possess some fine players, notably Fritz Walter of Kaiserslautern.
If there was a flaw in the Hungarian side, it was their gung-ho approach. They were supremely skilful, highly energetic and very individual. Were they too individual? There were rumours that Puskas, for example, didn’t get on with everyone in the team, especially his forward line colleagues.
Hungary thrashed West Germany 8-3 in Basel. They simply ran the Germans ragged. But Sep Herberger proved to be as canny as his successors in the dugout. He gambled on fielding a slightly weakened side to avoid showing his hand, although not as under-strength as people have subsequently made out. Given the peculiar structure to the competition – in four-team groups, only two games per team were played and Germany had won their other game by putting four past Turkey. They would qualify by beating Turkey again, this time by 7-2. Twenty years later, there was a theory that West lost to East Germany to avoid the favourites, Holland in the second stage of the 1974 World Cup.
But the key incident in Hungary’s dismantling of West Germany was a foul by Werner Liebrich on Puskas. It sidelined Puskas for an hour and was later revealed as a hairline fracture of the ankle. Puskas was adamant that it was deliberately designed to put him out of the competition. He later described it as, “a vicious kick in the back of my ankle when I was no longer playing the ball”. Fritz Walter when asked about the tackle, merely said, “he [Puskas] landed awkwardly”.
Liebrich, like Walter, played for Kaiserslautern. He was a member of the club’s title winning teams of 1951 and 1952 and was renowned for being a little “robust” in his approach to the game. In 1950, he turned down AC Milan to remain in Germany. The state of Puskas’ ankle would make national news in Hungary, it was monitored like no other ankle in history!
Puskas, whose ankle ligaments were almost severed, missed the quarter-final against Brazil – the so-called “Battle of Berne” which saw Hungary win 4-2. But he watched from the side and became embroiled when he struck Brazilian centre-half Pinheiro in the face with a bottle. Puskas also missed the semi-final win against Uruguay and so began a race against time to get the talismanic forward ready for the final against West Germany. There were just four days between the semi-final and final.
Puskas, somehow, was passed fit, but to accommodate him, the Hungarian side was reshaped. Laszlo Budai had played well in the previous rounds, but he was dropped to make way for Puskas. It didn’t seem to matter, as Hungary went into a 2-0 lead in Berne inside eight minutes. Puskas scored one of the goals. But the Germans arguably built their reputation in this game, coming back to win 3-2. Puskas thought he had levelled in the closing seconds, but his goal was ruled offside.
Puskas later accused the Germans of being doped and a recent study by the University of Leipzig claims their players may have been injected with methamphetamine, a drug that is often used today to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Rumours also abounded that Puskas insisted on playing, despite his lack of fitness. He was so confident Hungary would win that he felt that even a below-par Puskas would be enough. Some people laid the blame for defeat at Puskas’ door and abused the little man when he returned to Hungary. Two years later, he left the country as revolution raged. So endeth the golden age of Hungarian football and to many, the start of the country’s decline. Would it have been any different if Hungary had won the 1954 World Cup? Some people still think so…