Hungary's legendary Golden Team - also known as the Mighty Magyars - was the favorite to win the 1954 World Cup. In the five years prior to the final, it had remained unbeaten in 31 games (32 if counting a match against East Germany in 1952 that is not considered an official international). Hungary was also the reigning Olympic Champion and winner of the Central European International Cup in 1953. In 1953, Hungary had defeated England 6–3, becoming the first team outside the UK and Ireland to beat England on home soil, and had thrashed England 7–1 in Budapest just before the World Cup. Hungary did not have to play qualifiers for the 1954 World Cup, as opponent Poland withdrew for lack of prospects.
The players of the Hungarian national team were full-time professionals. Most played for the army club Budapest Honvéd FC, or for MTK Budapest FC, which, in the 1950s, was run by Hungary's secret police. Several members of the Golden Team were well known and highly regarded for their skills, including forwards Sándor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskás, attacking midfielder Nándor Hidegkuti, deeplying playmaker József Bozsik, winger Zoltán Czibor and goalkeeper Gyula Grosics. Coach Gusztáv Sebes, who was also Hungary's Deputy Minster for Sport, and MTK coach Márton Bukovi are credited with developing further the rigid WM formation that was standard in European football in the early 1950s. Innovations included pulling central forward Hidegkuti back into midfield to create space for the inside forwards Puskás and Kocsis, requesting full-backs to assist in attack and wingers to assist in defense, and introducing flexible positional play that created confusion among opponents used to fixed roles and strict man-marking.
The three German entities emerging from the Second World War - West Germany, East Germany and the Saar protectorate - were not admitted to FIFA until late 1950. As a result, Germany missed the 1950 World Cup. In the early 1950s, Sepp Herberger - resuming the role as national team coach that he had already occupied 1936-42 - built the West German team around a nucleus of players from the club 1. FC Kaiserslautern, the German champions of 1951 and 1953, led by veteran playmaker Fritz Walter. The players were semi-professionals (Vertragsspieler), typically working in a second job or owning a business to make ends meet. Prior to the 1954 tournament, West Germany had played only a few friendly internationals and a short qualifying campaign (against Norway and the Saar). This lack of international exposure left both national and foreign observers unclear about the quality of the German team.
During the tournament, the Hungarian team took residence in a hotel in the town center of Solothurn. This had several repercussions. As Hungary's semi-final against Uruguay was decided only after extra time, the team missed the return bus from Lausanne, and had to organize private cars that arrived only late at night. The evening before the final, a village fair took place in front of the hotel that lasted until the early morning hours and disrupted the players' sleep. Further, Herberger's assistant Albert Sing checked into the hotel, from where he reported about the Hungarian team preparations.
By contrast, the German team resided in the tranquil lake town of Spiez, where it was unaffected from such disturbances. The Spirit of Spiez became proverbial in Germany for describing the team's morale and comradeship.
In the first stage, Hungary and West Germany were drawn into the same group. Hungary opened the World Cup with a 9-0 win over South Korea. It then played Germany, winning 8–3, and therefore qualified for the quarter-finals. In the game, Puskás suffered an ankle hairline fracture from a foul by German central defender Werner Liebrich that made Puskás miss the quarter- and semi-finals.
In the quarter-finals, Hungary beat co-favorites Brazil - runners-up of the 1950 World Cup - with 4-2, despite Puskás' absence. The hard-fought, grueling match became famous as the Battle of Berne. In the semi-finals, Hungary defeated defending World Cup champions Uruguay 4-2 after extra time. Also this match is regarded a classic for the high quality of both sides' attacking game. Kocsis scored twice in both the quarter- and semi-finals.
From a statistical perspective, on the eve of the 1954 World Cup final, the Hungarian team held the highest Elo score for a national side to that date. Its rating was surpassed only in 2014 by Germany.
West Germany first played Turkey, winning 4-1. In the subsequent 3-8 loss to Hungary, Herberger rested several key players and played others out of position (for example, Fritz Walter as central striker instead of playmaker). The main purpose was to preserve energy for the upcoming decider against (once more) Turkey. However, by sparing his strongest eleven, Herberger may have obscured the real strength of the German team to its subsequent opponents, including Hungary. Germany won the decider against Turkey 7-2.
West Germany went as outsider into both its quarter- and semi-final matches. In the quarter-finals, West Germany beat highly regarded Yugoslavia - the Olympic silver medalists of 1952 - with 2-0. The team then went on to defeat Austria in the semi-finals, with an unexpectedly lopsided score of 6–1.
Puskás returned to the Hungarian squad for the final, despite doubts about his fitness. Further, Sebes replaced the customary right winger László Budai with Mihály Tóth, as he found Budai exhausted after the semi-finals. He also placed left winger Czibor on the right in the first half (switching with Tóth), to exploit Czibor's speed against Germany's left fullback Werner Kohlmeyer. Other than this, Sebes fielded his standard formation.
The German team had evolved in the course of the tournament, finding its final formation only in the semi-finals. In particular, central defender Liebrich and right winger Helmut Rahn secured places in the starting lineup only after strong performances in the quarter-finals against Yugoslavia. In the final, Herberger had Hidegkuti marked by a midfielder, Horst Eckel, to prevent that Hidegkuti - by dropping deep into midfield - would pull Liebrich out of the defense. He also instructed left winger Hans Schäfer to cover Bozsik when Hungary was attacking, to help Fritz Walter - who normally would have been Bozsik's marker - preserve energy and concentrate on organizing the German game.
The match was played in heavy rain - conditions that the German side had christened "Fritz Walter weather", as Walter was known for playing his best football in the wet. In addition, the German team was equipped with boots supplied by Adidas that featured hitherto unknown, exchangeable, screw-in studs. The boots could be adapted to any weather, enabling the German players to wear their regular footwear despite the adverse conditions.
Puskás put his team ahead after only six minutes, when Bozsik found Kocsis with a through ball, Kocsis' blocked shot fell to Puskás, and Puskás scored from close range. Czibor added a second goal for Hungary a mere two minutes later, exploiting a misunderstanding between Kohlmeyer and goalkeeper Toni Turek.
However, West Germany came back quickly. Forward Max Morlock (10') converted a deflected low cross from Rahn, and a few minutes later Rahn (18') himself leveled the score after a corner kick. For the remainder of the first half and much of the second, the Hungarians attacked furiously, but both Hidegkuti and Kocsis hit only the woodwork, Turek pulled off several spectacular saves, and Kohlmeyer and Jupp Posipal cleared shots on the goal line. Germany had occasional chances on the counterattack, with Schäfer and Rahn forcing saves from Grosics.
With six minutes left, Schäfer dispossessed Bozsik and played a high cross into the penalty box. Rahn picked up a short clearance, feinted a pass to center forward Ottmar Walter that wrong-footed the Hungarian defenders, moved into the penalty box, and drove the ball hard and low past Grosics for the third German goal.
Two minutes before the end, Puskás appeared to equalise once more when he converted a through ball from Tóth flicked on by Kocsis, but the attempt was ruled offside. The final whistle soon thereafter ended not only the match, but also the Golden Team's unbeaten run.
A match analysis by the website spielverlagerung.de, produced 60 years after the game based on data extracted from Herbert Zimmermann's live radio commentary, shows Hungary ahead in most categories, except goals scored. Hungarian superiority was especially pronounced during minutes 20-40 and 45-70, while West Germany had good phases towards the end of the first and second halves.
The analysis also suggests that many Hungarian attacks went through the center, in most cases orchestrated by Bozsik, who played numerous accurate through balls to Hungary's forwards. By contrast, the German team attacked almost exclusively from the wings, with Fritz Walter playing a key role as ball distributor and flexible offensive player generating numerical superiority in select portions of the pitch.
Further, the data point to an excellent defensive performance by Liebrich, who - as per Zimmermann's commentary - blocked 6 shots, intercepted 9 passes, and won all of his 10 one-on-one duels.
Several calls by the English referee William Ling came under scrutiny after the final. These included:Germany's second goal. Grosics attempted to clear a corner kick by Fritz Walter in the air, but was obstructed in the six-yard box by Schäfer. As a result, the ball went through to Rahn, who converted. Had Ling called a foul on Grosics, the goal would not have counted.
Hungary's disallowed third goal. Eyewitness accounts differ on whether Puskás was offside. The official television footage allows no clear verdict, as it fails to show Puskás' position at the moment when the ball was passed. The Hungarian players claimed that Ling first wanted to allow the goal, but changed his mind after talking to Welsh linesman Benjamin Griffiths.
Immediately after the match, rumors emerged that the German team had taken performance-enhancing substances. Several members of the team fell ill with jaundice, presumably from a contaminated needle. Members of the team later claimed they had been injected glucose, and the team physician Franz Loogen said in 2004 that the players had only been given Vitamin C before the game.
A co-author of a 2010 study conducted by the University of Leipzig hypothesized that the German players, unbeknownst to them, may have been injected Pervitin (methamphetamine) - a stimulant given to soldiers in World War II. The study itself, entitled "Doping in Germany", does not cover the 1954 World Cup. In any case, doping was not illegal in 1954, with doping controls introduced by FIFA only in 1966.
As television was available only in a few homes or public places in 1954, the radio reports by György Szepesi and Herbert Zimmermann were the main vehicles for transmitting the World Cup final life to the Hungarian and West German populations. Both commentaries became legendary for their passionate, emotional reporting styles, and are sometimes credited with contributing to the charged atmosphere in both countries after the final.
Szepesi - who later became the chairman of the Hungarian Football Federation - had been a household name in Hungary since his report of the Golden Team's 6-3 victory over England in 1953. He started his commentary of the World Cup final with cautious confidence, reinforced after Hungary's early lead: "well, now everything is all right". However, doubts started creeping in after Germany scored its first goal - "the clouds are piling up in front of the mountains - hopefully this is not a bad sign" - and grew stronger at halftime - "it will be even more difficult than the matches before, more difficult perhaps than against Brazil and Uruguay".
Szepesi's doubts gave way to desperation with Germany's winning goal - "dear listeners, Rahn's shot is in the goal, in the right corner, six minutes before the end... The boys are standing there, distraught. The crowd screams. Six more minutes. The Hungarian team has played brilliantly - I cannot say anything else. My tears are flowing, but believe me, the boys gave it all." - and Puskás disallowed equalizer - "Puskás, you have the ball!!! SHOT!!! GOAL!!! ... OFFSIDE, offside; Griffiths indicated offside, my listeners, Griffiths has given offside - oh what a pity... what a pity". At the final whistle, Szepesi was fighting for composure: "end of the game. West Germany's team is World Champion. Dear listeners, it is hard for me to say anything, believe me... But let's recognize that the West Germans were very fair and won deservedly. ... We have been unbeaten for four years. Now we have lost. This is not a tragedy, my listeners... this is a defeat in a football match".
By contrast, Zimmermann kept expectations low at the outset, and continued in this vein after Hungary took the lead: "this is a great day, this is a proud day - let's not be so presumptuous to think it would have to end successfully". A measure of pride entered his voice after Germany's first - "today it is no 3-8. Today it is not a B-team. Today Germany's strongest squad is playing" - and second goal - "we have equalized, against Hungary, the technically most gifted squad that one knows!". Self-esteem grew as the match progressed - "six minutes still to play in Bern in the first half. Score: 2-2. This is more than what we dared to hope in our wildest dreams" - including after Schäfer forced a save from Grosics: "now, dear Hungarians, we have to say: now you have been lucky". When Turek stopped a shot by Hidegkuti from close range, Zimmermann famously called him a "god": "shot - saved by Turek! Turek, you are a dare-devil, Turek, you are a football god!".
Proverbial in Germany are Zimmermann's description of the winning goal - "Bozsik, time and again Bozsik, der right half-back of the Hungarians, with the ball. He has - lost the ball this time, to Schäfer - Schäfer has crossed, header - cleared. From the deep Rahn ought to shoot - Rahn shoots... GOAL!! GOAL!! GOAL!! GOAL!!"" - his reaction right thereafter - "call me crazy, call me mad! I believe also football laymen should have a heart" - and his jubilation at the end of the match: "Over!! Over!! Over!! Over!! The game is over!!". Zimmermann was also highly complementary to the Hungarian team: "Next to them stand the Hungarians - the Hungarians, calm, collected. Kudos to these boys, who can lose so gracefully, who have demonstrated to be true World Champions: when they once get beaten, they carry the defeat with dignity."
The loss came at a shock to Hungarian public. Spontaneous demonstrations erupted in Budapest and were directed not only against the team, but also the communist-authoritarian regime controlled by general secretary Mátyás Rákosi, which had used the Golden Team's prestige to boost its own reputation. Goalkeeper Grosics characterized the post-match atmosphere in Hungary as follows:
"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."
Sebes was severely criticized for the team's selection and tactics, and blamed the negative reaction in part on Szepesi's emotional radio report. Sebes achieved that Szepesi was temporarily removed from commenting football matches for the Hungarian State Radio. The authorities revoked player privileges, such as the tacit approval of smuggling Western goods back to Hungary. Grosics - who some Hungarians blamed for the third German goal - was accused of espionage and treason, put temporarily under house arrest, and transferred against his will from Budapest Honvéd FC to the provincial team FC Tatabánya.
The unexpected win evoked a wave of euphoria throughout Germany, which still suffered from a lack of international recognition in the aftermath of World War II. The 1954 victory is regarded as a turning point in post-war German history by publicists such as Arthur Heinrich and Joachim Fest. In Fest's words:
"It [the victory] was a kind of liberation for the Germans from all the things that weighed down upon them after the Second World War ... July 4, 1954 is in certain aspects the founding day of the German Republic."
The World Cup final was also the first time since the Second World War that the German national anthem was played at a global sporting event.
Hungary's Golden Team remained largely intact until the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, except that coach Sebes was replaced with Bukovi in early 1956. After the revolution, Puskás, Czibor and Kocsis emigrated and, ultimately, continued their careers in Spain, playing for Real Madrid (Puskás) and FC Barcelona (Czibor and Kocsis), respectively. At the 1958 FIFA World Cup, only four players from the Mighty Magyars still featured - Bozsik, Budai, Grosics, Hidegkuti - but were unable to repeat earlier success. In the 1960s and beyond, Hidegkuti, Puskás, and central defender Gyula Lóránt became prominent international coaches, managing clubs such as Panathinaikos F.C. (Puskás), ACF Fiorentina (Hidegkuti), and FC Bayern Munich (Lóránt). Lóránt's admission to the German Sport University Cologne was arranged by Herberger. Several other Golden Team members had success as coaches in the domestic Hungarian league.
The West German players became instantaneously famous in Germany as the Heroes of Bern. Several received lucrative offers to play abroad, but none accepted, continuing instead as semi-professionals in German clubs. Herberger overhauled the national team after the tournament. Hence, of the winning 1954 side, only Eckel, Rahn, Schäfer, and a 37-year old Fritz Walter still played at the 1958 World Cup, reaching the semi-finals. Few of the 1954 World Champions went into coaching; an exception is Liebrich, who is credited with saving his home club Kaiserslautern from Bundesliga relegation in 1965 - with Lóránt becoming Liebrich's successor in the following season. Some players had difficulties to cope with fame, and struggled at times with economic problems and alcoholism.
In 1990, after the downfall of the Iron Curtain, the German Football Association invited the surviving members of Hungary's 1954 team to join celebrations for Fritz Walter's 70th birthday. In the years that followed, both teams organized annual get-togethers, which Grosics described as follows:
"I believe the friendship between the former Hungarian and German players can be called the world's most extraordinary. We met regularly over years and decades, alternately in Hungary and in Germany. I believe that these friendships were formed not only by the sport, but that high regard for the human beings also played a part. Between us such a relationship developed which, as I would like to stress once more, is unthinkable among national team players."
In 2015, the last surviving member of the Golden Hungarian team - erstwhile fullback Jenő Buzánszky - died. As of December 2016, only two members of Germany's 1954 team - Eckel and Schäfer - are still alive.