Who shot JFK? The Zapruder film may have captured the assassination of the 35th President of the United States, but there is no footage of Lee Harvey Oswald firing at him from the Texas School Book Depository; the absence of which has enabled conspiracy theories to flourish over the years.
Similarly, there is film of Hungary’s 8-3 thumping of West Germany in their group match in the 1954 World Cup, but no footage of Werner Liebrich’s foul on Ferenc Puskás late in the game. That challenge would rule Hungary’s finest ever player out of their next two matches and leave him in a questionable state of fitness for the final.
Was it a deliberate attempt to nobble Puskás, a vengeful lunge, or simply a clumsy challenge? We shall never know, for there is no smoking gun.
Hungary went to the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland as overwhelming favourites. They’d not lost a game in over four years and had been scoring goals for fun. Their arrival on the global stage was announced when they won the gold medal at the 1952 Olympics, though it was their 6-3 victory over England a year later that really made everyone sit up and take notice.
The English had never lost at home to continental opposition until Puskás’ side came to visit, blowing the game’s supposed masters away with a performance of breath taking virtuosity. Hungary had a host of talented players at their disposal, but what really gave them a decisive edge over their rivals was their innovative tactics.
The England team, still in thrall to the rigidity imposed by their W-M formation, were undone by Hungary’s fluid movement and by a centre forward that refused to stand where the English expected him to. Instead of battling against the opposing team’s centre half, Nándor Hidegkuti played much nearer the centre circle, thus baffling his marker who didn’t know whether to follow him (and thus create a hole in the heart of defence) or leave him free to do as he wished. You can almost imagine home fans in the crowd remarking that Hidegkuti’s subterfuge was just not cricket. It wasn’t. It was football played in a way that the English had never even dreamt of.
FIFA have experimented with a variety of formats for the World Cup over the years, but their plan for the 1954 tournament was surely the most bizarre. The first round contained groups of four teams, but they only played two games instead of three, with fixtures taking place between the two seeded and two non-seeded teams, but not between each other. Thus, seeded Hungary played the unseeded South Koreans (thrashing them 9-0) and unseeded West Germans (thumping them 8-3), but not the seeded Turks, who must have been relieved that FIFA organised the competition the way that they did.
Hungary’s opponents in the quarter and semi-finals were both from South America, with Brazil being their first victims, though there were casualties on both sides by the time the game was finished. The Hungarians were victorious by four goals to two, but the contest is remembered more for its violence than for the football. Three players were sent off in the infamous ‘Battle of Berne’ (two of them for fighting) and the combat continued after the final whistle, with further blows exchanged in the tunnel before the Hungarian dressing room was invaded by vengeful Brazilians.
Hungary’s semi-final opponents were Uruguay; the reigning champions versus the pretenders to the crown. The South Americans had never lost in the World Cup, winning the tournaments held in 1930 and 1950 and not competing at those held in-between.
Finally, Uruguay met their nemesis, though they did have the consolation of playing in what was undoubtedly one of the finest international matches of all time. The Hungarians took a two-goal lead, but a spirited fightback by Uruguay necessitated extra-time, the contest eventually being settled by two headed goals from Sándor Kocsis. Hungary had reached the final, where they would take on a team they had already beaten once: West Germany.
Understandably, the West Germans were frozen out of international football for a few years after the end of the Second World War. They didn’t play their first match until 1950 and, even then, their first six fixtures were against Switzerland, Turkey, Austria and the Republic of Ireland; nations that had either been one of the Axis powers during the war or had remained neutral.
The final stage of West Germany’s rehabilitation came with their qualification for the 1954 World Cup, though little was realistically expected of them. The peculiar format of the tournament resulted in the Germans playing four of their six games against the same two sides: Hungary and Turkey.
In the first round the Germans beat the Turks, were then hammered by Hungary, while Turkey beat South Korea; a sequence of results that resulted in a play-off match being needed between the Germans and the Turks. Does that make sense to anyone? It clearly did to FIFA. Anyhow, West Germany beat Turkey for a second time and further victories over Yugoslavia and Austria gave them a second crack at Hungary in the final.
Hungary’s 8-3 drubbing of West Germany two weeks earlier made them clear favourites to lift the trophy though, intriguingly, the Germans had fielded their second string in that match. Were they keeping their first XI a secret from the Hungarians, resting their best players for a potential play-off match against Turkey or just being incredibly arrogant? Whatever the real reason, the humbling defeat did at least make them realise the scale of the challenge ahead.
One of the things they undoubtedly learnt was that the rear of Hungary’s team just wasn’t as effective as the front, for even the German reserves and the crushed Englishmen had managed to breach the Hungarian defence three times. If a way could be found to stifle Hungary’s attack, then perhaps the seemingly unstoppable Magyars could be halted in their tracks. And that’s exactly what West Germany managed to do.
Puskás was back in the team for the final, but it wasn’t evident that he was fully fit. Even so, he opened the scoring after only six minutes of play before Czibor added another two minutes later.
It appeared that the script was being followed but then the Germans struck back, levelling the game with two goals in the next eleven minutes. After that thrilling start the goals dried up, but not the excitement as Hungary made, and missed, a host of chances to score.
The Germans held on, waiting for the chance that would inevitably come their way. It arrived with only five minutes remaining; Helmut Rahn firing in a low shot from the edge of the penalty area. There was still time left for more drama; Puskás putting the ball into the net, only for the linesman to rule it out for offside, and Czibor seeing a thunderous shot parried by the German goalkeeper.
Clearly, it wasn’t destined to be their day. Would the outcome have been different if Puskás had been fit, or if Hungary had fielded an uninjured striker instead? Well, maybe that could have provided a photo finish.
Simon Turner is the author of ‘If Only: An Alternative History of the Beautiful Game’ published by Pitch Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter at @simonaturner100.