"We only need eleven players against 60 million Germans"

Action in the Hungary goalmouth as an Italian forward hits for goal
© Getty Images

The FIFA World Cup has been full of shocks and surprises. In this series, FIFA Magazine looks back at some of those which have gone down in history. After looking at Cameroon, Algeria, North Korea and the USA in the last four issues, this time the focus is on little Switzerland, who inflicted a painful defeat o their powerful neighbours Germany in 1938.

During the third World Cup in 1938, Switzerland caused a sensation in Paris by beating Germany (then a united country) by 4:2 in a replay, thus eliminating their mighty neighbours. The extracts below describing those dramatics days in Paris come from Walter Lutz's book "The Saga of World Football".

Before the 1938 World Cup began, England visited Zurich on 21 May, a Saturday, having given Germany a 6:3 lesson in Berlin a week earlier.

The 17,377 spectators in Zurich's Hardturm stadium could hardly believe their eyes ­ the "masters' of football, considered almost unbeatable, were defeated 2:1. "Our finest win" was the headline in the Swiss SPORT magazine.

Starting on 6 February 1938, the national team had played no fewer than six international matches up until then, the players had not had a week off since their championship had begun the previous autumn, going right through the winter. Players in the Geneva team, Servette, had a league game the day after the triumph over England, then two more games with just four and three days between them. This meant that as amateurs they had played four games in eight days ­ just six days before their World Cup match against Germany.

The annexing of Austria brought (political) pressure to include Austrian players in the German team. To do this almost overnight into a team that had been winning game after game created huge problems.

Herberger's sleepless nightsIn 1937 Sepp Herberger, assistant to Prof. Otto Nerz, was appointed German national trainer by decree when his boss was sacked.

"I found out from the newspaper," Herberger admitted later.

Herberger had to attempt the impossible; to blend two different systems, two styles of play, different attitudes and temperaments into a cohesive unit. On the one hand the no-frills, businesslike approach of the Germans, on the other the Austrians' ability to improvise and take things as they came, which had been the hallmark of their "Wunderteam" a few years earlier and which still kept them among the big names of football.

Herberger's task of integrating the two caused him sleepless nights. It was like trying to mix fire and water.

4 June 1938, Whit Saturday: at a Scouts Whitsun camp at Schwarzwasser. Our tent was right by the stream, and there were tourists camping nearby. About seven o'clock in the evening we were sitting round our camp fire, where I heard snippets of Hans Sutter's commentary on the Switzerland ­ Germany match, the opening game of the World Cup.

Blistering heatThe match was being played in blistering heat, with a crowd of 40,000 in attendance, including a few thousand Swiss. With the score 1:1, extra time was in progress and Pesser was sent off by the Belgian referee. But the score remained the same until the end.

Before the replay, five days later, the German team repaired to Aachen to lick their wounds. The Swiss remained in Paris, playing cards, going fishing, enjoying the holiday atmosphere. They had nothing to lose. The Goebbels-newspaper, "Völkische Beobachter" had the headline: "60 million Germans will be playing in Paris". The Swiss team remained unchanged; Herberger brought in six new players (but still included five Austrians). His team was announced at the last moment over the stadium loudspeakers so that Swiss coach Karl Rappan could not learn of his plans.

Everything seemed to run against the Swiss. After 20 minutes, the Germans were 2:0 ahead, including a Lortscher own goal, but before the interval, the Swiss pulled one back. However they had to play for 20 minutes with only ten men, since George Aeby was stretchered off with a cut just before half time. This is hastily stitched up by Paul Martin, and Aeby was scarcely back on the field when Bickel equalised with a lob in the 63rd minute. During the last quarter of an hour, Trello Abegglen dealt Germany the final blows, with two goals in three minutes. The commentary in the German text "Football World History" relates: "After the interval, there was only one team in it, the Swiss."

"Our finest victory"A sensational victory for the little country. SPORT editor Edwin Kleiner replies to the "Völkische Beobachter": "Sixty million Germans playing against us, but eleven Swiss are enough." The celebrations seen after the Olympic tournament in Paris in 1924 were repeated back home 14 years later. But because of their precarious political position, this time the Swiss were even more jubilant. Extra newspapers were printed, parades were held, good wishes were expressed by federal ministers, lead articles.

The headlines in SPORT captured the feeling of the people and of the time: "Our finest victory".

For the second time in succession, the Swiss had reached the quarterfinal of the World Cup, but they were now drained of all energy and, without Minelli and Aeby, they went down 0:2, in their 13th international match of the season. But the Hungarians' second goal came only at the very end.

Each of the Swiss players received a bonus of 175 francs.


  • Dates: 4-19 June 1938
  • Venues: Paris, Strasbourg, Le Havre, Marseilles, Toulouse, Reims, Antibes, Lille and Bordeaux
  • Matchs: 18
  • Teams participating: Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Brazil, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Cuba, Romania, Hungary, Dutch Indies and Sweden*
  • Goals: 83.4.61 per match

    * Knock-out system: Because of Austria's withdrawal, Sweden automatically qualifiedfor the quarter-final

  • Top scorer: Leonidas (Brazil) 8, Zsenteller (Hungary) 7, Piola (Italy) 5.

    Final: Italy-Hungary 4:2 (3:1) in Paris. 55,000 spectators.

    • Referee: Capdeville (France)
    • Goal Scorers: Colaussi (Italy) 2, Piola (Italy) 2, Titkos (Hungary), Sarosi (Hungary)
  • Final ranking: 1. Italy 2. Hungar4y 3. Brazil 4. Sweden

  • Switzerland matches

    • First round

      Switzerland - Germany 1:1 (1:1, 1:1) a.e.t.

      Venue: Paris

      Spectators: 40,000

      Referee: Langenus (BE)

      Goalscorers: Abegglen (SUI), Gauchel (GER).

  • Replay:

    • Switzerland - Germany 4:2 (1:2)

      Venue: Paris

      Spectators: 22,000 Referee: Eklind (SWE)

      Goal scorers: For Switzerland: Walaschek, Bickel, Abegglen III (2); for Germany: Hahnemann, Lortscher (own goal).

  • Quarter-finals:

    • Hungary - Switzerland 2:0 (1:0)

      Venue: Lille

      Referee: Barlassina (ITA)

      Goalscorers: Zsengeller (2)