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The Most Important Soccer Game Ever Played

In 1954, Hungary met West Germany in the World Cup final. Led by Ferenc Puskás, the Mighty Magyars were perhaps the greatest team the world had ever seen, while the Germans were in their first tournament since World War II and had lost to the Hungarians, 8-3, in the group stages. What happened next would change both nations, and the sport itself, forever.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Modern life has rendered the imagination almost obsolete, the march of technology leaving us with little that requires a mind’s eye to be seen. As such, the things we love can no longer sustain our wonder according to how we hope they are; rather, we must rely instead on how they actually are, a terrifying standard in any context.

In 1954, television came for soccer: The Swiss World Cup was the first to be televised and the first to be immortalized in official film, a serious challenge for a competition still learning about itself. Typically, soccer obliged to an unfathomable extent, delivering a multitude of goalscoring records that still stand, including: highest per-game average (5.38!), highest team goal total and goal difference (Hungary, 27 and plus-17), and highest for and against total by a winner (West Germany, 25 and 14).

But no competition can be judged solely by such a standard, particularly when there were so many thrashings. Every World Cup is great, but a great World Cup — one that is great not just in the moment but for all time — is defined by great games, between great teams, starring great players. Switzerland ’54 supplied every last bit of that and more, particularly a final that might still be the most momentous match ever played.

Hungary captain Ferenc Puskás scores against England at Wembley Stadium in 1953.
William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Before the competition — indeed, before all but its last six minutes — the outcome was certain: Hungary would be champions. For a full four years they were dominant, winning 24 and drawing four of 28 games, scoring 119 times in the process, their winning margins more interclass than international. Sporting import, though, is measured not in data but delight. And the Magical Magyars, the Golden Team, Aranycsapat, were innovative, imaginative, vicious, and charming; even Switzerland could not remain neutral in their connection.

Due to Europe’s geographical and political divisions, it was not until the 1952 Olympics — a world championship of sorts — that Hungary formally announced their eminence, dancing the czardas through the field to win gold. Then, in November 1953, Hungary visited Wembley Stadium for a friendly, before which Frank Coles of The Daily Telegraph prophesized that “Hungary’s superb ball-jugglers can be checked by firm tackling.”

The team felt similarly. “I looked down and noticed that the Hungarians had on these strange, lightweight boots, cut away like slippers under the ankle bone,” said the captain, Billy Wright. “I turned to big Stan Mortensen and said, ‘We should be all right here, Stan, they haven’t got the proper kit.’” Someone else, meanwhile, had spotted Ferenc Puskás, the Hungary captain. “Look at that little fat chap,” he said. “We’ll murder this lot.”

But a significant beauty of soccer is that it can be played superbly by Garrincha and Cristiano Ronaldo, John Charles and Lionel Messi, Paul Gascoigne and George Best. Puskás was Rubenesque, yes, but that was relevant only to the Baroque style of his artistry. Fast, skillful, powerful, and magnificent, he was an improvisational genius with 30/30 vision and preternatural flexibility, one-footed to the point of virtue; he could manufacture angles beyond the imagination of anyone but him. “You can only kick with one foot at a time,” he explained. “Otherwise you fall on your arse.”

England were duly thrashed in what became known as “the 6–3,” but the achievement was not solely the players’; behind them was Gusztáv Sebes, team manager and former trade union leader. Inspired by the Austrian Wunderteam and Italian world champions of the ’30s, he noted that in each case the majority of the players came from just two clubs. So when, in January 1949, Hungary became communist and every institution was nationalized, as deputy minister of sport he seized his opportunity.

At the time, the country’s two biggest names were MTK Hungária — or Vörös Lobogó as they became known — and Ferencváros. With the former already sequestered by the secret police (known as the ÁVH) and the latter renowned for its right-wing traditions, Sebes took over Kispesti AC, which was then renamed Budapesti Honvéd SE, “honvéd” meaning “defenders of the motherland” and “Honvédség” the name by which the army was known.

The profile of the club was then raised thanks to the presence of talented players such as Puskás, József Bozsik, and Nándor Bányai. Puskás had grown up in a flat adjoining that of Bozsik, who became his close friend and on-pitch butler; sharing a special knock on the wall that meant it was time for a game, they honed skill and strength playing with a rag ball on the sandy plots of land between tenement blocks. Even after signing professional forms, Puskás still played there, and on matchdays too — his father, who was Honvéd’s head coach, would have to come and fetch him away.

Participation in party propaganda — for that’s what Honvéd and Aranycsapat were — came with pros and cons. On the one hand, Mihály Farkas, the minister of national defense, told the players that though the state did not have the money to reward their achievements, they were free to smuggle in goods bought abroad; on the other, those not already at Honvéd were encouraged to join and perform easy national service in Budapest … unless they fancied three years as a border guard somewhere remote.

It was following his commissioning or “commissioning” that Puskás, a soldier of rank who never bore arms, picked up his Galloping Major moniker, and he soon had László Budai and Sándor Kocsis serving under him, “conscripted” from Ferencváros; later on, Zoltán Czibor also joined. Others to arrive were Gyula Lóránt — released from an internment camp on Puskás’s request after leading a plot to help top players defect to Italy, where they planned to form a new team, Hungária — and Gyula Grosics, who invented the sweeper-keeper role later invented by Manuel Neuer. Just a year earlier, he stood accused of treason and espionage after being caught trying to defect, before charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.

MTK, meanwhile, had the defensively minded Mihály Lantos and József Zakariás, plus the strikers Péter Palotás and Nándor Hidegkuti. Those two, under the guidance of their coach, Márton Bukovi, helped popularize the deep-lying center-forward position.

Sebes felt that the flexibility of his tactical system matched his worldview. Players were coached to play all over the pitch, and their job was determined by the specific needs of the team rather than what a particular position was meant to entail. “He made a political issue of every important match or competition,” said Grosics, “and he often talked about how the struggle between capitalism and socialism takes place on the football field just as it does anywhere else.”

The style, even called “socialist football,” claimed to feature liberated individuals acting in concert and sacrificing all for the greater good; Puskás was refused permission to attend his father’s funeral as it clashed with a game in Warsaw. Naturally, he scored twice. Meanwhile, the regime used him as an example of how its ideology embraced and harnessed rare genius to the benefit of all: He was allowed to wear predominantly white stockings while his teammates wore predominantly green, and it was his job to assess the opposition and instruct teammates according to the strengths and weaknesses he appraised.

While Hungary’s Stalinist dictatorship became ever more vicious, its soccer team thrived, becoming the country’s sole expression of joy and élan — you could almost call it freedom. “When we attacked, everyone attacked,” said Jenő Buzánszky, the right back. “The midfielders moved forward behind the attackers and the defenders followed the midfield. If the opposition won the ball there were no empty spaces, so we were able to quickly win the ball back and start another attack.”

Since football is a simple game, the lesson Hungary taught England was necessarily a simple one — except no one was bothered to learn it. Division 3’s Watford called their players in for extra training, and a book called Learn to Play the Hungarian Way was quickly published, but that was pretty much it; no one, for example, thought to seek the opinion of the British coach, credited with inventing the entire chic. “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us,” said Sebes. “When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.”

The suits did nothing either. “The annual general meeting of the Football Association lasted 12 minutes,” reported The Guardian. “Not a word was said about England’s recent heavy defeat by Hungary in Budapest.” Walter Winterbottom, the manager, simply deduced a freak result and blamed his players — six of them were never picked again — then continued as before.

Six months later the teams reconvened in Budapest, with over a million Hungarians applying for tickets. And those who got lucky were not disappointed, watching a 7–1 hiding that is still the most severe in England’s history. “It could have easily been 10 or 12 if we hadn’t had so much fun,” said Puskás, irritated that the goals tally stayed in single figures. “Like carthorses playing racehorses,” reflected Tom Finney.

The West German national team lines up before its World Cup final match against Hungary in 1954.
Schirner/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Less than a month later the World Cup began. Teams were placed in four groups of four, with two seeded teams playing two unseeded teams, after which the top-placed finishers contested the quarterfinals, after which followed a straight knockout.

The most noteworthy celebrants were West Germany, banned from the 1950 edition following the Holocaust; unseeded, they were drawn against Hungary, Turkey, and South Korea. Their manager, Sepp Herberger, was a former Nazi, who had replaced Otto Nerz, a former Nazi, sacked after his team embarrassed the Führer by losing to Norway at the 1936 Olympics. But Nerz had actually assembled a handy group of players; the problem was the long-ball, English style that he imposed upon them. So Herberger recast the system according to the quick, short-passing “Kreisel” or “Spinning Top” approach employed by Schalke, the best domestic side of the period. Meticulous to the point of illness, he began compiling numbered files that detailed strengths, weaknesses, tactics, and other observations; by the end of his career, he had 361 of them. Under him, Germany spent 1937 winning 10 and drawing one of 11 games, most famously humping Denmark 8–0 with a team that became known as the Breslau-Elf.

When the war started, the English leagues were quickly suspended, but in Germany football was deemed important for reasons of distraction, placation, and propaganda. Herberger, though, was not happy, noting after defeat by Sweden in October 1941 that active service was to the detriment of his players’ fitness and that the army was a “place of refuge for flimsy excuses.”

By 1943, Joseph Goebbels’s “total war” had taken over, and following the surrender, old sporting clubs and large gatherings were banned; players could play only if they were quartered in a zone permitting such activity. With the passage of time, restrictions relaxed, and Herberger lobbied hard enough to regain his job without contest, insisting that his sole control be a contractual term. But the occupying powers were busy sending Nazis to internment camps, meaning that he could entrench only if they decided that he was not committed to the party; he successfully convinced them that he had joined on the advice of Nerz and Felix Linnemann, the association president, simply to further his career.

Then, in September 1950, West Germany were readmitted to FIFA. But three defeats over an 18-month period, to Turkey, Ireland, and France, threatened Herberger’s job, saved by a draw with Spain then another with Norway in the first World Cup qualifier. A scabby win in the return, along with two over Saarland, and the team were through to the finals.

Herberger’s squad for Switzerland, composed solely of amateur players, found no room for Helmut Rahn, a powerful, pacey runner who dribbled well and shot hard; perhaps the traveling party could handle only one headstrong right-winger. As forthright off the the pitch as on it, Der Boss’s uninterest in deference was a problem for the types running the association, so he toured South America with Rot-Weiss Essen instead, the kind of zesty endeavor that suited him perfectly. He scored against Argentina’s Independiente — subsequently, members of the crowd invaded the pitch and attacked the referee — then played so well against Uruguay’s Peñarol that they tried to sign him.

Thus persuaded, Herberger flew Rahn back from Montevideo via Lima, Panama, Miami, London, and Brussels, and when he joined up with the team, billeted him with Fritz Walter, its captain. The hope was that his exuberance and Walter’s anxiety might temper each other.

West Germany’s first opponents were Turkey, whom they beat 4–1, while Hungary broke the tournament’s single-game goals record in demolishing South Korea 9–0. Three days later, the two winners met, with Herberger making seven changes to his XI. Unsurprisingly, West Germany soon trailed 3–1, with Werner Liebrich amusing himself by landing several boots on Puskás, who collared the Hungarian-speaking Jupp Posipal at halftime. “Tell that clumsy oaf to stop,” he chuntered, vowing to devote the remainder of the game to his humiliation should he not.

Puskás, though, was on one. “I could feel the ball as a violinist feels his instrument,” he later wrote. “I played like a bird on the wing.” A bird on the wing with a lot of chirp, and following 10 minutes of goading, Liebrich packed him off down the tunnel with a hairline fracture of the left ankle.

In the immediate term, it made no difference, as a final score of 8–3 fairly reflected the balance of play. “It was quite obvious that only one team could win the world championship,” said Horst Eckel, the West German wing half, “and that was Hungary.”

Back home, the result was ill received. “It seemed the time had come to hang the treacherous coach Herberger from an apple tree,” reasoned Der Spiegel with invigorating specificity. Quite what he was up to was unclear even to his players: Fritz Walter thought his intention was to finagle a draw, while Eckel told The Ringer that he perceived a more general strategy, surmising that “Herberger’s plan was simple: to ensure that we progress further.”

This made sense. West Germany were likely to lose no matter who played, and now, their key players were fresh to playoff against Turkey to decide who qualified from the group in second place. Moreover, to become champions, they would probably have to play Hungary again in the final, so it made sense not to waste the rarity of a victory on the group stages. And, in the meantime, Herberger gave Liebrich and Rahn a game — they had not yet featured — while various understudies tired out a Hungarian side about which he could learn without affording Sebes the same opportunity.

West Germany duly beat Turkey 7–2, earning a quarterfinal tie with Yugoslavia, whose officials, Uli Hesse explains in his brilliant Tor! The Story of German Football, planned to present bouquets of flowers before the game to players who had reached various cap landmarks. Ever the opportunist, Herberger began a rumor that they had been purchased to celebrate Yugoslavia’s inevitable victory, and his affronted team responded suitably, taking the lead with an own goal and defending brilliantly before, five minutes from time, Rahn made the game safe. The players were chaired from the pitch.

Hungary, meanwhile, faced Brazil, with high skill, osmium will, and heavy rain intensifying countenance and inspiring violence to deliver a tussle for the ages. “Never in my life have I seen such cruel tackling, the cutting down of opponents as if with a scythe, followed by threatening attitudes and sly jabs when officialdom was engaged elsewhere,” whined an ingrate Times of London.

When Hungary went 3–1 up thanks to a disputed penalty, police were required to disperse the Brazilian journalists and officials who invaded the pitch. Brazil then trimmed the deficit after which Bozsik and Nílton Santos were sent off for fighting amid allegations of racist abuse, then Humberto Tozzi went the same way for jumping on Kocsis. Naturally, numerous other skirmishes proceeded unchecked before, with two minutes remaining, Kocsis sealed Hungary’s 4–2 victory.

At full time, a less focused rumble germinated — a “scene of hurtling hot fury,” said the Times — in which Puskás, injured but not incapacitated, allegedly cracked Pinheiro’s head by way of bottle. And Sebes also needed stitches following a “little war” that began when the Brazilians ambushed the Hungarian dressing room.

The Battle of Bern, as the Times called it and it quickly became known, was full of “everything we don’t want to see” that we’re in fact absolutely desperate to see; there’s a reason why so many of the biggest sporting events take place in a boxing ring, and why everyone crowds around a playground fight. Combine that sensibility with two excellent teams and a World Cup quarterfinal, and you get the most compelling entertainment that humanity has to offer.

In the semifinals, West Germany — underdogs again — wasted Austria 6–1, while Hungary, the Olympic champions, faced Uruguay, the world champions, undefeated in the competition since its inception. In probably the best game played hitherto and one still in the conversation now, Uruguay scored two late goals to force extra time, only for the “golden head” and bulging neck of Kocsis to send them home.

The Hungarian players then enjoyed what Grosics termed a “little party.” This caused them to miss their train, and it was 5:30 a.m. before they arrived back at their hotel. There, the next three days were dominated by Puskás: Would he be fit for the final?

The fear was that his ability to change direction at pace would be compromised by his injury. But this was also facilitated by short legs and prodigious buttocks, while his shooting — with minimum backlift and maximum power — required stability in his standing, not his striking foot, so the hope was that he would manage.

In a way the fuss was peculiar; the team had hardly struggled without him. But he remained its star and its symbol, having contributed a baffling 68 goals in 57 international games; he was Puskás, and as such should be the one to lift the trophy when Hungary inevitably collected it. “That’s plenty!” said Buzánszky on hearing that he was only 80 percent fit.

Puskás directs a shot at goal as West Germany’s Werner Liebrich defends.
S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

The night before the game, things started to go awry. As the squad tried to sleep they were disturbed by brass bands playing at a festival — for all the difference it made to Zakariás, who broke curfew to enjoy a deep and meaningful with a hotel maid. Then, the following afternoon, police outside the Wankdorf Stadium refused the team bus entry, forcing the players to fight their way through the crowds just to reach the dressing room.

Meanwhile West Germany were serene, messing around on Lake Thun and playing cards in Spiez’s Hotel Belvedere. Excitement at home had been kindled by victory over Yugoslavia, but the players were oblivious. “We didn’t hear anything, we knew nothing,” said Eckel. “We concentrated ourselves on this match. Indeed, we wouldn’t have listened to anything — it would have been in one ear and out the other. We simply did that which Herberger told us to do.”

As part of that, Eckel was assigned a special role: “As a wing half I should normally be against Puskás as he was played in the hole,” he said. “But Hidegkuti needed to be covered, to be switched off — he was the playmaker. Herberger said, ‘You go against Hidegkuti.’ But I had already thought about something like this.”

Such pragmatism in a 22-year-old illustrated how confident West Germany now felt. “We knew that if we played to 100 percent of our strengths we could beat Hungary,” Eckel said. “Herberger prepared us and set us up so that we could beat Hungary.”

But early on game day, trouble: Fritz Walter drew the curtains of his hotel room to reveal a clear, bright morning. Like many soldiers, he had contracted malaria during the war, a lasting effect of which was muscle fatigue in hot conditions. He went back to bed.

Still there at noon, excited shouts of “It’s raining, it’s raining!” roused him. “Now nothing can go wrong,” he said. On the way to the ground, Herberger came over. “Your weather, Fritz,” he said; “I have nothing against it, Chief,” came back the reply.

Inside the ground were more than 62,000 people, a phenomenal 56,000 of them standing, while behind them the hills were cloaked in mist. After six minutes the Hobbling Major drove Hungary into the lead, celebrating in iconic pose: back arched, chest puffed and arms flung high, all parallel with his slicked-back hair. “Like an Egyptian greeting the sun god Ra,” wrote Donny Davies (under the pseudonym “An Old International”) in the Guardian, and just two minutes later Hungary scored again.

As West Germany prepared to kick off again, their ludicrously determined striker Max Morlock found his captain. “Now let’s show them!” he said, loudly enough for everyone else to hear. “The match will be decided after 90 minutes, not sooner,” Walter responded.

Morlock quickly made it 2–1, and on 18 minutes Rahn equalized. “We were a strong team altogether. We noticed that,” said Eckel. “Indeed, we made it to the World Cup as massive outsiders. We didn’t really know 100 percent how strong we were. When you go into a match with such an attitude as that, you can only win. The thing was that Hungary weren’t aware of that — their mistake was their complacency. They thought they were going to score lots of goals again; that’s what they told us later.”

But Hungary had plenty of time to reassert, and when a long pass was flicked onto Hidegkuti’s laces a goal seemed inevitable. “Schuss!” screamed commentator Herbert Zimmerman, whose primal, carnal play-by-play crystallized the experience for those not in the ground. “Shot!” But, somehow, Toni Turek flicked the ball onto the bar; “Abwehr von Turek!” — “Defense of Turek!” — Zimmerman continued. “Turek du bist ein Teufelskerl! Turek du bist ein Fußballgott!

Whether “Teufelskerl” was intended to mean “demon,” “hotshot,” or “hell of a fellow” can only be speculated, but “Fußballgott” was less ambiguous. An apology was later issued to the church, because people are horrendous.

Throughout the history of sport, dominant powers have inspired improvement in the chasing pack, progress to which football is especially receptive. Since athleticism, physicality, and set pieces are relatively unimportant relative to other sports, and because goals are rare, deliverable by a transcendent individual at a transcendent moment, there is greater scope to stymie and exploit the opposition than in other pursuits. So before the World Cup, Herberger had his players watch the 6–3, twice. By the second viewing they were identifying faults to attack, which is to say that there is no such thing as a perfect team.

And West Germany were also fresher: No one was injured, most had been rested, and their semifinal had been a doddle. Hungary, on the other hand, were playing their third sapping game, in sapping style, in sapping conditions, in a single sapping week.

This difference was accentuated thanks to Herberger’s friendship with Adidas founder Adi Dassler — another former Nazi — who supplied the players’ boots, the first with screw-in studs. This enabled them to expend less energy remaining more upright — a minor detail, but in a tight contest, minor details matter.

The fitness differential has also been attributed, with evidence but without proof, to doping. The allegation was first made by Puskás, who claimed to have seen German players being sick; in retaliation, the DFB banned its clubs from playing against those played for or managed by him.

Many years later the accusation was repeated by World Soccer, while Leipzig University claimed that players were injected with methamphetamine — the original Heisenberg was West German, after all — and Walter Brönnimann, the Wankdorf groundsman, said that he had found discarded syringes under the dressing room drainage grates.

Berlin’s Humboldt University has since revealed that doping was endemic in West German sport at the time, and while it’s been wondered whether the players were given vitamin C with a dirty syringe, the historian Guido Knopp felt that they were to accept injections like “soldiers who have received orders.” The following winter, many of the team fell seriously ill, and eight of its members visited a spa for treatment, variously suffering from jaundice, hepatitis, and black fever; two of them, one of whom didn’t drink, died of cirrhosis, and the final XI never played together again.

Six minutes from time, Hans Schäfer’s cross was headed away weakly, the ball falling straight to Rahn on the right edge of the D. “Rahn should shoot from the backfield!” cried a hoarse Zimmerman; in the meantime, Ottmar Walter pulled wide for a pass.

As the cosmos paused, Der Boss feinted a first-time shot with his right foot, a favorite move, then feinted again — that pass to Walter — before coming inside onto his weaker left. Now in the box with the keeper expecting the natural swing of a shot across him, he finally opened his body … to ram a shot low into the far corner! “Tor! Tor! Tor! Tor!” shrieked Zimmerman in barely human tones, before a long beat in which he could calm down; he could not calm down. “Tor für Deutschland! Drei zu zwei führt Deutschland. Halten Sie mich für verrückt, halten Sie mich für übergeschnappt!” — “Goal for Germany! 3–2 for Germany! Call me mad, call me crazy!” They remain some of the most famous, evocative words ever uttered in the language.

“The ball falls directly at my feet, spot on my right boot,” explained Rahn. “Two Hungarians are dashing toward me with everything in their power. I let them come and then quickly switch the ball from the right on to the left foot. And suddenly — boy, I’m still seeing it today — I can see the whole ground open. I hit the ball with the left foot, and that’s a really dangerous bounce shot. You know what happened then.”

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Yes, “you” did, more than “you” had known anything in quite some time.

There was still time for Hungary to have a goal disallowed and be denied a penalty before, in the final minute, Turek saved from Czibor. Shortly afterward, the match was over.

Aus, aus, aus! Aussssss!” shrieked Zimmerman, whose feverish, rhythmic commentary would later become a best-selling LP. “Das spiel ist auuuuus! Deutschland ist Weltmeister!

On the touchline, Herberger embraced Dassler and his players ran waving to all sides of the ground before Jules Rimet presented the Jules Rimet Trophy; his efforts in creating the World Cup later earned him at Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Next came the winners’ anthem, players singing silently and unobtrusively holding hands. In the stands, though, the fans waded right in, even subbing in the verboten “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” first verse, rather than the old third verse which was officially attached to the federal republic. The second, which begins “Deutsche Frauen, Deutsche Treue, Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang” — “German women, German loyalty, German wine and German song” — remains curiously underappreciated to this day.

For the players, that was about it. “We were a little surprised that we’d won the World Cup,” said Eckel. “In the changing rooms there was no celebration. We didn’t go out after.”

Back home, there was profound elation. In K-Town, as Kaiserslautern was now known thanks to the largest American military population outside the U.S., soldiers were the only people on the road, and similar was so everywhere else. The country was gripped.

By the mid-’50s most of Europe was back to enjoying life, but Germans were still crippled by wartime economic strictures. This meant very few domestic televisions, so for many the World Cup was watched in public spaces; the rest were transported to Bern by Zimmerman’s contagious passion.

So it was that millions of people spontaneously converged, the declaration on the street “Wir sind wieder wer!” — “We are somebody again!” “There was no controlling oneself,” wrote the historian Arthur Heinrich, citing scenes variously described as “riotous traffic mobs,” “a joyous inferno,” and an “ecstatically excited, raging, screaming, laughing, and weeping crowd.”

Benedict Anderson would later describe a country as an “imagined community,” but thanks to Rahn and pals, here they all were, literally and figuratively in each other’s arms, no longer picturing a populace, rather what could be. They felt it because it was, and it was because they felt it.

West German striker Max Morlock scores against Hungarian goalkeeper Gyula Grosics.
Schirner/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Prior to the competition not even West Germany’s citizens called it by its name. But with its official title first used and then glorified in Switzerland, it meant something extraneous to its simple fact, something positive; it was fine to voice nationalist sentiments once more, to enjoy a triumph over other nation-states through something as benign as sport. The day after the final, Elvis recorded his first single; later that year, Haile Selassie became the first foreign head of state to visit the new republic; and suddenly, life was a version of ordinary.

“Germany was on the floor, destroyed after the war,” said Eckel. “Only when we got back did we realize what this World Cup meant. I do believe that winning the World Cup did help in some way to bring about some change in the country, in the sense that what the footballers can do, we must do. A jolt went through Germany.”

It would, of course, be ridiculous to credit football for the Wirtschaftswunder, the miraculous economic recovery that solidified the status quo. But if the people invested it with significance then it was significant, and the Marshall Plan was a lot less fun. There was happiness.

And there was also connection. A generation of Germans had personal histories bound up in genocide and war, and the players were no different; they represented their constituency beyond simple geographical fact, differentiated from them only by the randomness of talent. Consequently, their train home was repeatedly stopped by fans, many pressing upon them gifts such as washing machines and televisions, the affinity given retrospective pertinence by the aloof nature of so many subsequent German stars.

Unlike their successors, the 1954 lot also got on, the team ethic that became known as the Spirit of Spiez accentuating sympathetic, empathetic characters. Morlock caught pneumonia as a child after he and three friends bathed in an icy pond for the purpose of becoming tougher for the purpose of becoming footballers; Ottmar Walter managed a petrol station and had three pieces of shrapnel lodged in his knee from his time in the Kriegsmarine; Liebrich’s communist father had twice been sent to concentration camps; and Turek had his helmet pierced by shrapnel.

But the identity of this new nation, and the identity of the individuals who comprised it, was embodied most particularly in Fritz Walter and Helmut Rahn. Walter was the kind of person you want to be, Rahn the kind of person you really want to be.

On his debut for the national side in 1940, Walter scored a hat trick against Romania. “You didn’t disappoint me,” Herberger told him. “You can come again.”

So he did, a fixture in the team until he was deployed on the Eastern Front. But he retained the protection of Herberger, who, according to his biographer, “feinted, wooed and plotted to guarantee some sort of shelter for the protection and nurturing of the football genius amid the increasingly menacing turmoil of war.”

In the two years following Walter’s conscription, he featured in 23 of Germany’s 25 matches. Playing Hungary in May 1942, Germany trailed 3–1 at half time; worried about official reprisals, Herberger implored his players not to let this “become a catastrophe.” Walter ensured that it did not, inspiring a 5–3 win that would later save his life.

But for the duration of 1943 and 1944, that life was preserved by Herberger and the Luftwaffe ace, Major Hermann Graf. Waiting on the delivery of a Messerschmidt with a pressurized cockpit, Graf formed a football a team called die Rote Jäger, the Red Hunters. He had been a promising goalkeeper until a broken thumb intervened, good enough to be part of a select group given coaching by a former German international … named Sepp Herberger. So once he had his own team, it made sense that he invite Herberger to do a day’s coaching, just as it made sense that Herberger recommend he call to his unit players who needed protecting — Walter included.

Then, in January 1945 as defeat drew nearer, the majority of high-rankers scarpered. Graf, though, resolved to remain, joining the squad in taking a bus headed west, hoping to be captured by the Americans rather than the Russians.

The West German team celebrates after winning the 1954 World Cup.
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In the first instance the ruse worked, but after a stint in an American prisoner of war camp, the men were handed over. Preceded by his reputation, Graf was paid special attention, while Walter found himself in Ukraine — the final stop en route to death by Siberian winter. Figuring that he may as well grab a game if he could, when captors met prisoners for a kickaround, he loitered at the side of the pitch like every child obsessive. Sure enough, the ball eventually arrived at his feet, he performed his best knockback, and moments later the bigger boys asked him to join in. “Not for an instant do I think about the usual company I play with,” his ghostwriter warbled. “We’re footballers and nothing else.”

At halftime, a Hungarian guard approached and whispered into his ear: “I know you.” Then, following a moment of shock and trepidation, the kicker: “Hungary v. Germany in Budapest, 1942. You won 5–3.”

Next day, Walter’s name was off the list of those headed for the gulag; the guard had told the Russians that he was from the Saar Territory, so he was placed in charge of the camp team eventually returning home in late 1945. Gentleman that he was, he repaid the debt by managing the Hungarian national side after many of its players defected in 1956, even backing them financially.

This was not his only loyalty. During a 21-year professional career he was courted by many foreign clubs, rebuffing them all. “You don’t want to leave,” said his Italian wife, Italia. “You can only be happy with your FC Kaiserslautern. There are some things money can’t buy.”

Walter’s father’s restaurant was the club’s effective clubhouse, and he and his two younger brothers progressed to the first team; so, too, their childhood friends, Werner Kohlmeyer, Ernst Liebrich, and Werner Liebrich. Walter appeared for the club 379 times, scoring a staggering 306 goals, from midfield — ! — and in 1985, their home ground was renamed in his honor.

Similarly, his house in Enkenbach-Alsenborn remains a tourist attraction and when, as part of its golden jubilee celebrations, FIFA asked each national association to nominate a single outstanding representative, Germany submitted not Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, or Lothar Matthäus, but Walter, the first Führungsspieler, player-leader. “He was the embodiment of the impeccable and fair sportsman,” said the former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. “An illuminating idol for me and many of my generation.”

If Walter was a New Testament hero, Rahn was Old all the way, flawed, exaggerated, and double lovable for it. Only Rahn could call an autobiography My Hobby: Scoring Goals!, his garrulous gusto as easy as it was necessary. People not only related to him but felt as though they knew him, and those lucky enough to make his acquaintance found him exactly as they’d hoped.

In the aftermath of the final and though he was already attached, he received numerous offers of marriage, while one newspaper opened a bank account for his son, depositing 3,000 marks therein. But by 1957 he had a paunch and a habit, finding himself jailed for drunk driving — problems that did not deter Herberger, who was instrumental in his rehabilitation. Rahn rewarded him with a further set of superb performances at Sweden ’58, his six goals crucial in securing a fourth-place finish.

Nowadays, near the Georg-Melches stadium in Essen stands a statue of him on the square named after him. “Rahn was and is one of the last legends,” said Franz Beckenbauer. “He shaped an entire generation.”

Identifying with archetypes is a powerful sensation. In 2012, researchers at Ohio State University discovered that in suitable circumstances, empathy with fictional characters brings about clear changes in behavior, an effect they termed “experience taking.” And in postwar West Germany, Walter and Rahn — fictional characters who were real — spoke to a nation desperate to feel better.

Their teammates are still celebrated too. At Kaiserslautern there is Horst-eckel-tor, outside which stands a statue of all the club’s champions, with a quotation from Herberger inscribed on the plinth underneath: “The role of outsider is the key to the treasure chamber of great power, which — if awoken and spurred on — releases energy which is energy that moves mountains.”

Elsewhere, the square in front of FC Nürnberg’s Frankenstadion was renamed Max-Morlock-Platz, and in 2006 fans voted to do likewise with the ground, only for the city council to sign a sponsorship deal with a local bank that preferred the use of one of its products; in 2017, the change was finally made. Meanwhile, back in Bern on the site of the old Wankdorf, there stands a clock and scoreboard, frozen at the time of Rahn’s winner.

Hungary’s Sándor Kocsis advances on the goal as West German netminder Toni Turek looks to block the shot and Horst Eckel defends.
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The momentousness of 1954 is reinforced not just in monuments but the living organism of popular culture. “Fritz Walter’s weather” is still used to describe rainy days, while Herberger’s epigrams and aphorisms — “The game lasts for 90 minutes”; “After the game is before the game”; “If one doesn’t know where to pass the ball, one must just put it in the goal”; “The next game is always the toughest one”; “The ball is always in better shape than anyone”; “The ball is round so that the game can change direction” — are now part of the footballing argot, even used as an in-joke in the hit German film Run Lola Run.

This was not the only movie to reference the period. Nineteen years earlier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film The Marriage of Maria Braun — part one of what became known as his BDR, or Bundesrepublik Deutschland trilogy — allegorized the new country’s journey through the life of his protagonist. A football lover born in the postwar period, Fassbinder wondered whether his country’s past had been addressed or simply ignored — in late 1945, a survey found that only two in 10 Germans took personal responsibility for the war — and whether economic progress was simply nationalism repatriated. To show that, he backed various key scenes with radio coverage of important events; his tragic denouement was barely audible for the shrieking of Zimmerman. The film, which had opened with a portrait of Adolf Hitler, ends with those of later chancellors — Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, Helmut Schmidt — making the point that perhaps things hadn’t changed that much after all.

But, though Fassbinder may have had a point, if people felt like things were changing, then perhaps they were because what is there beyond perception? And either way, Rahn’s goal was an epochal moment, a context and reference point through which everything else could be filtered.

Similar was so in Hungary, where a generation of children were told that if they misbehaved, Werner Liebrich would come to get them. The impact, though, was also more tangible than that. After the 1952 Olympic triumph, 400,000 people thronged the streets of Budapest to celebrate; after the 6–3, the crowd stretched a full mile from Keleti train station all the way to the Danube. But after the defeat to West Germany, people took to the streets to express dissent against result and regime, some overturning a tram; two days later, the offices of Toto, the state-run football pools, were vandalized.

The players, meanwhile — accused by some of selling the game for various quantities of Mercedeses and even a Lanscort tractor — wisely stayed in the valley town of Tata until things died down. Some of their apartments were attacked, and though it was not they who printed celebratory stamps in advance of inevitable victory, culpability for complacency was theirs alone. More or less, though, the Hungarian people could not believe, refused to believe, that Aranycsapat, their Aranycsapat, were not world champions.

The majority of ire was directed at Sebes and Puskás, who had police waiting at home to ensure his safe arrival and a security guard to protect him thereafter; he noted that people looked at him as though he had a disease. So when the team was officially welcomed home it was Grosics who addressed the crowd, telling them that the players had “done their duty” and their defeat was “one of those things that happen in sport”; Mátyás Rákosi, the party general secretary, helpfully assured them that they should not “feel afraid of being punished for this game.”

Grosics, who many blamed for Rahn’s goal, was arrested later that year, for “conduct incompatible with the laws and morals of the Hungarian People’s Republic.” He spent the remainder of his career at Tatabánya, a tiny club in a mining town close to the Slovakian border.

But antipathy was not uniform. When the players left Tata the train took them to Budapest’s Kelenföld station, where they found a truck driver willing to take them to the Pest side of the city. Crossing the bridge, a nearby car was hit by gunfire, so immediately, Puskás jumped out, raised his hands, and identified himself and his teammates; this secured their safe passage. “They cursed the Russians, the political system, and everybody,” said Grosics. “But they cheered us.”

A fortnight after the game, people were still furious — outside the offices of the newspaper Nepsport, a mob burned Puskás’s picture and smashed windows, then attacked the buildings occupied by Szabad Nep, the Communist Party paper, and Magyar Rádió. There, the commanding officer of the secret police threatened to fire into the crowd should it not disperse.

Some Hungarians — Grosics among them — even blamed the defeat for the 1956 revolution, and there was certainly a fathomable link; people no longer had soccer to distract them from their poverty and oppression. The most positive aspect of their national identity, and with it the most positive aspect of the regime, was gone.

Shortly afterward, Hónved played a European Cup tie in Bilbao, after which the players refused to come home; the return leg was played in Brussels and many of them subsequently defected. As a consequence the government abandoned soccer, with Puskás exiled rather than offed only because the regime saw the folly of creating a martyr. So footage of the 6–3 could be neither seen nor sold, though Sebes would often lay on food and invite local kids round to watch his copy; one of them was Tibor Nyilasi, who grew up to become Hungary’s star player of the 1970s and ’80s.

Eventually, though, things changed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Helmut Kohl invited the surviving Hungarian players to Germany, where friendships were established. And though the losers had regrets — Grosics suffered nightmares about the game until he died — the good easily overrode the bad. “When I go to bed at night or when I wake up in the morning I am still thinking of the Aranycsapat,” he said. “I can say that the Aranycsapat is always on my mind. Can you think of any other soccer team in the world where those kind of personalities played, such as Puskás, Bozsik, Kocsis, and Hidegkuti? For me the world opened thanks to the Aranycsapat. I was able to travel to such places where otherwise I wasn’t able to get to. I received such a great honor and glory that only a few people get in their life.”

Wounds of disappointment at defection were also salved by Puskás’s achievements at Real Madrid. Though the government had almost certainly sentenced him to death and propaganda led many to believe him dead, he returned home in 1981, still the same Öcsi, “little brother,” so beloved by his public. “Sometime around 1949 I was appointed captain of Hungary,” he said. “I feel like I’m still that even today.”

Others did too. When his teammates got together, some would salute on arrival while others called him “captain”; he still summoned their attention with a loud whistle. Meanwhile, Honvéd’s Bozsik Stadion stands at the address Puskás Ferenc utca 1–3; the national stadium is named in his honour; various towns in Hungary and one in Australia have streets named after him, while Melbourne’s Olympic Park has a statue; in Felcsút, there is a soccer academy, a soccer ground, and a soccer club; in Kispest stands a primary school; it is in Puskás’s name that FIFA’s goal of the year award is presented; and there’s also planet 82656, or Puskás as it’s better known.

Puskás’s obsession with soccer remained even after his faculties forsook him. “I have to get out onto the pitch,” he would tell his wife, “the guys are waiting.” When his hospital caregiver took him to the People’s Stadium, renamed in his honor in 2002, he was continually amazed at how naturally he struck and caressed the ball.

And the Hungary he led weren’t just Hungary, they were the Magical Magyars, the Magnificent Magyars, the Marvellous Magyars, and the Mighty Magyars. An amazing team with an amazing story who were part of an amazing story, escapist and real, real and hyperreal, unbelievable but believable, that helped establish soccer’s capacity to astonish, confound, and unite.

In no way are Hungary diminished by defeat, and in some ways they are enhanced: Heroes are far less interesting than tragic heroes, and out of darkness comes depth. Moreover, Muhammad Ali lost the “fight of the century” to Joe Frazier; the dominant Australian cricket team of the early 2000s was beaten in its most famous series; and Roger Federer was pipped by Rafael Nadal in the most thrilling tennis match ever played, the greatness of all three deepened by virtue of the otherworldly greatness required to beat them, their beauty and influence likewise.

As such, beating Hungary in the manner that West Germany did was an accomplishment so momentous that it demanded a name: Das Wunder von Bern, the Miracle of Bern. And unlike its religious forebears, it did not discriminate by religion or belief, speaking to every citizen of both countries, affecting their experience of existence in a profound way. This is because soccer is like nothing else, uplifting, affirming, transformative, and inclusive and, televised or not, nothing is beyond its imagination or scope. Soccer is not only better than real life, but able to drag real life with it to a better place, and the World Cup final of 1954 — probably the most influential game ever played — proved that to the world.

Daniel Harris is a writer and screenwriter.

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