Celtic and the World Cup – Switzerland 1954

LAST year we all enjoyed the World Cup Finals tournament in Russia. Here I take a look back at the competition from a Celtic perspective over the years.

Due largely to a dispute with FIFA, there was no real interest displayed by any of the so-called ‘home nations’ in taking part in the early competitions, played between 1930 and 1938.

In the first post-war tournament, the Brazil World Cup of 1950, Scotland actually did qualify for the finals, by finishing second in the Home International Championship of that year. However, in a display of logic which we have come to expect from the governing body here, the SFA declared that Scotland would only go to Brazil should they win the Championship, with a Hampden defeat from England putting paid to that prospect.

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Thus I’ll begin with the 1954 finals in Switzerland, when despite finishing second again to England against the same qualifying criteria, this time it was deemed appropriate to take part. History would perhaps judge that decision as unwise, as preparations unfolded which would make the later visit to Argentina look professional.

Despite the allowance of an eighteen-player pool, the SFA decided to take only thirteen players to Switzerland, the remaining selection staying at home in Scotland, ‘in reserve’. The official party was boosted by a healthy representation of blazers and wives.

There were three Celts in the travelling group, legends Bobby Evans, Neil Mochan and Willie Fernie, fresh from our first double-winning season in forty years.

They were joined by former Bhoy and future Scotland manager, Tommy Docherty, now with Preston North End. Like his Deepdale colleague and Scotland captain, Willie Cunningham, he was enjoying a successful domestic period, losing the 1952/53 English Championship only on goal average to Arsenal, before narrowly losing the FA Cup Final to West Bromwich Albion in May 1954.

That great side, featuring the legendary ‘Preston Plumber’, Tom Finney, included no fewer than five Scots in the starting eleven and was managed by yet another, Scot Symon. There is a memorable quote attributed to The Doc, now in his 91st year, which highlights just how ill-prepared the Scots were in terms of equipment. In the searing heat of the Swiss summer, dressed in the same jersey reserved for the Scottish winter, he mused that ‘even the lion on the badge was sweating’.

Scotland were drawn in Group 3 for the finals, together with seeds Austria and Uruguay and unseeded Czechoslovakia. The first match would take place in Zurich’s Sportplatz Hardturm, home of the local Grasshopper club, on 16 June. Around 25,000 were in the ground as Cunningham led the team out, Neil and Willie taking their places up front but Bobby one of the two players not involved, despite being Scotland’s most-capped player.

In the Austrian side was Rapid Vienna’s Ernst Happel, later to manage Feyenoord to a European Cup Final victory over Celtic, and his team-mate, Gerhard Hanappi. ‘Saint Hanappi’ was on his way to becoming a Rapid legend, dominating the midfield for club and country over a fifteen-year career, before retiring to become an architect, designing Rapid’s new Weststadion in 1977. Following his death just three years later, the stadium was renamed after Hanappi and remained that way until its demolition in 2014.

However, on this day it would be a third Rapid player who would make the difference, Erich Probst squeezing a shot past Aberdeen’s Fred Martin just before the interval to score the only goal of the game.

He would score a first-half hat-trick in the Austrian’s next game, a 5-0 victory over Czechoslovakia in the same stadium. Scotland’s best chance came late on, from the left foot of Mochan, however Schmied stopped then smothered the shot and the game had gone.

Whilst it had been a valiant effort from the Scots, against a team who would go on to take third place in the tournament, things were about to take a turn for the worse. Frustrated by the amateur approach adopted by the SFA, team coach Andy Beattie then announced his resignation ahead of the second game, against holders Uruguay three days later. The match took place in a ground which would later be well-frequented by Celtic, the St Jakob in Basel.

Uruguay, undefeated in World Cup Finals matches, having won the initial tournament on home soil in 1930 then again in Brazil twenty years later, were a daunting prospect for Scotland. Within their ranks they boasted the great Schiaffino, in the final throes of a career with Penarol prior to a world-record transfer to AC Milan.

He had scored the crucial equaliser in the Maracana some four years earlier, as Uruguay upset the odds and the near-200,000 crowd to defeat the hosts in the final game.

Also in their line-up was Jose Santamaria, destined for great things and four European Cups with Real Madrid. At that time, he was playing for Nacional, like Penarol future opponents of Celtic in the time of Jock, in their case opening our revamped main stand in September 1971.

In front of 34,000 fans in Basel that day, however, it would be three other Penarol stars who would inflict torture on an unchanged Scotland. A two-goal half-time deficit became seven, as the roof fell in on the outclassed Scots.

A hat-trick from Borges and doubles from Miguez and Abbadie knocked Scotland out of the tournament, with no requirement to play a third game against the Czechs. There would be no glory end to the season for the three Celts.

Uruguay would knock England out in the quarter-finals, before finally losing to the great Hungarian side of Puskas, Hidegkuti and Kocsis, after extra-time, in the semi-final then to group rivals Austria in the play-off for third place.

Austria defeated hosts Switzerland 7-5, in what remains the highest-scoring finals match in history (a game refereed by Mr Faultless of Scotland – I kid you not), before succumbing to West Germany in the final four. In the Berne final, the Germans gained full revenge for an 8-3 group stage hammering, by coming from behind to beat the Mighty Magyar tournament favourites 3-2 and claim their first World Cup.

Matt Corr

About Author

Having retired from his day job Matt Corr can usually be found working as a Tour Guide at Celtic Park, or if there is a Marathon on anywhere in the world from as far away as Tokyo or New York, Matt will be running for the Celtic Foundation. On a European away-day, he's there writing his Diary for The Celtic Star and he's currently completing his first Celtic book with another two planned.

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