The Drugs Don’t Work: The Real Significance of 1954

The English have a habit of asking, in irritated earnest, why it is that the Germans are just so damn good at football. With the exceptions of Piers Morgan and the scum who booed the German National Anthem in Bloemfontein, there is a distinct, respectful awe among the Anglo Saxons for their German cousins. We hate them, they say, but you have to hand it to them, they can win World Cups.

It is perhaps no surprise that a nation which has founded its psyche on the dual principles of imperialism and insularity is confused as to its opinion of its worst footballing enemy, but their bitter suspicion of German footballing superiority may not be as chauvinistic as it first appears. If the conspiracy theorists are to be believed, Germany’s first World Cup win in 1954 may have had two helping hands. The first, apparently, was a dodgy referee, and the second, and more important, was crystal meth.

The image of Sepp Herberger making a bloodshot eyed, spikey haired cameo in Family Guy is too brilliant to be ignored, but crystal meth – or rather metamphetamine – is not as ridiculous as it might sound. It was used as a stimulant for soldiers on both sides in the Second World War, and has historically not been impartial to popping up in sporting scandals. Just ask Andre Agassi.

In Germany, the theories linking misuse of the drug to the hallowed World Cup winning team of 1954 have been treated largely with derision. The University of Leipzig study which claims that the players were found with traces of the substance in their bodies after the game is, the purists huff and puff, insubstantial evidence. That may be, but then the equally questionable argument for the defence (it was vitamin C, honest guv) does not have the authoritative backing of the University of Leipzig and the German Olympic Committee.

The real debate here, is not whether or not the Germany side were doped – there is, it appears, a far too minute amount of available evidence to truly make a judgement on that – but rather, does it matter?

Before I get lynched as a blasphemous, treacherous endorser of the callous perversion of sport, I should like to clarify this suggestion somewhat. I am not legitimising doping. I think its a pathetic, weak minded way of devaluing the unadulterated emotional exhilaration which sport offers its spectators and participants. I think Dwayne Chambers should never be allowed to set foot on a running track ever again. And if conclusive evidence emerges to suggest that the Miracle of Bern team cheated, then the individuals responsible should be roundly condemned.

There is though, another level to this debate. The 1954 win is not presented as the Englightment moment in German football for nothing. The victory is not the perfect fairytale simply because West Germany were underdogs to a far superior Hungary side, who had routed them in the group stage. The romanticism of 1954 runs far deeper than that. It takes its roots in a nation still struggling to deal with the vast political tragedies of its recent past; a people still thoroughly confused about its relationship to its government and its European neighbours. A nation trying to condemn and forget fascism while also rehabilitating those who fought for it. That is why a World Cup victory in Switzerland was so colossal – it was proof that football remains one of the few aspects of modern popular culture whose ability to create a genuine unity and sense of national pride (which is very different to nationalism) is simply astounding. That’s why we buy the 1954 retro shirts. That’s why Herbert Zimmermann went crazy at the microphone.

The win in 1954 helped, in its own small way, rebuild a Germany which could put its past behind it and look to its current success. In footballing terms, it facilitated the rise of the Bundesliga, and the golden generations of Beckenbauer and Matthaeus. The English might begrudge Germany the latter, but few could resent them for the former.

The fact is, the 1954 West Germany side were helped. The Hungary side they met in the final was, on paper, a far superior one. But Germany had Adi Dassler’s screw in, all terrain studs. They had a refereeing display which, although hardly biased, by chance got them the rub of the green at crucial moments, and they had romanticism. They had the knowledge that they had got further than anyone ever expected them to, and one more win couldn’t be all that difficult. That’s the beauty of the fairytale, and that is why the doping scandal must, if not be dismissed, take second place. The 1954 was not a merely a sporting competition. It was a cultural revolution.

The following two tabs change content below.


Kit Holden is a freelance sports writer, specialising in German football. Alongside his contributions to the Bundesliga Fanatic, he provides regular Bundesliga coverage for The Independent Online, Total Football Magazine, Talking Baws and others. He is based in Cambridge, where he allegedly does an undergraduate degree in French and German.


  1. Remaining German players of that WC will never admit the used pervitin since they don’t know what they were being injected. Knowing the common use of that drug in Germany back in those days, it is extremely likely the players were doped in the final. It wasn’t forbidden back then & the players ignored it (althouth they must have felt different after the injections) that doesn’t erase the fact that that win wasn’t fair and square, even after all these years.

    It wouldn’t matter now if Hungary had won the following WC or any of the posterior ones, but it matters as it along with the invasions by the
    soviets screwed Hungarian football for decades now.

  2. I think the most important thing when judging any historic event is the context of the time you are evaluating. Without it it is too easy to lose perspective and be mislead by information that spilled over since.

    Most importantly, we now know that we can use cartoons to properly analyze history. 😀

  3. Always a lot of rumors like today (spain for example), also heard that the Hungarian all drove new big Mercedes after they lost. Hey it was a historic match, and maybe it was so simple that Germany did the impossible, beat the Super team from Hungary ?

  4. Well, there are only allegations that the German WC team took performance-enhancing drugs – there is no evidence. And taking metamphetamine was not illegal in 1954.

    “That may be, but then the equally questionable argument for the defence (it was vitamin C, honest guv) does not have the authoritative backing of the University of Leipzig and the German Olympic Committee.”

    Back then, smoking was not considered unhealthy (the Hungarian team was full of smokers) and the German team didn`t drink water before the games because Sepp Herberger thought that doing so would be bad for the players. Generally speaking, sports science still had a long way to go in 1954. So it is not unreasonable that Sepp Herberger & Co thought that injecting vitamins made was a good idea, even though sports scientists in the year 2010 disagree.

    If you would allege that any current football team is doping their players based on the same “evidence” that is used to discredit the German WC 1954 team, chances are high that said club,players would sue you for libel and win the court case.

  5. This reminds me of the recent South Park episode. It mocks the History Channel and its retrospective way of knowing-better. In this episode the History Channel alleges that the first Thanksgiving dinner was attended by aliens.

    Of course this here is a story altogether more likely, yet we are talking about events that happened in 1954. Re-telling history from an aloof perspective and playing The Retrospective Great Exposer, I don’t know, pardon my words (English is not my first language so I will resort to the language people speak rather than write), that seems kind of dickish.

    If methamphetamine was so common, was it even on the Doping List? Did such a thing as a Doping List exist in those days? Maybe it wasn’t even illegal at the time – Doping awareness only began in the late 70s. And if meth was so common before, would not every team have used these pills? Have the other teams been re-checked?
    Who to fault? The players back then were surely not questioning their team doctors’ orders. Also, only three players of the 18 who were on the field for Germany in the 1954 World Cup are still alive. I find it unseemly to recast these ca 90-year-old men as wretches, and I find it even more unseemly on the late 15 who have no chance to object to these allegations.

    All of which brings me to anther animated series. In one Simpsons episode, Lisa finds out that city founder Jebediah Springfield was, in fact, a crook. As she is about to reveal this secret to the public, she changes her mind – as she realizes in the big picture it is better for Springfield to have an ideal of Jebediah to look up to, even if it is not rooted in reality.
    By which I am not casting Germany 1954 as Jebediah-style evildoers (He was a badass!). But these players did serve his purpose in Germany, as role models that generations have looked up to. This can already no longer be taken from them, nor should it be.

  6. Maradona robbed the WC from the country who deserved to win it by letting Argentina play in the finals via a handball. Luis Suarez robbed Ghana of African pride to appear in the WC semis. The biased vengeance-seeking Russian ref of the ’64 final robbed Germany of another WC. Shit happens. Many a team were tragically robbed of something, but they eventually have to deal with it

  7. The article reads like an acceptance that the 54 team were doped and that the world should look past that fact. The tragedy is for the Hungarians of course. That great side of Puskas, Hideguti et al were potentially robbed of the title they deserved.

1 Trackback / Pingback


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.