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The 20 greatest matches in the FIFA World Cup history - part I (1930-1954)

Updated on October 22, 2018
Hugo Pressman profile image

Brazilian-italian sports journalist working as an international correspondent in Scotland.

Fritz Walter (left) and Ferenc Puskás (right) shake hands before the final of the 1954 World Cup
Fritz Walter (left) and Ferenc Puskás (right) shake hands before the final of the 1954 World Cup | Source

From 1930 to 2014, there have been played 836 matches between 77 different nations in 20 FIFA World Cups. I’ve selected some of the most memorable and remarkable games throughout the tournament’s history. Firstly, I thought of making a top 10, but since there were too many unforgettable moments and stories to be told, I’ve decided to write about 20. Of course it’s not possible to rank those matches, since their respective value and importance may vary from country to country, so I’ve chosen to approach them by chronological order.

Brazil 6-5 Poland, June 5th, 1938, Strasbourg, France – first round

It was Poland’s first World Cup appearance ever and Brazil’s third, after being eliminated in the first round both in 1930 and 1934. Because of those previous international experiences, the Brazilians were considered favourites by some experts at the time. 18 minutes after the kickoff, Leônidas da Silva, the “Black Diamond”, opened the score line for the South Americans. Five minutes later, Friedrich Scherfke scored from the penalty spot to equalize for the Poles. The Europeans could celebrate for only two minutes, though, because with 25 of the first half, Romeu put the Brazilians once more in advantage. Just before the break, Perácio made it 3-1 and it seemed that Brazil was in a confortable situation.

Yet, after it started pouring rain in the second half, with just 14 minutes Ernst Wilimowski hit the net twice and equalized the match again: 3-3. 11 minutes after the hour mark, Perácio put the Brazilians again up in front, but Wilimowski was there to save the Europeans one last time before the final whistle. One minute before the end of the match, the Polish striker scored his third goal and sent the match to extra time.

During the extra 30 minutes of this intense game, Leônidas, credited by many as the inventor of the bicycle kick, scored twice (one of them without wearing a boot) and settled everything. But there would still be time for another goal from Wilimowski. Two minutes before the end, the fantastic Polish goalscorer made his fourth of the night, but it wasn’t enough: 6-5 and Brazil qualified for the quarter-finals. He’s until today the only player to have scored four times against Brazil. This is the only time in a World Cup (from 1930 to 2014) which a player scored four goals and still lost the game.

USA 1-0 England, June 29th 1950, Belo Horizonte, Brazil – first round

After 17 years of self-imposed exile, the Englishmen were finally making their debut in the tournament. The levels of confidence were high, since a combined Great Britain team had beaten a “rest of Europe” squad 6-1 before the Cup. In their first match, England won 2-0 against Chile and their next opponents were the United States. The USMNT was composed of amateur players and some of them weren’t even Americans!

During the match, England dominated from the kickoff and, with only 12 minutes, had already shot six times and hit the post twice. But in the 37th minute, a long shot from Walter Bahr was deflected by Joe Gaetjens, who dived near the penalty spot to beat the English goalkeeper Bert Williams. Gaetjens, who was a Haitian studying in America at the time, didn’t even have an American passport. England tried to increase the pressure in the second half, but thanks to an inspired evening from the American keeper Frank Borghi and the full support from the Brazilian fans in Belo Horizonte, the shocking result was secured.

Uruguay 2-1 Brazil, July 16th 1950, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – final round

After emphatic wins by 7-1 against Sweden and 6-1 against Spain, the Brazilians needed only a draw in their final game of the final round to conquer their first World Cup. The Uruguayans had previously tied with the Spaniards (2-2) and won narrowly against the Swedes (3-2). Only a victory against the home team, supported by near 200 thousand fans, would give them their second Cup.

Pushed by the greatest crowd ever in a World Cup match, Brazil soon took control of the game, but the opposing defense managed to hold a scoreless draw until the break. With two minutes of the second half, Friaça finally put Brazil up in front: 1-0. But with the help and motivation of its legendary captain Obdulio Varela, the Uruguayans were able to strike back. 19 minutes after Friaça’s strike, Juan Alberto Schiaffino equalized and 11 minutes before the final whistle Alcides Ghiggia put Uruguay ahead: 2-1. The almost 200 thousand Brazilian voices fell silent, astonished with what was going on right before their eyes. Uruguay was the champion and this match is known until today as the Maracanazo, the most dramatic loss in the history of Brazilian football.

Austria 7-5 Switzlerland, June 26th 1954, Lausanne, Switzerland – quarter-finals

In the quarter-finals of the 1954 World Cup, Austria, one of the best teams in the World, faced their neighbors and rivals Switzerland, who hosted the tournament. After only 19 minutes, the Swiss already led by three goals, two by Josef Hügi and one by Robert Ballaman. Six minutes later, the Austrians would stage one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. Between the 25th and 34th minutes, they scored five times and made it 5-3. Theodor Wagner and Robert Körner scored two goals each and Ernst Ocwirk netted once. Ballaman would still narrow the distance in the 39th minute and the first half ended with the unbelievable scoreline of 5-4.

In the eighth minute after the break, Wagner scored his third and Austria’s sixth. Five minutes later, Hügi gave new hope to the Swiss and made it 6-5, but Erich Probst settled the epic contest for good 14 minutes before the final whistle. After the match, the Austrian goalkeeper Kurt Schmied was so affected by the heat that he even asked who had won the game. The temperature was around 40ºC. This is still the game with most goals scored in a World Cup to date.

Austria would lose the semi-final to West Germany by 6-1 and finish the tournament in third place, their best result ever in a World Cup.

Hungary 4-2 Brazil, June 27th 1954, Bern, Switzerland – quarter-finals

After demolishing South Korea (9-0) and West Germany (8-3), the mighty Hungarians, who were unbeaten in the past four years, had a more challenging task against a good Brazilian team, who had previously beaten Mexico by 5-0 and tied 1-1 against Yugoslavia. In a very tense match under heavy rain, before which the Brazilians didn’t even have time to warm up, the European side took the lead with only three minutes, through Nándor Hidegkuti. Four minutes later, Sándor Kocsis netted the second. After that, Brazil woke up, started playing much better and was awarded a penalty. The legend Djalma Santos took it and made it 2-1 at half time.

With 15 minutes of the second half, the Hungarians were awarded a penalty and Mihály Lantos didn’t lose the chance to make it 3-1. The penalty resulted in a pitch invasion by outraged Brazilian journalists and officials, who had to be dismissed by police. After that incident, the duel became a battle full of violent fouls and dangerous sliding tackles. In spite of that, Julinho Botelho renewed Brazilian hopes five minutes after Lantos’ penalty, with a beautiful shot from long range. Six minutes later, Nilton Santos and József Bozsik started fighting after a rough foul and both were sent off.

In the last minutes, Hungary would still find some time for the fourth goal, through another strike by the amazing Kocsis, who would end up as the top goalscorer of the tournament (11 goals). Moments before the final whistle, Humberto Tozzi kicked Gyula Lóránt and was dismissed. Humberto’s sending-off triggered an even bigger fight that carried on after the match, with the Brazilian players invading the Hungarian dressing room. After this incident, which became known as the Battle of Bern, FIFA did nothing. Hungary was in the semi-finals and Brazil was sent back home, both teams unpunished.

West Germany 3-2 Hungary July 4th 1954, Bern, Switzerland - final

This was Germany’s first appearance in a World Cup after World War II and also the first as a divided nation. Their way to their first final ever included a 2-0 win against Yugoslavia in the quarter-finals and an impressive 6-1 against the good Austrian team. The Hungarians, on the other hand, were for the second time in a final and were the favourites. Besides being unbeaten for four years, they had won every game so far in the tournament (including a thrashing 8-3 against the Germans), scoring 25 goals and conceding just seven.

After just eight minutes the crowd was already wondering how many times would the mighty Hungarians score against Toni Turek’s goal. The legend Ferenc Puskás, returning from an injury, netted the first one with six minutes and, 180 seconds later, Zoltán Czibor made it 2-0. But the Germans kept their spirits up and reduced the Magyar’s lead to a single goal just two minutes after that with Max Morlock. Eight minutes later, Helmut Rahn tied the match, which affected psychologically the so far invincible opponents. Both teams created goalscoring chances before the break, but the first half ended 2-2.

In the second half, the Hungarians went full offensive and were very close to the winning goal, but Toni Turek, Germany’s keeper, was playing one of the best games of his career and saved his country in a few opportunities. Six minutes before the end, when everyone was already expecting the extra time, Helmut Rahn scored his second goal of the night and Germany’s third. Desperately attacking in the last minutes, the Hungarians found their equalizer two minutes before the final whistle, again with Puskás, but it was ruled offside by the Welsh assistant Benjamin Griffiths.

This heroic win meant not only Germany’s first World Cup title, but also the end of an incredible 31 unbeaten run by Hungary. The Miracle of Bern is still considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history and made a huge impact in Germany’s morale and history after WWII.

This match would also change everything for the Hungarians, but for the worse. After this traumatic loss, the country would qualify to only six other World Cups, the last one in 1986. In 1958 the Magyars were eliminated by Wales in the group stage, in 1962 and 1966 they only reached the quarter-finals and from 1978 to 1986 they weren't able to go through the first round.

World map showing countries' best results (colours as shown) and host countries (yellow dots) of the FIFA World Cup. The inset map at the lower left shows former countries.
World map showing countries' best results (colours as shown) and host countries (yellow dots) of the FIFA World Cup. The inset map at the lower left shows former countries. | Source

Which of the matches above is the most impressive to you?

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    • Hugo Pressman profile imageAUTHOR

      Hugo Pressman 

      4 years ago from Brazil

      Yep! That should be in part III! I'll probably post part II tomorrow

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Great hub, can't wait for part II! Will you put Brazil 1:7 Germany?


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