This is a story of the Nazi Olympics and of how, while the Austrian football team lost two games yet won the silver medals, their Peruvian adversaries sailed home undefeated but empty-handed. It is also an illustration of how hard it can be to get to the bottom of things so long after the event. 

Berlin 1936 marked a return of football to the Olympic programme after its absence from Los Angeles 1932. Uruguay, the dominant team of the era, had travelled to Europe and won the previous two Olympic tournaments in 1924 and 1928. This time, though, the South American flag would be flown solely by the little-known Peruvians, whose national football federation was not yet 14 years old. 

While a lone fencer – the son of the Peruvian ambassador to France – had competed at the 1900 Olympics, this was to be Peru’s first official appearance at the Games. The Peruvian Olympic Committee president Eduardo Dibós Dammert, descendant of a 19th-century mayor of Hamburg, raised US$101,000 to fund the journey to Germany for a party that eventually included swimmers, boxers, cyclists and a basketball team, as well as the football squad. The voyage on the steamer Orazio took a month and a half. Dammert himself did not travel, as his wife had died recently, leaving their four children in his sole charge. 

The South Americans found the Nazi capital dressed with a militaristic bearing. A New York Times piece published on the morning of the Olympic opening ceremony on 1 August described how the prevailing colour on Unter den Linden was red. “At every 50 feet on either side of the central promenade,” the newspaper continued with commendable precision, “there stands a 50-foot green flagpole bearing from its top a scarlet banner, a swastika in the centre, extending within ten feet of the ground.” In his book Berlin Games, Guy Walters refers to an observer who estimated he had passed through 700,000 uniforms on his way to the Olympic stadium. “It was as if the country were mobilising, not putting on a sporting pageant,” Walters writes. 

Peru had played just 11 competitive international matches before arriving in Berlin, the first in 1927, with a record of two wins and nine defeats. No fewer than four of these reverses had been at the hands of the formidable Uruguayans, however. Moreover, some of the players had toured Europe as part of a joint Peru-Chile squad that had fulfilled an extensive schedule, featuring games against the likes of West Ham, Sparta Prague, OGC Nice and many others in 1933-34. 

The multiracial Olympic squad had two out-and-out star players. Alejandro Villanueva, a tall playmaker with bewitching skills, had been part of the 1930 World Cup team. He left such a mark on the sport in his country in its early days that his club Alianza’s current stadium is named after him. Teodoro ‘Lolo’ Fernández, a hard- shooting centre-forward, is another who is still remembered today. His international career was to last a full decade after Berlin by which time his goal tally had reached 24 in 32 games. Known popularly as ‘El Cañonero’ (the cannoneer), Fernández went on to be top scorer at the 1939 Campeonato Sudamericana, which Peru won, finally getting the better of their old adversaries Uruguay in the competition’s decisive match. The goalkeeper Juan Valdivieso was also known as an impressive performer. 

Peru’s first match in the 16-strong, straight knockout Olympic tournament came on 6 August at the Hertha stadium in the Gesundbrunnen district of Berlin. Their opponents were Finland. With the US sprinter Jesse Owens already the talk of the Games, having won his third gold medal in as many days just 24 hours earlier, a mere 2,500 spectators showed up to see Peru more than double their previous best score in an international game. Three goals to the good by the 33rd minute, the Peruvians – playing for the first time in those now iconic red-sashed shirts – wound up comfortable 7-3 winners. Villanueva and Fernández shared all their team’s goals, the former notching a brace and El Cañonero five. 

This confidence-boosting victory put them through to a quarter-final against Austria at the same venue two days later. This sounds like a more daunting prospect than it perhaps was. Having harnessed the genius of ‘Der Papierene’ (the Paper-man) Matthias Sindelar, a proto-false nine, the Austrians had recently crowned a remarkable five-year run of success by beating – and outplaying – England in Vienna. Olympic rules on amateurism ensured that the squad sent to Berlin was a far cry from this Wunderteam, however. Much the best-known figure was the side’s 53-year-old coach Jimmy Hogan, the well-travelled Lancastrian who had been fundamental to the closing of the gap between the Central Europeans and the best British teams over the previous two decades. 

The day before Peru v Austria, a sensation occurred that underlined how open the tournament was. At the nearby Poststadion, once the site of a Prussian parade ground, the hosts were beaten 2-0 by unconsidered Norway in the presence of Hitler himself. “Furore over Reich defeat,” screamed a headline in the New York Times. “Gloom pervaded the German morning papers,” the report went on. “All German victors until now have told the German press in interviews that they think only of the Führer when competing and outdo themselves when he is there to watch them.” 

And so to the match that chiefly concerns us. The bald facts as we know them are these: a well-balanced Austria ran up a 2-0 half-time lead against their skilful but robust opponents. The right-winger Walter Werginz, destined to be killed in action in Ukraine less than eight years later, was proving particularly effective, scoring the first with an unstoppable shot and laying on the second for the centre-forward Klement Steinmetz. Peru, however, continued to push forward, with Fernández said by the Freiburger Zeitung to be performing beautifully. 

After the break, the Austrians succeeded for a time in holding their opponents at arm’s length, with most of the play concentrated in midfield. Then, just after the hour mark, the Austrian inside-right Adolf Laudon had to be carried off – one report in the newspaper Freie Stimmen said this followed a kick in the stomach. With no substitutes permitted, the Peruvians seized their chance. 

While their first goal, just a couple of minutes later, is credited in some quarters to Jorge Alcalde, it appears to have been an own goal following a goalmouth scramble. Then, in the 81st minute, Fernández slammed a shot against the Austrian crossbar and Villanueva was on hand to score from the rebound. Another newspaper, Der Morgen, reports that a second Austrian, Steinmetz, was also injured. In any event, the South American comeback was complete; extra-time beckoned. 

It was at this point, with the teams primed to try to end the deadlock via an additional 30 minutes of play, that an incident occurred which appears to have heated the atmosphere already simmering in the stadium to boiling point, and which later reverberated around the world. 

Laudon returned to the field of play. This seemed to rile the Peruvians, both players and supporters, inordinately. Why? Sport-Tagblatt explains: “The turmoil in which the Peruvian supporters in the stands got involved in a fanatical way grew worse and worse,” it reported. “In some confusion one wondered what could have driven the white and black Peruvians into such a blind fury. Only gradually was it understood that the Peruvians believed that the Austrians had exchanged the injured Laudon for another player, which was prohibited by the rules of the Olympic football tournament.” 

There is some corroboration for this in a story carried prominently by the British newspaper the Daily Sketch on the Monday after the match, by which time the diplomatic repercussions of what had transpired were beginning to escalate. According to one of the paper’s men in Berlin, W Capel Kirby, the injured Austrian player’s return after treatment “brought an amazing protest from the Peruvians. They declared that it was not the injured player who had come back, but a substitute. All the players stood round arguing and gesticulating.” 

It is worth underlining at this point that Kirby was almost certainly not an eye witness, since he had been reporting on the match taking place at exactly the same time in the Poststadion. This pitted Great Britain against Poland, and was won 5-4 by the Poles. Kirby identifies outside-left Gerard Wodarz – “the Clifford Bastin of Polish football” – as the match-winner. The “brains of the Polish attack”, Wodarz set up two of the goals and “helped himself” to the other three – all “net-ripping” attempts, Kirby wrote. “British players were mesmerised by Wodarz’s speed, ball control and trickery.” Two years later, the winger, who won 28 caps in all, was involved in another extraordinary game – Poland’s 6-5 defeat by Leônidas’s Brazil at the World Cup in France. Like so many of the players of this era, Wodarz’s life was turned upside down by the war; he was called up by the German armed forces in 1941 and captured by US troops some three years later. 

Accounts of what happened across town during the tumultuous final stages of the Peru v Austria clash vary considerably. A certain amount of chaos seems to have ensued, with the crowd spilling onto the pitch, possibly causing further injury to the Austrian contingent, perhaps to the right-half Anton Krenn. Amid the confusion, the Peruvians outmuscled their depleted opponents, winning through two more late goals. 

One of the more excitable reports was published in Der Morgen. This describes how a well-known German referee called Peco Bauwens, who was in the stadium though not officiating the match, was “insulted by the Peruvian madmen when he attempted to establish order”. It goes on: “When the exotics scored in extra time, hundreds of supporters of the South Americans stormed the field, all semblance of order was dissolved. There were wild fights, during which the Austrian Krenn was badly hurt. The audience protested vehemently against this kind of game, shouts such as ‘get out of Europe’ could be heard. Even after the end of the match, which eventually ended 4-2 to Peru, the spectators still demonstrated.” 

Kirby seems to have relied largely on Bauwens, who was to be granted the honour of refereeing the gold medal match in Berlin’s monumental Olympic Stadium a week later, for his Daily Sketch report, which has received quite wide currency in the intervening decades. It recounts how “more than 1,000 Peruvian supporters, shrieking, howling and waving flags, leapt the barriers and rushed on the field.” It continues: “Austrian players were kicked and punched. Suddenly Dr Bauwens saw a Peruvian slip his hand into his hip pocket as if to draw a gun. Without a moment’s hesitation, Dr Bauwens seized the man by the throat and prevented him reaching the pocket. A violent struggle took place before the man was overpowered.” 

What is beyond dispute is that, as outlined by Volker Kluge in the Journal of Olympic History, Richard Eberstaller, the president of the Austrian Football Federation, lodged a protest with Fifa calling for the result to be annulled on grounds of the “unexampled rough excesses of the Peruvians as well as the repeated disturbance of the run of play by invasion of the pitch by the public”. 

A Jury of Appeal composed of the father of the World Cup Jules Rimet (France), G Mauro (Italy), RW Seeldrayers (Belgium), Professor R Pelican (Czechoslovakia) and A Johanson (Sweden) – Europeans all, one cannot help but notice – considered the case and eventually ordered a behind-closed-doors replay. As noted in the Official Report of Berlin 1936, the jury’s investigations showed that “there existed factors hampering the normal course of events during the match, and that technical objections could not be made, but that the material organisation of the tournament as provided by the customary rules, failed through unforeseen circumstances, so that it was impossible to prevent spectators from jumping into the field and impossible to prevent one of these spectators from kicking one of the players.” This report also observes a) that this caused “a decrease of the fighting energy of the team” and b) that such an incident “cannot be reconciled with the spirit of good sportsmanship”, but c) that the Jury of Appeal “was not able to discover the guilty person”. It is not clear that any Peruvian was able to give the jury their interpretation of events. Research alluded to in the Journal of Olympic History suggests inter alia that the intended delegation was delayed in their attempts to reach the meeting room by road closures needed to accommodate an Olympic bicycle race. 

Peru undoubtedly failed to show for the replay, so the tie was awarded to Austria. In spite of winning their two matches by an 11-5 aggregate, the South Americans were out. According to Kluge’s article, Peruvian officials in Berlin had telegrammed Lima proposing that the team leave the Games as a protest against the replay decision. This was agreed to as “the only solution to preserve the dignity of the country” by the president, General Oscar Benavides, who, to add a further wrinkle, was preparing for elections that coming October. 

Lima had been boisterously celebrating the 4-2 result for two days, so the news that Fifa had declared it invalid did not go down well. According to Kluge, “a crowd of twenty thousand... demonstrated through the city centre.” They gathered at the palace, where President Benavides made a speech from the balcony declaring “to great applause” that, “in order to defend the honour of Peru, he had ordered the team to depart.” The disturbances were bad enough for the New York Times to run a front-page story describing how a “mob” had stoned the windows of the German consulate. Walters’s account in Berlin Games says in addition that “stevedores in Callao [the main Peruvian port] refused to unload a German ship”. A Norwegian vessel was similarly neglected, suggesting that the dockers were well enough informed to be aware that the match had been officiated by a Norwegian referee, Thoralf Kristiansen. 

By the morning of August 11, date of the semi-final the Peruvians might have been playing in, it was being reported that the entire Olympic team would leave for Paris that day. This included the squad which had qualified for the quarter-finals of the first-ever Olympic basketball tournament. The National Olympic Committee president Dibós Dammert was said to be urging his South American counterparts to show solidarity in the face of “unheard-of abuse”. It was said later that representatives of Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia were considering whether they too should withdraw. Dibós Dammert’s son, Iván Dibós, an International Olympic Committee member for 37 years, told me that president Benavides allowed the team to stay for a week in the French capital as guests of the Peruvian ambassador before beginning the long voyage home. 

Austria won the semi-final against Wodarz’s Poland 3-1, with Laudon grabbing their second goal. This sent them through to the gold medal match, where a crowd put at 85,000 saw them go down in a tight encounter with Italy, just as they had in a World Cup semi-final two years earlier. So the world champions became the new Olympic champions, even though their campaign had begun in unconvincing and controversial fashion. A scruffy 1-0 win over the United States included the following scarcely credible episode when the referee endeavoured to send off Italy’s Achille Piccini for rough play. “Three times,” reported the New York Times, “he tried to get Piccini to leave but finally gave up. A half dozen Italian players swarmed over the referee, pinning his hands to his sides and clamping hands over his mouth.” The match is said to have finished with Piccini “still in the line-up”. Remarkably, the Americans are reported to have taken the incident “good-naturedly”. 

The Peruvians arrived home in the middle of September to find that they were national heroes. Amid memorable scenes, they were handed gold medals and fêted by the press as the “real Olympic champions”. Some of them got a taste of true on-field glory three years later when they won that 1939 Campeonato Sudamericano. 

From today’s vantage-point, while it is impossible to know exactly what happened, it is hard to shake off a sense that they were hard done by in Hitler’s capital and ought to have been allowed to take their place in the semi-final. 

Attendance at the Austria game is put at 5,000, although some newspapers reported considerably higher figures. Peru and Germany are a long way apart. International travel was not straightforward: look at how long it took the Peruvian Olympic team to get to Berlin. While relations between Benavides’s Peru and Nazi Germany were not the worst, how many South Americans is it plausible to think were truly in the Hertha stadium that evening? More than 1,000? Really? Could the pitch invaders have been supplemented by local inhabitants? To what end? Dibós remembers a ceremony in 1976 in Peru to mark the 40th anniversary of the Berlin Games. He was able to speak to many of the players. They confirmed that very few Peruvians attended the match. 

Another oddity: while there were a fair few action shots of the play taken by photographers present, I have yet to find a single photograph of this supposedly sensational pitch invasion. There also seems room to ponder whether this was not in part a form of culture clash in an era when people in any given location had far less opportunity for exposure to foreign mores than we are used to having today. A Sport-Tagblatt article cited by Kluge puts a rather different complexion on the invasion, however extensive or sparse it may have been. “Again,” it proclaims, “fanatics forced their way onto the field and kissed the players. But it was really bad at the end. We civilised central Europeans felt sorry for the players! The exertions of the two hours on the pitch were in our view not so great as the kissing ceremonies after the win. Every player was kissed by each of the Peruvians present.” 

Nor have I been able to discover if any serious attempt was made to ascertain whether Peruvian suspicions that the Austrian attempting to return to the field for extra-time may not have been Laudon were in any way justified. (This is not to defend the ban on substitutions in the sport, which persisted long after 1936 and was plainly ludicrous.) It is unlikely that Hogan, who was noted for his strict sense of fair play, would have had anything to do with such a ploy. Nonetheless, it would be reassuring to find some contemporary record addressing this and ruling it out. 

On the very same day that it published its account of the crowd trouble in Berlin, the Daily Sketch reported that Hogan was to take up the reins at Aston Villa, who had fallen on tough times having been relegated the previous season. The paper says his engagement was finalised in Berlin by Villa’s Fred Rinder, who happened to be among the Football Association contingent looking after the British team. His departure from Austria was clearly no surprise, however, with a subsequent piece acknowledging that he had been expected to move to Arsenal. Hogan managed to get Villa back into the top-flight in his second season with the club. 

These were profoundly nationalistic times, and not just in Germany. This latest flare-up over a game triggered concerns that sport, “the most potent human force for peace”, was at risk of heading off in altogether the wrong direction. “Unless something is done about it,” fretted the Sketch’s regular columnist, LV Manning, “I see a danger of sport in time rivalling religion and politics as war factors. Every Olympiad brings its bitter racial outbreak... International sport in so many fields has such dangerous aftermaths that the time will come when statesmen will be forced to intervene – as they so nearly did when the bodyline controversy was convulsing Australia.” 

International sport as a flashpoint for rival allegiances: it is not a new thing.