In the heat of the moment

No other World Cup hosts have been knocked out in such extreme circumstances as Switzerland in 1954. Paul Joyce looks back at the tournament's highest-scoring match

The 1954 World Cup is mainly remembered for West Germany’s 3-2 victory over favourites Hungary in the final. But the quarter-final between Switzerland and Austria, the so-called Hitzeschlacht von Lausanne (Heat Battle of Lausanne), is if anything even more noteworthy. Not only was it played in intolerable weather conditions but it remains the highest-scoring game in World Cup finals history.

Hosts Switzerland had created the first shock of the tournament by beating Italy 2-1 in their opening match. When the two teams finished level on points in their group, a play-off was required in Basel. Using the “Swiss bolt” tactic developed by their Austrian coach Karl Rappan, Switzerland again stifled the more technically gifted Italians and then broke clinically to triumph 4-1.

Their quarter-final opponents on June 26 were managed by a man who was no stranger to Switzerland. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Walter Nausch fled Vienna for Zurich after refusing to separate from his Jewish wife. Nausch returned in 1948 to build a national side around players such as Gerhard Hanappi which could emulate the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s. Unbeaten in the group stage, Austria hadn’t conceded a goal in seven matches. 

Yet this would soon change. After only 19 minutes, Switzerland led 3-0 through goals from Robert Ballaman and two from Josef “Sepp” Hügi. The Swiss fitness trainer rang up the sports school in Magglingen where his team were staying to extend their booking for the semi-final.

But they had reckoned without the heat. Although the match kicked off at 5pm in Lausanne, it was 40C (104F) in the shade in the Stade Olympique de la Pontaise, with a humidity level of 81 per cent. Rappan had picked the same side that had beaten Italy three days earlier and most were still exhausted. Elegant stopper Roger Bocquet received an elbow to the head but no substitutions were allowed. According to Swiss goalkeeper Eugène Parlier, Bocquet started “running on his own, paying no attention to the ball. He even passed by in front of me without noticing me and carried on behind the goal.” It later emerged that the Swiss captain wasn’t just suffering from sunstroke but also a brain tumour (which he survived).

Instead of combating Bocquet’s distress by strengthening the defence, Rappan’s team kept pushing forward – with dire consequences. Motivated by their captain Ernst Ocwirk, who told his players that they would be killed when they got home if they lost, Austria struck five goals in nine minutes, shooting from distance to neutralise the “Swiss bolt”.

It was now 5-3 after 34 minutes but the first half wasn’t over yet. Ballaman struck a fourth for Switzerland five minutes later and then Robert Körner missed a penalty for Austria after Bocquet had fouled Ernst Stojaspal. “We did everything at half time – oxygen, drinks,” recalled Swiss half-back Charles Casali. “Someone from the press once asked me what I ate to keep in such good shape. I said ‘Rösti, liver sausage’ and I rubbed my legs with schnapps to make them much less sensitive.” A dazed Roger Bocquet thought Switzerland were still leading: “It’s great, lads, 3-0, they’re screwed!”

But the Austrians were also suffering from the heat. Their goalie Kurt Schmied, a heavy smoker, collapsed at half time. “He simply wasn’t there for the first three goals he conceded,” said his team-mate Theodor Wagner. Schmied was so disorientated in the second half that the Austrian masseur Pepi Ulrich had to stand by his goal and mop his brow with sponges while he stumbled backwards and forwards with his head in his hands. With the keeper not even knowing what the score was, the masseur had to guide him as if by remote control: “Kurtl, watch out, they’re coming! They’re coming down the right, Kurtl, now they’re coming down the left!”

Unsurprisingly, the goals kept flowing. Wagner completed his hat-trick for Austria in the 54th minute after the misnamed Scottish referee Charlie Faultless overlooked a blatant offside. The Swiss team looked set to walk off and fans threw bottles on the pitch. Yet five minutes later, Hügi scored this third for Switzerland with a shot that Schmied would normally have saved. And it almost became 6-6 when Austria’s Ernst Happel flamboyantly stopped the ball with his arse and back-heeled it towards his ailing keeper, much to his colleagues’ annoyance.

Yet although the Swiss peppered Schmied’s goal from all angles, Erich Probst made it 7-5 to Austria with a quarter of an hour to go and played on to the end with a dislocated shoulder. Schmied collapsed and was hospitalised after the final whistle – but Austria were through.

“Of the seven goals, four were unstoppable, two were my fault and one was bad luck,” recalled Swiss keeper Parlier. “It’s really the quantity that’s embarrassing.” Although he had been the hero against Italy, people still ask him: “What the hell you were doing against Austria?” As the rest of Europe turned professional, the Swiss league remained defiantly amateur and declined in standard. Switzerland’s next victory at a World Cup tournament would come against Romania in 1994.

But the victors would fare little better. Austria started their semi-final against unfancied West Germany with one eye on the final. “Everyone was thinking about Hungary,” admitted Theodor Wagner. Instead, they were hammered 6-1 in a game once described as the worst Austrian defeat since the military battle at Königgrätz in 1866. Ernst Happel and replacement keeper Walter Zeman were accused of match-fixing by angry journalists. Although Austria then beat Uruguay 4-2 to finish third, their highest-ever World Cup finish, Walter Nausch resigned as coach in November and died of a heart attack in 1957.

All that remained for the veterans of the “Heat Battle of Lausanne” were memories of an extraordinary match. Well, for most veterans at least. “People kept enthusing in the highest tones about what a great match it was,” remarked Kurt Schmied in 2004. “And I always replied: ‘You can tell me what you like, I can’t remember a thing.’”

From WSC 279 May 2010