It had all the makings of a classic: the free-flowing football revolutionaries of Hungary against the flamboyant artistes from Brazil.
Yet 90 minutes, three sendings off and several mass brawls later, and the 1954 World Cup quarterfinal between the two sides was jostling for top spot in the tournament’s hall of shame.
Now known simply as the ”Battle of Berne”, the encounter is regarded as the dirtiest match in World Cup history, a day when Brazil opted for brutality instead of beauty and when Hungary were only too happy to join in.
The result, a 4-2 victory for Hungary, has become a barely remembered footnote.
”This was a battle; a brutal, savage match,” recalled Hungary’s coach Gustav Sebes, who himself ended up with four stitches in a facial wound after being struck by a broken bottle in the aftermath.
”At the end we had won 4-2 but it wasn’t over yet. Brazilian photographers and fans flooded on to the pitch and police were called to clear it.
”Players clashed in the tunnel and a small war broke out in the corridor to the dressing rooms — everyone was having a go; fans, players and officials,” the coach added.
With a place in the semifinals of the tournament at stake favourites Hungary, with the injured Ferenc Puskas watching from the stands, had gone 2-0 up after 10 minutes in a one-sided opening to the game.
Djalma Santos pulled one back from a penalty to keep Brazil in touch at 2-1, but the awarding of a further spotkick to Hungary early in the second half, duly converted by Lantos, marked a rapid deterioration in play.
English referee Arthur Ellis’ penalty decision was the cue for several invasions of the pitch by Brazilian journalists and officials, who had to be ushered off by police.
Niggling fouls and sly punches peppered the second half, and the common view is that only Ellis’ firm refereeing prevented further chaos. An Italian journalist described the Englishman’s officiating as ”magisterial”.
Brazil were later to take a different view of the referee’s performance however, mounting a formal protest to Fifa accusing Ellis of being part of a communist plot to help Hungary.
Ellis’ car was spat on by Brazilian fans as he left the stadium, with shouts of ‘communista’ ringing in his ears.
”I am convinced, after all these years of reflection, that the infamous Battle of Berne was a battle of politics and religion,” Ellis said in his 1962 biography. ”The politics of the Communist Hungarians and the religion of the Catholic Brazilians.”
Ellis was later dismayed at Fifa’s whitewashing of the episode, declining to sanction players sent off and leaving it up to the Hungarian and Brazilian federations to discipline players.
One of the mysteries of the match was the precise involvement of Puskas in the melee after the final whistle.
One report had the Hungarian maestro smashing a bottle into the face of a Brazilian player in the tunnel; other reports vaguely blamed a ”spectator.”
”The big problem came after the match,” Puskas said in his 1997 autobiography, Puskas on Puskas.
”Sebes got hit by a bottle — or was it a soda syphon? — and I grabbed one of the Brazilians and dragged him into our dressing room. He was terrified and I ended up letting him go,” he added.
While Hungary were able to lick their wounds and advance into the last four of the competition, Brazil were beaten but returned to Rio as heroes. ”Glory to those who knew how to fight,” was the tribute from one newspaper. – Sapa-AFP