For the confident Magyars, the early going in the 1954 Finals could not have been easier.
Seeded top in Group Two, they dismissed debutants South Korea 9-0. Then, with the West Germans weakened by separation from the communist East, they put on an 8-3 clinic against them, Sandor Kocsis helping himself to four while Nandor Hidegkuti bagged a brace.
If it all seemed too easy, perhaps it was indeed. Canny and calculating, German coach Sepp Herberger had fielded five reserves. Second place in the group, he knew, would steer his team into the easier half of the knockout draw. And his side had already beaten Turkey.
But a little insurance never hurt anybody. So German centre-half Werner Liebrich landed a crunching tackle on Ferenc Puskas, sidelining the Hungarian talisman with a damaged left ankle.
There were smirks on German faces, scowls and furrowed brows on Hungarian ones.
Next up for the Magyars, a bruising, action-packed quarter-final on a muddy pitch that wrote itself into World Cup lore as the “Battle of Bern”. Their opponents? Brazil.
But the South Americans, unexpectedly vanquished in the 1950 final, had not yet built the reputation they would come to enjoy over the next two decades. The top seeds were thus not particularly perturbed.
After just seven minutes, Hidegkuti and Kocsis already had them up 2-0. Brazil pulled one back quickly when Indio was fouled and defender Djalma Santos blasted in the penalty.
Brazil’s next goal was the goal of the game. Right-winger Julinho cut in from the right edge of the box and, with the outside of his right foot, launched a missile that swerved violently around Gyula Grosics’ dive and nestled in the far corner.
But Hungary had already restored their two-goal lead in the 60th minute.
With no let-up in the on-field violence, Hungary’s playmaker Josef Bozsik and Brazil left-back Nilton Santos were sent off by English referee Arthur Ellis after an exchange of unpleasantries in the 71st minute. Ellis also ejected Brazil’s Humberto before Kocsis sealed a 4-2 victory for Hungary.
The “game” had produced 42 free kicks, two penalties, four cautions and three red cards. And the two teams did not leave it all out on the field, the Brazilians, doubtless still ruing their 1-2 upset defeat to Uruguay four years earlier, extending hostilities to the opposition dressing room.
It was defending champions Uruguay whom the Magyars were set to meet in the semi-final in Lausanne. Three days was all the recovery time they had.
Even so, Zoltan Czibor shot them ahead from a Kocsis knock-down after just 12 minutes and, just after half-time, the unstoppable Hidegkuti made victory safe. Or so it seemed.
Perhaps they were still feeling the effects of their exertions against Brazil. Uruguay dashed their hopes of hanging on to the lead with a Juan Hohberg double strike 11 minutes apart.
In pouring rain in extra-time, Hungary incredibly lifted themselves once more, the redoubtable Kocsis twice rising above everyone in the box to nod the ball past Gastón Máspoli. Hungary won 4-2.
But even if you emerge victorious, three-and-a-half hours of bruising play on heavy surfaces in the space of 72 hours takes its toll. Germany had had a much less exhausting path to the final, brushing aside Yugoslavia 2-0 and then thumping Austria 6-1, with Fritz Walter netting twice.
And the rematch was set for four days later.
Replacing the injured Puskas at inside-forward, winger Czibor had performed superbly. But Coach Gusztav Sebes decided that his best player could not be denied the pleasure and honour of being part of the great victory that surely awaited them. So semi-fit, Puskas led Hungary onto the pitch for the final at the Stade de Suisse in Bern on 4 July.
It had rained yet again. However, the Hungarian fans felt the gods had written the script.
Just six minutes in, Kocsis’ fierce shot cannoned off a defender and fell at the feet of Puskas, who gleefully blasted in the loose ball. The captain and best player in the world had maintained the Magyars’ habit of scoring early. Two minutes later, German goalie Toni Turek fumbled a back pass and Czibor tapped in for 2-0.
Certainly stunned, the Germans looked a beaten side.
Just two minutes later, left-winger Hans Schaefer swung the ball low across the penalty area. Unmarked, centre-forward Max Morlock came sliding in to tuck the ball under the diving Grosics.
Not yet back on terms, West Germany were back in the game.
And the German fans went crazy when, in the 18th minute, Grosics came off his line for a corner and failed to reach it. Helmut Rahn volleyed in the loose ball at the far post.
Germany were level.
Suddenly, everything was going wrong for Hungary. Today’s drainage systems in football stadia did not exist then and the heavy Bern pitch had begun to take its toll on Puskas’ dodgy ankle. But in this pre-substitutes era, the little left-footed genius had no choice but to play on.
In the second half, Hungary attacked furiously, forcing Turek and the German defence to perform miracles. Hidegkuti and Kocsis each contrived to hit the woodwork.
With six minutes left of normal time, Rahn cut in from the right flank and unleashed a low, blistering left-footer past Grosics’ right hand. So powerfully did he strike the ball that it struck the far corner of the net and rolled back several yards out onto the pitch.
Hungary never gave up. Puskas found the net. Offside, the official ruled. His decision was hotly disputed. Then, in the dying seconds, Turek made a stunning save to deny Kocsis one last time.
The final blast of England’s William Ling’s whistle spawned vastly differing emotional reactions. The elated Germans celebrated their first title after the disappointments of previous campaigns.
In stark contrast, even as former PoW Fritz Walter received the Jules Rimet trophy from the FIFA president after whom it was named, the dazed Hungarians still seemed quite unable to process the reality that they had blown the one that mattered most.
And the Magical Magyars? For them, there would be no second bite of the cherry.
When the Hungarian Revolution exploded in late October 1956, the magic quickly died, never to be resurrected.
At least, not so far….
Editor’s Note: Ashford Jackman owns and has studied a considerable collection of books reviewing World Cup tournaments and assessing outstanding players like Pelé, Beckenbauer and Cruyff. But the knowledge and insights that spawned this series on the World Cup grew from his days as a teenaged technical operator, when he spent hours and hours in the library watching old sports films.
The series seeks to bring to life the golden years of football as well as the players and the moments of high drama that have made the World Cup the greatest single sporting event the world has known.