Uruguay, the defending champions, had never lost a World Cup match. Hungary were unbeaten since they’d returned to international football in 1950. Their meeting in the semi-final of the 1954 World Cup was always going to be memorable, a clash of the rioplatense and Danubian schools: it produced a classic, a game of spectacular attacking football and high drama. In 1960, World Soccer asked if this was “the greatest ever football match.” There was little doubt that the author of the piece, Jack Rollin, who would go on to edit the Rothman’s Football Year Book, believed it was.

Ask a journalist what he considers the greatest ever World Cup match and most will offer Italy against Brazil from 1982; older journalists, though, often hesitate and acknowledge that their forebears would have put the case for the 1954 semi-final. I’d heard older fans in Hungary speak with awe of the game, while the stature of the two sides — the best there had been against the best at the time — was intriguing. As a result, the match haunted my consciousness for years. I would spend hours trawling the internet for it, but all that seemed to exist was a few minutes of highlights. Then a colleague put me in touch with a Romanian living in Canada who dealt in footage of old matches. He had around 40 minutes of highlights, but he warned me that they weren’t “top quality”. It didn’t matter. This was a game I was desperate to see.

To say the highlights (which somebody uploaded to YouTube in September 2012) aren’t top quality doesn’t begin to describe quite how weird they are, at least to somebody brought up on modern production techniques. The footage itself is fine: it’s not the highest definition and it’s almost impossible to make out the Uruguayan shirt numbers, but that’s what film from the early fifties is like. The issue is the editing. The package has been spliced together from three, possibly four sources. The bulk of it is fairly standard, shot from a camera in the stand above the halfway line. There’s no sound, neither commentary nor crowd noise, which adds an eeriness, and there is a slight issue with pace, so players seem to be engaged at times in high-speed waddling, but again, it’s nothing too unusual for clips from 60 years ago.

The editing is jumpy, switching abruptly from one piece of action to the next, the effect made more disconcerting by the jerkiness of much of the footage: as the screen momentarily goes dark, you’re never quite sure whether it’s just a jump in the film or whether a whole new piece of action is about to begin. It’s very hard to get any clear idea of the flow of the game: it’s just a mess of chances, half-chances and passages of play that might have become chances. It is, frustratingly, impossible to make any kind of judgement on how good a game it is.

And then there’s the clock. It looks at first like a perfectly ordinary clock. It’s circular and has two hands, the word “Omega” in an arc above the face, with an advert for Canada Dry ginger ale beneath. But it soon becomes something terrifying. After every two or three attacks, we cut to a shot of the clock. It turns out it is a specifically designed stadium clock, one hand displaying how many minutes have been played and the other how many seconds, but that isn’t immediately apparent so the first few times you see it, the clock just appears to be showing random time. Hidegkuti shoots wide; twenty past twelve. Schiaffino puts in a cross: five past seven. Hohberg is tackled: half past three. The effect is extraordinarily disconcerting in the way a David Lynch film can be disconcerting. Time is passing, the clock seems to be saying: all you’re doing is watching football, and in my case a football match from 60 years ago, and all the while time is passing by. Yet simultaneously, the clock seems to call into question our whole concept of time: it goes forwards, it goes backwards; who are we to impose upon it a linear structure? Only slowly does the realisation dawn that this is not a traditional clock: twenty past twelve is 00:20 played; five past seven is 05:35; half past three is 15:30.

Increasing the sense of unease is the way the view switches without warning to an angle just behind and to the side of the goal. That at least is comprehensible but after major incidents, the view switches to what is presumably a cinema rather than a TV camera on the other side of the ground. Hungary, suddenly, are playing from right to left rather than left to right, while the silence is replaced by a jaunty piano score and a German newsreel voiceover. In extra-time another source is introduced, one with a reddish cast that freezes as a player heads at goal, mimicking a newspaper photograph before running on again.

Hungary were the hottest of favourites. They were unbeaten in 30 matches, during which time they’d averaged over four goals a game and thrashed sides as good as Czechoslovakia, Italy and Sweden. More than that, they’d become the first foreign side to win at Wembley, hammering England 6-3 the previous November then beating them 7-1 in Budapest six months later. They had half a dozen world-class players and were tactically innovative, deploying Jozsef Zakariás so deep in midfield that he was almost a fourth defender and using Nándor Hidegkuti or Péter Palotás as a deep-lying centre-forward, facilitating the intermovement of their front four.

They began the World Cup against the weakest side in the competition, South Korea, and hammered them 9-0. Had they not eased off — when the 37-year-old midfielder Chung Nam-Sik sat down exhausted after the seventh goal, Puskás gave him a leg massage — the margin would probably have been well into double figures. Then came the match against West Germany. At the time, it seemed just another group game but it turned out to be a precursor for the final. Sándor Kocsis, nicknamed ‘Golden Head’ for his aerial ability, scored four as Hungary won 8-3, but more significant was a foul by Werner Liebrich on Puskás that left him with what turned out to be a hairline fracture of the ankle.

Uruguay had arguably an even stronger squad than four years previously, when they’d won the title in Brazil by beating the hosts 2-1 in a dramatic final game. Alcides Ghiggia, who had scored the winner in the Maracanazo, wasn’t considered after moving to Italy, but Julio César Abbadíe and Carlos Borges offered a more dynamic alternative, while José Santamaría, who would later win four European Cups with Real Madrid, was just beginning to establish himself at the heart of the defence.

On a heavy pitch in Bern, Uruguay struggled to break down a dogged Czechoslovakia in their opening game, two goals in the final 20 minutes eventually giving them a 2-0 win. They then sealed their place in the quarter-final with a 7-0 demolition of Scotland, whose manager Andy Beattie had resigned after an opening defeat to Austria.

Uruguay played their quarter-final first and swatted an ageing England aside 4-2, despite ending the game with just eight players after Víctor Andrade, Abbadíe and the captain Obdulio Varela all suffered injuries. Still, the attrition of the quarter-final on Hungary would be far worse as they came through a brutal game against Brazil. One of the first sides to take their warm-up seriously, they were noted for their fast starts and produced another, racing into a two-goal lead within seven minutes. First Pinheiro, carelessly dribbling out from the back, was dispossessed by Hidgekuti. His initial effort was saved by Castilho, who then blocked the follow-up, only for the ball to run loose to Hidegkuti, who smashed the ball gleefully between two defenders on the line.

Even before the second goal there had been an indication of the trouble to come as Hidegkuti was forced to change his shorts after they’d been ripped by an overly vigorous challenge, but the new ones proved just as effective as the old, and he crossed for Kocsis to head in the second. Djalma Santos cleared another effort off the line but pulled one back on 18 minutes after Jenő Buzánszky had fouled Índio. As the game became increasingly rough, József Tóth went off injured and matters only worsened when the English referee Arthur Ellis bewilderingly awarded a penalty for a supposed foul on Kocsis. As Cris Freddi wrote in his history of the World Cup “there’s nothing on the video, in which Kocsis looks as bemused as anyone.” Mihály Lantos converted to make it 3-1 with half an hour still to go.

Julinho cut inside to reduce the deficit five minutes later and that’s when it got really nasty. József Bozsik needed treatment after being hacked down by Carlos Bauer and returned uncharacteristically furious and desperate for revenge. He clashed with Nílton Santos — there were allegations of racial abuse — and both were sent off after 71 minutes. Djalma Santos then chased Zoltan Czibor, Hidegkuti shoved Índio to the ground and stamped on his legs, prompting Didi to retaliate. As photographers sought to capture the brawl, police had to intervene to clear the pitch. The game eventually restarted, only to stop again as Humberto Tozzi was sent off for an awful lunge at Kocsis, who completed the scoring with a rising drive. As the players left the pitch at the final whistle, further punches were exchanged, while police and photographers engaged in a subsidiary battle. There were accusations that Puskás, who had watched the game from the bench, struck Pinheiro with a bottle and, when Hungary got back to the dressing-room, the lights suddenly went out. Amid further fighting in which more glass was smashed, Tóth was left with a badly cut head.

It had been raining all day and a squally shower was still blowing as the players took the field for the semi-final, Uruguay jogging purposefully, Hungary strolling beneath a large advert for Martini. As the players lined up for the (unheard) national anthem, there comes the first hint of how unsettling the video will be, the camera skipping jerkily from face to face, like a bad pastiche of Eisenstein. The significance at that stage lay in who was not there: Puskás still injured from the kick he had taken against West Germany in the group stage, with Varela and the forwards Abbadíe and Óscar Míguez missing out for Uruguay. With both captains absent, it was Jozsef Bozsik and Víctor Andrade who performed the toss and exchanged pennants, shaking hands three times to ensure the cameras didn’t miss it. The unspoken message seemed to be that this wasn’t going to be another battle like Hungary’s quarter-final against Brazil had been.

There was a sense, too, that the winners would go on to win the tournament, with Austria, who had finished runners up to Uruguay in their group on goal difference (thanks to the oddity of the tournament structure, as seeds they hadn’t played each other) facing West Germany in the other semi. “We spared no efforts during the preparation and we have come to Switzerland to retain our title,” said Luis Troccoli, the head of the Uruguayan delegation. “For this reason we are hoping to defeat Hungary however strong their team is. I believe this game is going to be the real final of the tournament. Four years ago we were the underdogs against Brazil and, as far as I can tell, the Hungarian team is even better. Nevertheless, we succeeded in 1950 and I believe we can repeat that.”

Gusztav Sebes, the Hungary coach, had gathered his players together at noon to talk them through his game-plan, which was based on the scouting and analytical work done by Geza Kalocsay. The most important thing, he’d told them, was to keep possession, to circulate the ball and, because of Uruguay’s aptitude for the tackle, to cut out any tricks. Palotás, who had replaced Puskás, was used as the withdrawn centre-forward, the position he’d occupied until losing his place to Hidegkuti after the 1952 Olympics. Hidegkuti shifted left to take the place usually occupied by Puskás, but the two were encouraged to change position frequently. Kocsis, the inside-right, was instructed to remain as high up the pitch as he could.

Immediately the game settled into a pattern: despite the quirkiness of the video, it’s clear that Hungary were more possession-oriented, happy to pass the ball sideways, while Uruguay, sitting deep, looked more to individual surges. “Brilliant positional play, first-class passing at top speed and ball control effortless despite the greasy leather,” Rollin wrote, “stamped this as the connoisseur’s delight and the reporter’s dream.” 

Although not, as it turned out, the reporter from the Hungarian newspaper Nemzeti Sport. “It was a strange game,” he wrote, “which started differently to how we’d expected and differently to those to which we’ve become accustomed. The pace was low and the build-up to our attacks was slow and erratic. Nevertheless we could dominate the game and create more chances than the opponent — even though our front five didn’t shine as greatly as usual. Luckily, our defence was solid. Hungary were able to dominate the game when they kept possession for longer periods. Having the ball on our side gave much-needed confidence to the players, who were able to remain calm even in the heated moments of the game.” 

Palotás drove an early shot across the face of goal and it was he who began the move for the opening goal, playing the ball out to Hidegkuti who chipped a pass forward to the edge of the box. Kocsis nodded it down, and Czibor, cutting in from the flank, dealt superbly with an awkward bounce to sweep the ball low past Roque Máspoli who, having got a hand to it, might have expected it keep it out.

Uruguay responded. The goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, noted for his adventurousness in leaving his box, twice made vital interceptions and also made two excellent saves from long-range drives. “Chief architect of the Uruguayan moves,” wrote Rollin, “was Juan Schiaffino who was playing a very deep-lying game billed as centre-forward, with Juan Hoberg playing well up the field. Time and time again Schiaffino would set up some fine openings only for the Hungarian defence to quickly cover up the danger a split second before the Uruguay forwards could take full advantage.”

Hohberg — probably; in all honesty the film isn’t clear enough to be sure — snatched as a ball broke to him 12 yards out and drove wide, while at the other end Máspoli tipped over a Kocsis header from a Czibor cross, an incident dramatic enough to be repeated from the reverse angle with a short snatch of music. “Hungary,” Rollin went on, “seemed just that much quicker in thought and action at that time. They deserved their interval lead.”

At half-time, Sebes reiterated his message: keep possession: “Make the ball run as much and as quickly as you can,” he told his players again and again, urging them to look for one-twos rather than to take players on.

Hungary’s advantage was soon doubled. Two minutes into the second half, József Zakariás intercepted and played a neat ball forward for Kocsis as he drifted infield. He laid the ball right for László, who chipped the ball to the back post, were Hidegkuti met it with a fine diving header. “This proved to be the spur [Uruguay] needed,” Rollin wrote. “Almost immediately they took control of the game and had the Hungarians’ defence, which had looked very solid and reliable before, reeling and making the most unMagyarlike mistakes.” Players admitted they had begun to think of simply keeping the ball, practising what Arsène Wenger would later term “sterile domination”. Grosics admitted that he kept looking at the clock behind his goal – that cursed, unnerving clock – every couple of minutes.

Just after the hour, though, Hungary probably should have been given the opportunity to make the game safe, Hidegkuti seeming to be tripped in the box. The Welsh referee Mervyn Griffiths didn’t give it and Uruguay broke. Néstor Carballo exchanged passes with Schiaffino and ran on beyond the Hungarian back line only to be thwarted again by Grosics’s speed from the line. As the ball broke loose, the follow-up was fired just wide.

That, though, was a warning, and it was from a similar move that Uruguay did pull one back with 15 minutes remaining. Schaiffino found room centrally and timing his pass perfectly, laid in Hohberg, who calmly sidefooted his finish past Grosics from the edge of the box. As Mihály Lantos retrieved the ball from the net, he ran a hand sadly through his hair.

Sensing an equaliser, Uruguay committed to the attack and the final 15 minutes became an extraordinary frenzy of chances at both ends. Hidegkuti had a shot blocked, Kocsis seemed to commit a foul in retrieving possession, then skipped round Máspoli only for his shot to be cleared off the line. Grosics flapped at a Uruguayan corner, missed it and, as the ball was turned goalwards in a crowded box, Jenő Buzánszky blocked between the posts. Hohberg ran onto another through ball, rounded Grosics but, as the angle narrowed, could manage only a half-hit shot that Gyula Lóránt hacked away. But Hohberg was the danger, in particular his link-up with Schiaffino. With four minutes remaining they combined again. Hohberg tried to sidestep Grosics who got a hand to the ball, diverting it behind the forward, and he reacted smartly to turn and squirt a shot goalwards, between two defenders on the line. According to Rollin, Hohberg collapsed in the celebrations.

Nemzeti Sport’s appreciation of Uruguay seemed principally to lie in the fact that they were not Brazil. “The Uruguayan team played differently than Brazil,” it reported. “They put more emphasis on teamwork. Individually they are not that bright, however. All in all, Uruguay are still more dangerous because of their disciplined teamwork and their collective efforts. Also, the players have excellent ball control and are capable of nice combinations and led some marvellous attacks (initiated mostly by Andrade and Carballo) as well as the two goals but it was striking that their pace is slower and they combine more in attack than they should or than the European teams do. Nevertheless they often shoot when there is a chance to do so, and are intent on making good use of the channels and finding space behind the defence. Andrade and Schiaffino are their best players — the latter is simply impossible to dispossess. It should be noted that their marking was sometimes loose and the defenders gave too much space for our forwards (especially Martínez against Budai) who could get the ball relatively unmarked then turn it to their advantage. Unlike Brazil, Uruguay played sportingly all along and showed a great example of sportsmanship to everyone.”

Uruguay’s momentum continued into extra-time. Hohberg, perhaps surprised by a miskick in the heart of the Hungary defence, scuffed badly wide and then struck the post with a long-range effort, Grosics blocking an attempted follow-up with his shin. Crucially, in his follow-through the Uruguayan creator was caught by Zakariás as he slid in to attempt a block. Clearly in pain, he was never quite as effective in the rest of the game. Slowly the storm abated and, six minutes into the second half of extra-time, Hungary took the lead, Budai darting down the right and crossing for Kocsis, who leapt above José Santamaria and headed down past Máspoli. Five minutes later, Hidegkuti sent in the cross from the right and Kocsis was unmarked to head in the fourth. Rollin blamed Máspoli, suggesting he could have come for the crosses but, while the video makes it hard to draw firm conclusions, that seems harsh. Both headers, after all, came from well outside the six-yard box.

Both, anyway, were fine headers from a player who fully deserved his reputation, despite his slight build. In five games in the tournament, Kocsis had scored thirteen goals, and the assumption was that he would go on to get more in the final against a West Germany side Hungary had already hammered.

In the end, Sebes believed, Hungary had won because of their superior fitness and the way their possession play had conserved their energy. “Never have I seen such an outstanding performance between two teams playing at their highest level,” he said. “Both teams were excellent. I instructed the team to put the ball on the ground and make it run all the time. We were aware that the Uruguayan team could not keep up the pace they were dictating in the final period of the game, and our assumption turned out to be true in extra-time.”

He wasn’t the only one immediately to place the game in the pantheon. The England manager Walter Winterbottom, who had seen his own side thrashed twice by Hungary, was just as enthusiastic. “Never have I seen the Hungarian team playing with so much dedication,” he said. “Like lions they fought and they were able to maintain their high standards of football even in extra-time.” Even the referee seemed to know instantly that he had overseen a classic. “It was a battle of real men, a tough contest with some excellent football,” Griffiths said. “The Hungarians deservedly won the game in extra-time.” 

The Hungarian players were unanimous in their praise for Uruguay. Czibor said they were the best team held ever played against. “I have never seen a game contested at such a high pace,” said Budai. “It was an all-out battle. The Uruguayan team consists of wonderful players; it was an honour to defeat them.” Grosics used the same term but then was quick to clarify that he didn’t mean anything untoward: “It was a fantastic battle,” he said. “It’s safe to say the Uruguayan team is the best we’ve faced so far. Due to what’s happened before I have to stress how fair and noble they were.” 

There was a recognition too that the Danubian and rioplatense conceptions of the game had much in common. “The game was especially remarkable as the Uruguayans play the same football as we do,” said Bozsik. “We just play it a little better.” And Uruguay were gracious in their praise. “The Hungarian team is outstanding. We couldn’t live up to the pressure of extra-time,” said the coach Juan López Fontana. “Hungary is the greatest team I have ever played against,” added Andrade. “Their quality is fascinating.”

All that remained was for Hungary to go on to beat West Germany in the final and claim the world title that had been waiting for them. But they didn’t. Quite what went wrong has been the subject of much debate and some wild speculation. What is true is that an oompah band outside the hotel kept a number of Hungary players awake the night before the game and that Hungary’s coach to the stadium was held up by the number of fans trying to get in, meaning they arrived later than intended and flustered. Puskás played despite his leg injury, while the heavy conditions hampered Hungary’s possession-based approach. A report put together in 2013 by researchers at Berlin’s Humboldt University on behalf of the German Olympic Sports Confederation, meanwhile, claimed that a number of West Germany’s players had been injected with the methamphetamine Pervitin.

Yet still Hungary had the game in their hands. Puskás put them ahead after six minutes as Kocsis’s shot was deflected to him off Liebrich. Then Czibor pounced on Werner Kohlmeyer’s backpass: 2-0 after eight minutes. But two minutes later, Max Morlock slid in to pull one back and nine minutes after that, Helmut Rahn volleyed in after Grosics had flapped at a corner. Hidegkuti hit the post, Kocsis clipped the bar and Tóth that an effort cleared off the line but, with five minutes remaining, Rahn gathered Lantos’s clearance, skipped by Lantos and shot low past Grosics. Puskás thought he’d equalised only to be penalised for offside and, in the final seconds Toni Turek made a fine save from Czibor. Hungary, somehow, had lost and, in what became known as the Miracle of Bern, West Germany were world champions.

That semi-final, though, still stands as a monument to the greatness both of that side and of the Uruguay team they beat. Unless a tape of the full game emerges, it’s impossible to make any sort of definitive judgment on how good a game it actually was, but there’s more than enough in the highlights that do exist to understand just why contemporary observers were so taken by it.