Instead of a conventional round-robin where each team would play three matches, the seeded teams as well as the unseeded teams were spared from playing each other as the unseeded teams were squared up only against the seeded ones in a chance to qualify, so each team played only 2 group matches, unless tied for the second qualifying position by points, which required a play-off. Extra time was played for any games that was tied after 90 minutes, with the result being a draw if the scores were still level after 120 minutes. The two teams finishing at the top of their group went through to the quarter-finals. Uruguay and Austria both won their games, thus finished the group level on points in the qualifying positions, and drew lots to determine who they would play in the next round, as did Brazil and Yugoslavia.
Consequently Switzerland and Italy played each other twice with Switzerland winning the play-off 4-1. The Germans, who had been reinstated as full FIFA members only in 1950 and were unseeded, won the first of two encounters with the seeded Turkish convincingly in Berne at Wankdorf stadium. The Koreans, as the other unseeded team, lost 0-7 and 0-9, with Germany being denied the chance to play such an easy opponent. Sepp Herberger gambled against the seeded team of Hungary by sending in a reserve side to take an expected 3-8 loss, with the only consequence being the additional playoff game against Turkey that was won with ease. Hungary's team captain Ferenc Puskás, considered by many as the best player in the world in that time, was injured by German defender Werner Liebrich, and had to miss the next two matches of his team, only to show up in the final again, still being in a questionable condition.
The quarter-finals saw the favourites Hungary beat Brazil 4-2 in one of the most violent matches in football history, which became infamous as the Battle of Berne. Meanwhile, the World Cup holders Uruguay sent England out of the tournament, also by 4-2. Germany dispatched Yugoslavia 2-0, and Austria beat the host nation Switzerland in the game that saw the most goals in any World Cup match, 7-5.
One of the semi-finals saw Austria, against the DFB team which represented the Federal Republic of Germany, one of three German states of the time. The DFB had qualified against fellow Germans from the French-occupied Saarland, while East Germany had not entered, cancelling international football games after the East German uprising of 1953. With the final at stake, Austria 6-1.
The other semi-final, one of the most exciting games of the tournament, saw Hungary go into the second half leading Uruguay 1-0, only for the game to be taken to extra time with a score after 90 minutes of 2-2. The deadlock was broken by Sándor Kocsis with two late goals to take Hungary through to the final, beating a team that had not previously lost a World Cup game. Uruguay then went on to be beaten for a second time as Austria secured third place.
The final saw Hungary's Ferenc Puskás playing again even though he was not fully fit. Despite this he put his team ahead after only 6 minutes and with Zoltán Czibor adding another two minutes later it seemed that the pre-tournament favourites would take the title. However, with a quick goal from Max Morlock in the 10th and the equalizer of Helmut Rahn in the 19th, the tide began to turn.
The second half saw telling misses from the Hungarian team. Barely 6 minutes before the end of the match, the popular German radio reporter Herbert Zimmermann gave the most famous German piece of commentary, recommending Rahn should kick from the backfield, which he did. The second goal from Rahn gave Germany a 3-2 lead while the Hungarian reporter Gyorgy Szepesi burst into tears. Later, Zimmermann called Puskás offside before he kicked the ball into Toni Turek's net with 2 minutes left. While referee Ling pointed to the centre spot, linesman Griffiths signalled offside. After a one-minute consultation, referee Ling disallowed the claimed equalizer.
The Germans were handed the Jules Rimet trophy and the title of World Cup winners while the crowd sang along to the tunes of the national anthems of Germany. In Germany the success is known as The Miracle of Bern, upon which a 2003 film of the same name was based. For the Hungarians, the defeat was a disaster, and remains controversial due to referee errors and claims of doping.
One controversy concerns the 2-2. Hungarian goalie Gyula Grosics jumped to catch Fritz Walter's corner shot, but in plain sight of the camera, Hans Schäfer obstructed him, thus the ball could reach Rahn unhindered. The second controversy concerns allegations of doping to explain the better condition of the German team in the second half. Though teammates steadfastly denied this rumour, German historian Guido Knopp claimed in a 2004 documentary for German public channel ZDF that the players were injected with shots of C vitamine in half-time, using a needle earlier taken from a Soviet sports doctor, which would also explain the wave of jaundice among team members following the tournament.
Most controversial was the offside ruling for Puskás's intended 87th minute equalizer. The camera filming the official footage was in a bad position to judge the situation, only eyewitnesses claimed that the referee was wrong, including German replacement player Alfred Pfaff. However, since then, footage evidencing no offside surfaced (shown on North German regional public channel NDR in 2004).
The 11 goals scored by Kocsis of Hungary not only led the World Cup but bettered the previous record (set by Brazilian Ademir in the previous tournament) by two goals. Kocsis' mark was then broken by Just Fontaine's 13 goals in 1958. Despite not winning the 1954 tournament, the fourth place finish and their two previous World Cup titles made Uruguay the most successful World Cup nation for eight years, until Brazil won their second title in 1962. Hungary's 9-0 result against Korea during the group stages remains to this day the biggest margin of victory in FIFA World Cup history, later equalled by Yugoslavia winning 9-0 against Zaire in 1974 and again Hungary winning 10-1 against El Salvador in 1982.
Six cities hosted the tournament:
The final scene of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film "The Marriage of Maria Braun" takes place during the finals of the 1954 World Cup; in the scene's background, the sports announcer is celebrating West Germany's victory and shouting "Deutschland ist wieder was!" (Germany is something again) - which the film uses as the symbol of Germany's recovery from the ravages of WWII.
Söhnke Wortmann's 2003 German box-office hit The Miracle of Bern (in German: Das Wunder von Bern) re-tells the story of the German team's route to victory through the eyes of a young boy who admires the key player of the final, Helmut Rahn.