The Miracle of Bern – 60 Years Later

Rudi Völler once said that a player won’t be forgotten by the history as long as he wins the World Cup. On July 4th 1954 Germany won their first World Cup, beating Hungary in a very dramatic final 3-2. The way this game has been remembered by the German public and German football fans may prove that Völler does have a point. My first personal meeting with this match came over 20 years ago, when the husband of the lady who was watching me for my parents showed me the videotape of the final featuring Heribert Zimmermann’s commentary. He would on later occasions show me other matches of the German national team, but whenever I was given the choice I would ask him if we could watch Das Wunder von Bern – The miracle of Bern – unfold on the TV-screen.

I had certainly never seen anything like it before. The first part of the tape consisted of Germany being beaten by the mighty Magyars 8-3, before they managed to beat them in one of the most dramatic games of football ever to be played at a World Cup 3-2. Zimmermann’s commentary on the radio was poised, urgent and delivered with an immaculate precision. I hadn’t heard anything like it before or ever since. At times he got caught up in the drama of the game, at one point calling Germany’s goalie Toni Turek a football god(Zimmermann later apologised for that comment, as it was unheard of to compare a footballer to god back then).

Have a listen to Zimmermann’s commentary, it’s breathtaking(even for non German speakers).

My experiences regarding the 1954 final in Bern are far from unique. Many men my age, who have grown up in Germany, could tell you similar stories. There are many reasons why this final is remembered even though on this day it was played precisely 60 years ago, and it is worth examining those reasons.

The seemingly impossible task

On the way to the match Sepp Herberger turned to team captain and his right hand man on the pitch, Fritz Walter, and exclaimed:

“Fritz, it’s your weather.”

The Kaiserslautern player was renowned for his excellent performances when it rained, and this day was seemingly made for the German captain. The German national team had gotten further than anybody had expected, and their captain had a big share in their performance. The Magical Magyars were by far and away the favourites to win the title, and if Germany would stand a chance it would mostly come down to a great team performance which would see Fritz Walter shine. Reporter Herbert Zimmermann could inform the listeners at home during half time that 1 out of the 40 journalists present at the match had tipped Germany to win the title before the match. All odds were seemingly stacked against the Germans, who needed to beat the side which featured Ferenc Puskas and the goal scoring machine Sandor Kocsis.

Walter himself thought ahead of the tournament that he probably wouldn’t make it back in time, after the final of the German championship against Hannover 96 had been ruined for the captain due to nasty case of haemorrhoids. In that 5-1 loss to the side from Lower-Saxony failed to make an impact, but Herberger managed to convince Walter to join the team in the end, giving his captain two days off and by making sure that Walter would receive the best of care for his problem upon joining the team.

Walter’s confidence was lifted during the tournament, where he was sharing the room with Helmut Rahn, a player who was never having any doubts about his own qualities. Rahn was one of the key men when it came to lifting the team spirit off the pitch. Rahn was one of the players who didn’t feature in Herberger’s original starting line-up, but he was given a chance from the start when Herberger chose to rest several players for the match against the far superior Hungarians during the group stages. Rahn scored one of Germany’s three goals and made a good figure on the pitch and was awarded with a place in the starting line up for the rest of the tournament(reminder: substitutions weren’t allowed back then).

Initially the match got off to a decent start for the Germans, as they managed to secure the first corner kick of the game after three minutes. However, it wouldn’t last long as the side around Puskas started kicking into gear only moments later. Puskas started the scoring after 6 minutes and two minutes later Zoltan Czibor took advantage of a mix up in the German defence, doubling the lead for the Magical Magyars.

At this point many of the German fans who had made the trip to the Wankdorf Stadion in Bern were probably fearing the worst, having the 8-3 drubbing Germany received at the hands of Hungary back in the group stages, however, they were mistaken. Nürnberg’s Max Morlock brought the national team back into the game only moments later and Helmut Rahn levelled the score in the 18th minute of the match after he managed to get on the end of a corner kick from Fritz Walter.

During the half time interval Herbert Zimmermann informed the German public that 20 out of the 40 journalists present believed that Germany could pull off the surprise. During the half time break national team coach Herberger had his hands full, having to stop a fight between the left back Werner Kohlmeyer and the keeper Toni Turek. With the words “Guys, save your breathe, you’ll need in the second half” the national team coach managed to calm the situation.

The endurance of the German national team was certainly amongst the key elements in the second half. The Hungarians arrived at the ground smoking in their team bus and now they were facing a tougher fight in the second half than they would have thought. Both teams had certainly their chances during the second half, but it was Rahn who got the last goal of the game with a shot from inside the area.

Impact on German history

After the final whistle reporter Zimmermann yelled:

“Aus, aus, aus. Das Spiel ist aus! Deutschland ist Weltmeister, schlägt Ungarn 3 zu 2!”(Over, over, over. The match is over. Germany are world champions, beating Hungary 3-2!)

Germany have won the World Cup two more times since the legendary match in Bern, but none of the other wins at the World Cup have had such a profound effect on the fabric of German society. Fritz Walter receiving the cup from Jules Rimet probably personifies what the country had gone through. The captain had been a prisoner of war himself, having experienced the unpleasant side of the WWII himself. Facing the realisation of having been at fault for the world war, and getting to grips with the terrible crimes committed by the Germans during the war was certainly tough to handle for the nation at this point.

The final of Bern symbolised a turning point in many regards. The German national anthem was played for the first time since the war, and the men on the pitch had accomplished something the entire nation could be proud of. The accomplishments by the German national team were met with awe from the footballing community abroad.

Historian Joachim Fest went as far as stating that Germany was re-born as a nation on July 4th 1954. The success inspired a wave of hope and belief that Germany finally could get back on its feet. It comes therefore as little of a surprise that this game has been burned into the collective memory of the nation.

Controversies – Doping and referee Ling

However, the events unfolding on the pitch 60 years ago have also been scrutinised and questioned. A report published by the Humboldt university in Berlin and the university in Münster found that it is highly likely that the German players competing on the pitch used Pervitin(a methamphetamine). The drug was commonly known as Panzer chocolate during the war, as it allowed pilots of the German airforce to stay alert for longer periods of time and it increased the pilots ability to endure longer stretches of time in the air.

Back in the 50’s the fight against doping wasn’t amongst the priorities of organised sports. Players weren’t tested on a regular basis like they are today, and the temptation of gaining an advantage through the use of drugs could have certainly been considered. However, it should also be pointed out that the players involved on the pitch have always rejected the accusations of them using doping. Horst Eckel stated that the team doctor injected the team with Vitamin C during the tournament. Former Köln player Hans Schäfer wrote in his autobiography back in 1964 that the team were injected with the vitamins because it was easier to regulate the effect of the vitamins using syringes instead of taking them orally.

I’m typing these words currently being, ironically enough, in Hungary. Whilst the doping accusations might put a dent in the glory of that win, some Hungarians are more outraged by another aspect of the game. When speaking to the older generation of Magyars one does encounter the belief that referee William Ling helped the Germans out by putting Hungary at a disadvantage. The offside goal by Puskas, which would have levelled the score at 3-3, is often times cited as an example for the way Ling made sure that the Magical Magyars wouldn’t win the match. The TV pictures uncovered a few years ago clearly show that Puskas wasn’t in an offside position, however, one can also see that Ling wanted to award a goal to Hungary, but it was his linesman from Wales who had spotted the offside position. Others point to the fact that Köln player Hans Schäfer committed a foul ahead of Germany’s second and third goal of the match.

The fact that Ling is an Englishman plays into the picture. Hungary had beaten England, in what has been labelled as the match of the century, 6-3 only 8 months before the World Cup. Many hold the believe that Hungarians loss was a result of Ling seeking revenge for England’s loss ahead of the tournament. However, it seems rather questionable that Ling would have these motives, given that Germany and England just had been at war 9 years prior to the tournament.

Gus Manning – The forgotten hero in the background

When the story of the miracle of Bern is told the role of a Jewish football pioneer is often times ignored. Gustav Randolph Manning was born in England, but immigrated with his family to Germany after his father had sold his business in Britain back in the 1880s. It is safe to say that Manning can be called one of the first football pioneers in the history of German football. He played the game himself for the VfB Pankow around 1893, before he moved to Freiburg to study medicine. During his time in the city he was one of the founders, and players, of Freiburger FC. Furthermore, Manning was involved in the formation of the DFB back in 1900. Despite being a British citizen at the time, Manning was elected to be the association’s first clerk.

Manning should move to the States in 1905 and he would live there for the rest of his life. His love for football saw him being involved in the founding of the United States Football Association in 1913. 35 years later Manning was elected to the executive committee of the FIFA. The DFB had been re-established in 1949 and was hoping to re-join the international footballing community. Few people would have held it against Manning if he had been reluctant in re-admitting Germany into FIFA, however, despite everything that had happened the football pioneer was amongst those who spoke out strongly in favour of including Germany in the FIFA.

Football historian Heiner Gillmeister has even gone as far as suggesting that Germany never might have won that trophy back in 1954 if it hadn’t been for Manning’s efforts to include the country in the FIFA during the 1950 congress in Rio which dealt with the matter. Sadly the football pioneer died on December 1st 1953, and he wasn’t able to see some of the fruits his commitment had brought to German football.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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