There are some matches that can instantly be identified as era-defining, as classics that make their entrance straight into the annals of the game. The FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final tie that Hungary and Brazil contested at the Wankdorf Stadium in Berne, Switzerland, on 27 June 1954 was not one of those contests. Yet as time would reveal, it proved to be a significant event in the history of football.
It came as no great surprise that the Hungarians triumphed that day. Though the Brazilians were a strong side and had come within touching distance of the world title on home soil four years earlier, their Eastern European opponents dominated the global scene in the early 1950s.
Yet in the years that followed that infamous match, which came to be known as the Battle of Berne, it was not the victors who would become the pre-eminent force in world football but the losers. One of the last great performances of that brilliant Hungary side, it was also the final setback for Brazil prior to the first of the five world titles they have won since, the start of a process in which they finally shook off their so-called “mongrel complex” to become footballing superpowers.
There was a very good reason why the Brazilians could not be regarded as favourites in Berne that day. In the lead-up to the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland, the Hungarians – boasting players of the calibre of Nandor Hidegkuti, Zoltan Czibor, Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc “The Galloping Major” Puskas – had become Olympic champions at Helsinki 1952 and had put together an incredible 32-match unbeaten run. That sequence included legendary triumphs such as their 6-3 defeat of England at Wembley in 1953, the first time the English had been defeated at home by a team from outside the United Kingdom.
The Magyars were in no less impressive form when they reached Switzerland, thrashing Korea Republic 9-0 in their opening group match before thumping West Germany 8-3, though the Germans would gain ample revenge just a few days later.
In the meantime, the Brazilians had been licking their wounds following the Maracanazo, the shattering 2-1 defeat they suffered against Uruguay in the final and decisive match of the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil, a match they had only needed to draw to become world champions.
Their response was to ring the changes, with coach Flavio Costa giving way to Zeze Moreira and only six of their 1950 squad remaining in the group that went to Switzerland. Even the white jersey worn in that painful loss to Uruguay was a casualty, discarded in favour of the yellow shirt they subsequently made synonymous with success, which was chosen after a competition held in March 1954. It was in that new strip that A Seleção, featuring the likes of Didi and Nilton Santos, qualified from the group phase by beating Mexico 5-0 and drawing 1-1 with Yugoslavia.
The meeting with the Hungarians was their next game, one viewed by the powerful Brazilians and their football-mad supporters back home as a final in itself, as a genuine chance to atone for the disaster at the Maracana four years earlier. Such was the pre-match fervour in fact, that the South Americans perhaps underestimated their opponents.
Asked as to how Hungary might play without the injured Puskas, coach Moreira said dismissively: “I don’t care about other teams.” As events would show, Moreira should have paid more attention to his rivals’ assets.
It took the Magyars just a few minutes to dispel any doubts about their ability to overcome the absence of Puskas – seven in fact, the time they needed to surge into a two-goal lead. Hidegkuti scored the first after forcing a fine save from Brazil keeper Castilho and then ramming the loose ball home, and Kocsis the second, courtesy of one of his trademark headers.
Brazilian fears of being on the wrong end of a massacre were allayed slightly when they were awarded a penalty, to be taken by right-back Djalma Santos.
Years later, he recalled the spot-kick in an interview with FIFA.com: “Eighteen minutes gone and Brazil had a penalty. Didi walked away. Julinho walked away. And the bench was shouting: ‘Go, Djalma!’. And I was asking: ‘Me?’. And they said: ‘Yes, you!’.
"Luckily I managed to score. But If I’d missed it, I’d still be getting blamed today," he continued. "[People would say:] ‘Ah, but if he’d scored, it would have been 2-1 and we would have equalised and gone on to win the game’. I would have been made even more of a scapegoat than Barbosa (Brazil’s goalkeeper in 1950).”
The score remained unchanged at half-time, but the Hungarians restored their two-goal advantage on the hour mark when Mihaly Lantos gave Castilho no chance from the spot after Pinheiro handled inside the box. Five minutes later and Brazil were back in the game, right winger Julinho capping a fine solo move with a cross-shot into the back of the net. Feisty but entertaining up to that point, the match then degenerated, the closing stages proving so fractious that it is aptly remembered as The Battle of Berne.
The problems began when Nilton Santos and Josef Bozsik came to blows and were sent off. From that point on Brazil mixed desperate attacks on Gyula Grosics’ goal with some equally desperate defending, chopping down their Hungarian opponents whenever they moved forward. With 11 minutes remaining Humberto committed a shocking foul on Gyula Lorant and received his marching orders from English referee Arthur Ellis, who was a linesman on the day Uruguay upset Brazil at the Maracana four years earlier.
A man to the good, Hungary sealed victory in the closing minutes when Kocsis fired home to make it 4-2. The match ended in total uproar as players, team and tournament officials, photographers and bystanders became embroiled in a fight that began on the pitch and rumbled on in the dressing rooms and even outside the stadium.
Such is Puskas’ stature in world football that he towers over his talented team-mates in that fantastic Hungary side of the early 1950s. In his absence in this particular match, however, it was Sandor Kocsis who stood tall to carry the Magyars to victory with two crucial goals.
“When there was football being played we scored four goals,” said Kocsis, who went on to score twice again in the semi-final against Uruguay, another 4-2 win, completed in extra-time. “We were the better side and we’d win that game as many times as we needed to.”
What they said
“I thought it would be the best game I’d ever see in my life but it ended up being a battle. These days a lot of them would have been sent off. My only thought was to make sure that the match reached its end,” Arthur Ellis, who had the onerous task of officiating the Battle of Berne.
What happened next?
Thanks in the main to Kocsis, the powerful Hungarians had beaten both the champions and the runners-up from 1950, all without their star player. All they had to do now to succeed the Uruguayans as world champions was beat West Germany, a side they had overpowered in the group phase.
What the Eastern Europeans did not know, however, was that having been caught up in the so-called Battle of Berne they were about to play an unwitting part in the Miracle of Berne, as the Final came to be known. Though no one gave the West Germans a hope, an inspiring performance from Fritz Walter and two goals by Helmut Rahn gave them a scarcely believable 3-2 win, one of the biggest upsets in the history of the FIFA World Cup.
West Germany’s first world title catapulted them into the global elite, where they have remained ever since. Yet for the Hungarians it was the end of an era, a brilliant but all-too-brief era that had been lit up by their Olympic win and some remarkable victories, but which failed to bring the title that mattered most.