1954 World Cup Final: The Miracle of Bern

Ask any England football fans their favourite chant and often the politically incorrect little ditty, ‘Two World Wars and one World Cup’ is trotted out. It is a dubious fusion of sport and politics supposedly meant in the spirit of jovial banter; a reference to a football match in July 1966 and the great conflagrations engulfing the planet in the early and mid-twentieth century.

Germany emerged from the horrors of the Nazi regime a beaten nation in war; a divided nation and one in the paroxysms of its people suffering shame and humiliation. Football changed the German people’s self-image. England’s victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final was a rare success for the English. West Germany and then a re-unified Germany grew into a dominant World footballing superpower during the post-war decades, a success story reflecting its immense social and economic recovery over the same period.

Arguably it all began in neutral Switzerland. It began with a game still laced with controversy, the German players lining up for the 1954 World Cup Final, men allegedly doped with drugs, in what became known as ‘The Miracle of Bern’. It was West Germany 3 Hungary 2. In the most popular team sport on the planet, the Germans, against all expectations at the time, were World Champions. It meant for the first time in a generation that the German people, whether from the West or East, felt able to celebrate, to take pride in their nation; a country with its self-respect restored after the ravages of war. 

Just under a decade after the guns fell silent across Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany, German flags were being waved with pride once again. The feeling of the German people in celebrating an unexpected World Cup triumph was summed up by the phrase ‘Wir sind wieder wer’; or roughly in English ‘We are somebody again’.

Going into the final against Hungary, the West German side was the firm underdog. The Hungarians were by far and away rated as the best team in the world; ‘The Mighty Magyars’ unbeaten in five years. Their star player Ferenc Puskas was being feted as the best footballer in the world, perhaps the best ever. They had unceremoniously demolished an England team 6-3 at Wembley a year earlier, ending lingering deluded English notions of footballing supremacy. Frankly, it seemed to the pundits of the day all the Hungarians had to do to win the trophy was turn up. No other team would be able to compete with them.


It was even a surprise for West Germany to make the final, its players lacking international experience. German teams had been banned from the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. The snub to a country defeated in war mattered little to the Germans. Re-establishing professional football was hardly a priority as rebuilding began in the ruined cities of a divided German nation; one in which its people had almost lost their national identity. As the news magazine Der Spiegel put it, ‘In short, Germany was divided and defeated in so many different ways that people were no longer keen to be identified with being German anymore.’ To many in the outside world being German still equated to be being a Nazi.

Prior to the 1954 World Cup, one conveniently held in a country which had been neutral for the duration of the war, there was little hope of a German triumph let alone expectation. This German national team, in stark contrast to their multi-millionaire successors, was still largely amateur; their ranks boosted by returning POWs from prisoner of war camps in England. Just avoiding a humiliation at the hands of professionals from South American and the other European nations seemed a reasonable aim. As for facing an Eastern bloc nation such as Hungary, with the Communist regimes there exploiting sport as a soft-power means of promoting the ‘superiority’ of their economic creed, defeat seemed inevitable given the vast gulf in resources.

East Germany, incidentally, did not enter the competition with political turmoil there as citizens protested against their pro-Soviet rulers. West Germany qualified for the tournament in Switzerland by easily beating fellow German side Saarland, a statelet run until the mid-fifties by the French. A victory and a draw with Norway, the only other team in the group, was enough to see them through to meet their footballing destiny.

After a comfortable 4-1 victory over Turkey in the opening game of the World Cup finals tournament, the next game against Hungary hardly served as a confidence booster for the West German players. Hungary thrashed them 8-3. They might have felt it was better to pack their bags and go home. A few of the better German players had been rested but this was a humiliating result.

Admittedly though very few other countries fared any better at the time against the Mighty Magyars. The Germans did strike one crucial blow against their opponents; an act of physical violence against Ferenc Puskas. Centre-half Werner Liebrich kicked the man rather than the ball in an act of thuggery, forcing Puskas off the field with an ankle injury. He never physically recovered for the rest of the tournament.

In the slightly bizarre format of the 1954 World Cup, West Germany and Turkey were forced to play off for the right to claim a quarter final place; a match ending in a 5-2 German victory. There were then comfortable victories over first Yugoslavia and then Austria in the semi-finals. Against the odds, they had made the final.

As for Hungary their path to the final through the knockout stages was not quite as serene. Their quarter final in Bern against Brazil became dubbed the ‘Battle of Bern’. Brazil was still smarting from losing at home to Uruguay four years earlier in the World Cup final. Against theoretically the best side Europe had to offer, the Brazilians engaged in a kicking contest, one against man not the ball. Two Brazilians and a Hungarian player were sent off. Amid the mayhem, Hungary managed to win 4-2. They qualified for the final thanks to an extra-time victory over the holders Uruguay; again a 4-2 victory.

Most observers felt the trophy was theirs to take back to Hungary given the drubbing they meted out to their final opponents earlier in the tournament. West Germany’s footballers, to the joy of a spellbound nation, had other ideas. As an indication of the growing interest in their progress to the final, sales of television sets in West Germany served as a good indicator. This was the first World Cup tournament to be televised live. At the beginning of 1954, it is estimated there were 11,000 TV sets in West German homes. By the end of the year, the figure had risen to 84,000. Most of the growth in sales came during the World Cup with factories and shops selling out as the tournament wore on.

Until West Germany progressed to the final international sport thanks to the antics of the Nazis at the Berlin Olympics was a source of embarrassment and shame for most German people, coming to terms with defeat in a war prosecuted by Adolf Hitler. Now out of nowhere, a bunch of ‘no hope’ amateur footballers were beginning to restore their faith in sport, restore pride in a German identity. At the time, there were no dark allegations of doping among the players. Tales of drugs being used as stimulants to boost performance were yet to come. This was a likeable bunch of young men to be cheered on hopefully to victory.

On July 4th 1954 at 16.45 Swiss Time, West German and Hungary’s footballers lined up in a deluge for the World Cup Final in Bern’s Wankdorf Stadium. As the game began memories of the 8-3 thrashing at the hands of the Hungarians returned to pessimistic German fans. Ferenc Puskas scored from a long range shot after just six minutes, then just a couple of minutes later Zsoltan Czibo pounced on a mix up between the goalkeeper Toni Turek and defender Werner Kohlmeyer to make it 2-0. Even at this early stage, victory seemed assured for Hungary. Yet remarkably West Germany recovered and did so quickly. Their morale remained intact despite the setback.

In a biography, the captain Fritz Walter recalled, ‘Dismayed, we looked around at each other, but there was no criticism of “Kohli” or Toni. As soon as we got the ball ready for the restart, Max Morlock did his best to rally the troops. “It doesn't matter”, he cried.’ Walter also mentioned how another player, his namesake, Ottmar Walter, came up to him and whispered, ‘Fritz, keep going, we can still do this.’

Just moments later they were back in the game. Helmut Rahn’s shot on ten minutes was deflected by the Hungarian centre half Jozsef Bosik into the path of Max Morlock who poked the ball into the net. As the heavy rain began to soften up the pitch into something of a mud heap, the conditions seemed to be favouring the West German players with their impressive high levels of energy.

Ferenc Puskas was increasingly looking like a passenger on the Hungarian side; still suffering from the ankle injury inflicted during the previous game between the two sides. It was not long before West Germany had equalised and the first murmurings from observers of possibly witnessing an upset surfaced.

On 18 minutes, Fritz Walters took a corner with the ball somehow sailing over the Hungarian defenders and goalkeeper Gyula Grocsis for Rahn to pounce at the far post for the equaliser. Fresh from being tested against the reigning world champions Uruguay, the Mighty Magyars were now fighting not just for a chance to be crowned World Champions but also their reputation as the invincible masters of Fifties football.

The post prevented them from retaking the lead just before half-time. At the break though, the sides remained level and the West German coach Sepp Herberger upbeat. According to the official FIFA website, Herberger told his players during the half-time interval: “Lads, you've done brilliantly so far. Don't give them an inch in the second half." What FIFA fails to mention is accusations that something more sinister was going on in the West German dressing room rather than just a half time pep talk from the coach and a few sips from cups of tea. Were the players given performance enhancing drugs?

It is not in dispute that the West German players were given injections by the team doctor. As far as the West German camp was concerned, they were being given nothing more sinister than a boost of Vitamin C. It was a defence made in response to allegations made on the 50th anniversary of the game from the groundsman at the Wankdorf Stadium, Walter Brönnimann. He told the German television station ARD he found syringes after the game under drainage gates.

Confronted by the revelation, the West German team doctor, Professor Wilhelm Schänzer insisted the substance he injected the men with was Vitamin C. He explained, ‘I injected the men with vitamin C because it was supposed to raise their stamina levels. You cannot measure the effect it has, but the players believed in it.’

German football fans were willing to believe his version of events. Unfortunately for them, details from a doping investigation carried out by Humboldt University in Berlin and the University of Münster into doping in German sport from the 1950s onwards shows the players may have been given Pervitin. It is an amphetamine commonly known as ‘speed’ and refined by Nazi doctors during the second world war, earning the drug the nickname ‘Panzer chocolate’.

Luftwaffe pilots and Wehrmacht soldiers were chemically enhanced by the drug to allow them to fly or to fight for longer. In boosting footballers’ stamina levels, it would certainly have been more effective than a dose of Vitamin C. How much the alleged subterfuge worked to ensure a dogged and remarkable second half performance from the West German team in the 1954 World Cup final is open to question. If the players had been doped with Pervitin, it seemed to work.

Hungary themselves were fired up after the interval, perhaps not by drugs but certainly from a few choice words from their coach. It was imperative they quickly restored their lead and then killed off the game. Puskas, Czibor and the centre forward Nandor Hidegkuti posed a constant threat, the ball yet again striking the post and the crossbar, failing to go into the net. A succession of goal-line clearance kept the scores level. The Hungarians, for all their renowned skills, were unable to break the German defence.

As time was running out and extra-time beckoning the crucial strike came. West Germany took the lead with just six minutes left to play. These are the words of the German radio reporter Herbert Zimmermann to describe the winning goal, ‘Germany, down the left with Schafer. Schafer's ball to Morlock is blocked by the Hungarian defence - Boszik, still Boszik on the ball; the Hungarian right winger. He loses the ball this time to Schafer - Schafer crosses into the middle - header - blocked - Rahn has to shoot from distance - Rahn shoots! Goal! Goal! 3-2 to Germany!’

Rahn’s low shot driven past the goalkeeper had secured victory but not before one last scare. Puskas thought he had equalised only a couple of minutes after Rahn had put the West Germans into the lead. Years later in David Goldblatt’s history of football entitled The Ball is Round – a term credited to West Germany’s coach in 1954 Sepp Herberger – a scene is depicted of Puskas ruefully summing up his feelings about the controversially disallowed goal.

He moaned it took an age for the Welsh linesman Sandy Griffiths to raise his flag and alert the English referee William Ling, who appeared originally to award the goal. For the Hungarians it was some sort of odd British Cold War conspiracy. In Goldblatt’s narrative Puskas groaned, ‘We gave two silly goals away. We should have pressed on then, looking for the third to kill the game off. I got an equaliser right at the death but that Welsh linesman Griffiths disallowed it for offside. Even the English ref Billy Ling had given it.’

It is estimated 60 million Germans were glued to their radio sets, along with the tens of thousands enjoying what was then the novelty of television, nervously awaiting the end of the game. Zimmerman’s words in his radio broadcast cued national celebrations, ‘Over! Over! Over! The match is over! Germany are world champions, beating Hungary 3-2 in the Final in Bern.’

It is worth noting Zimmerman chose to use the words ‘Germany are world champions’ rather than ‘West Germany’, then a fledgling state at the beginning of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall yet to be erected. Much to the disgruntlement of the communists in East Germany this was a national victory for all Germans regardless of any political or geographical divide; a chance to take pride in the country after years of ignominy.

For the first time in nearly a decade the German nation felt in a party mood, celebrating victory in the World Cup, with skipper Fritz Walter proudly lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy. On the final whistle the Berlin correspondent of the Manchester Guardian filed the following dispatch, ‘There was wild cheering and people started dancing on the pavements. Crowds had gathered inside and outside cafes all over the city to listen to the radio commentary. Knots of excited people danced beside taxi cabs which had their radios on full blast.’

In echoing the words of Zimmerman West Germany’s half back Horst Eckel summed up the national mood for Der Spiegel, ‘People didn't say that the national team players were world champions. They said, “We are world champions.” The feeling of togetherness of the Germans was suddenly there again.’

Millions of people turned out to welcome the team back across the Swiss border. Over enthusiastic fans stood on the railway tracks blocking the train for a time as it tried to make its way towards Munich, where hundreds of thousands of people turned out in the main square. Wild scenes of celebration were repeated from village to village, town to town, before the team finally arrived in Berlin for the biggest celebration of all. Eckel recalled in Der Spiegel, ‘We really had no idea how important it was or what was waiting for us back in Germany. We only realised when we returned to Germany -- as soon as we crossed the border.’

As for the esteemed news magazine itself, Der Spiegel notes the importance of the world cup victory as a seminal moment in its country’s history. It commented on 7 June 2006 just prior to the World Cup finals staged in Germany, ‘Every nation has a founding legend. For modern Germany it is the 3-2 victory over Hungary in the 1954 World Cup. After World War II, the championship became a sign of being accepted by the world again. Germany has the World Cup. Specifically, the global football championship of 1954 held in Switzerland. The Miracle of Bern. In one 90-minute match against Hungary, modern-day Germany was born.

‘Germany was divided and defeated in so many different ways that people were no longer keen to be identified with being German anymore. Until the evening of July 4, 1954 when the final whistle blew with West Germany holding a 3-2 lead over a team that, at the time, was just as feared as Brazil is now. An entire nation went berserk.’

The notion of ‘acceptance’ from the world at large in 1954 is more than a little overstated. But there’s no doubt that the German nation went berserk. Contemporary British and French editorial writers in their countries’ newspapers recoiled in horror at events in Bern and the subsequent outpouring of joy from the German people.

Their ire was further provoked by some ill-judged comments from the German Football Federation’s President Peco Bauwens in a speech made in a Munich bierkeller, an address carried live on Bavarian radio. Bauwens, perhaps fuelled by too much alcohol, embarked on not just a nationalistic but a brazenly jingoistic rant, moaning about the ban on the use of the opening verse of the old German anthem, criticising neighbouring nations with their Latin-based languages, invoking Wotan, the ruler of the Norse gods, and asserting the West German had benefited from the discipline of ‘Derfuhrerprinzip’ or in English, the Fuhrer Principle. It was astonishing stuff, hardly diplomatic less than a decade after the defeat of the Nazis.

Mysteriously, though not surprisingly, the broadcast was cut short and tapes of the recording of the speech conveniently lost. Nevertheless, his comments were noted down and chronicled in the next day’s press. Additionally, to the quasi-Nazi rantings of the boss of the West German football federation, sports journalists from the victorious nations of the Second World War reported that the German fans at the World Cup Final in Bern sang the banned verse of the national anthem at the presentation of the trophy.

Britain’s newspapers made as much of the German victory in the French Grand Prix with Mercedes Benz triumphant as West Germany winning football’s World Cup. The Daily Mirror’s legendary columnist William Connor, under his by-line Cassandra, dryly remarked, ‘Even in football – not a noticeable German sport – they wiped up the Hungarians at Bern in the World Cup series. The Hungarians had not been beaten for four years.’ Cassandra concluded, ‘nothing can stop these unlovable people.’

In France Le Monde accepted winning a football match or a Grand Prix was an innocent event but went on to comment darkly, ‘the “innocent” Weimar Republic had given birth to Hitler.’ The controversial comments from the German Football President perversely came as a relief to East Germany’s communist rulers. It gave them the propaganda they needed to denounce their western counterparts as still the dangerous embodiment of fascism.

What few of the critics realised at the time, perhaps even the Germans themselves was the World Cup final victory in 1954 marked for some historians the beginning of at first West Germany, then Germany’s rise to pre-eminence and dominance in world football, one mirrored by the nation’s recovery from the ruins of defeat in war to becoming an industrial powerhouse.

One of those to benefit from the commercial revival was a member of the backroom staff, Adi Dasler, founder of Adidas and inventor of the removable stud; an innovation credited with giving the German players something of an advantage on a mud bath of a pitch. Few, until the ugly stories emerged, realised that the players’ performance may well have been boosted by drugs.

Adidas boots for the team

For Germans looking back misty eyed to July 1954 this awful subplot to the Miracle of Bern threatens to diminish its importance in the pantheon of sport. Yet there is no doubting the political sub plot of the time, one for once not engineered by politicians. If anything, there were attempts to dampen down the fervour.

West Germany’s President Theodor Heuss admonished the man he called ‘the good Bauwens’ informing the boss of German football and other like-minded people, ‘a good kicking does not make good politics.’ Yet though the political establishment of the day was largely successful in keeping a lid on the more extreme nationalist interpretations of a World Cup victory foreign observers noted a discernible boost in national morale. The people cared little for any diplomatic sensibilities.

As the Manchester Guardian’s Berlin Correspondent put it on the day of the World Cup triumph, ‘To understand this joy one must remember both the giant load of bewilderment beneath which this nation has been staggering since one type of German pride came to its catastrophic fall nine years ago, and also, especially in Berlin, the zeal for an emotional release to lift minds out of the ever-present spectacle of surrounding ruin.’ The sense of pride lingered, lifted a nation, with the possibility the players were drugged serving half a century later to sully a cherished memory.

As far as the players were concerned, they were not doped despite taking injections. Given the doctor insisted the doses he gave them were innocent, merely vitamin C, this is hardly surprising. West Germany’s left winger Hans Schäfer said, ‘Everything our doctor said is right. He gave us things to build us up so that we'd remain fresh. We were not doped and I don't have a bad conscience.’

Yet several players suffered severe health problems in the months after the final, possibly as a result of being injected with a purely sterilised shared syringe. Three players suffered from jaundice, one contracted black fever, and two more players later died of cirrhosis of the liver, one of them a teetotaller.

On being presented with the evidence that German footballers were doped from the academics at the Humboldt University in Berlin and the University of Münster, the German President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, declared it ‘a good day for the fight against doping.’ Yet these revelations of allegedly miscreant behaviour 65 years ago had relevance beyond the IOC’s modern-day declarations of a fight against the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport.

Suspicions were cast on decades of German sporting performance from the 1950s and the Miracle of Bern onwards. It had always been accepted communist East Germany had systematically doped athletes. Now allegations abound that West Germany may have done the same, even chemically enhancing not just its fabled footballers from the 1954 World Cup. They did help to raise the spirits of a nation but it came at a personal price to those men. As the Historian Guido Knop concluded in a German television documentary outlining the allegations of doping, they were ‘victims of the politics of sport’.

By John Leonard for @TFHBs 

This article appears in ‘Fair Game, Tackling Politics in Sport’ from Pitch Publishing (2016)

©The Football History Boys, 2022


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