38: The best WC game you never saw

The greatest World Cup game you’ve probably never heard of

Every World Cup is preceded by an epidemic of lists. The joy of six, the 10 greatest, five reasons why... and I’m a sucker for them, though I prefer shorter, more unusual ones (great one-armed World Cup players, a select list topped by Hector Castro, who scored Uruguay’s fourth in the 1930 World Cup final).

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Still, I couldn’t resist Rob Smyth’s 10 greatest World Cup games. All the usual suspects were there – Italy 3 Brazil 2 in 1982, Italy 4 West Germany 3 in 1970 and England 2 Argentina 2 in 1998. But bizarrely there was no mention of Brazil 6 Poland 5 in 1938.

This 11-goal thriller of a first round match, played in front of 13,000 fans in Strasbourg, is largely forgotten outside Poland – where it has a resonance only surpassed by the Poland v England games in the 1974 qualifying campaign. But what a match it must have been.

Polish striker Ernst Wilimowski became the first player to score four goals in one World Cup finals match – he is still the only one to do so and lose  – while Brazilian legend Leonidas, so tricky one Paris Match reporter swore he had six legs, scored a hat-trick.

Leonidas, whose boot had flown off on a swampy pitch, probably scored Brazil’s matchwinner barefoot. In Futebol, still the best book on Brazilian football, Alex Bellos quotes an eyewitness: “The shot, strong and unexpected, left everyone in the small stadium open-mouthed. People were stunned. Europe’s sports press, who thought they had already seen everything, reacted with fright, confusion and shouts of ‘Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!’”

Ezi v the Rubber ManWilimowski was no saint. In 1936, his drinking and partying forced the Polish authorities to reluctantly ban a striker who was averaging roughly a goal a game for the national team. But he was back in the fold for the third World Cup and gave one of the performances of his life against Brazil whose hopes rested largely on Leonidas, perfector of the bicycle kick and so acrobatic as a centre-forward he was dubbed the ‘Rubber Man’.

The game was almost a duel between Wilimowski and Leonidas. After 18 minutes, the quicksilver Brazilian put his side 1-0 up. Five minutes later, Wilimowski dribbled past three defenders and was rugby-tackled by a defender in front of goal; midfielder Friedrich Scherfke scored from the spot to make it 1-1. Then goals by Romeo and Peracio put Brazil 3-1 ahead by the interval.

As the rain began to pelt down during half-time, Polish coach Jozef Kaluka shouted at his players. Chastened, resentful, perhaps sensing the slippery conditions might not suit their opponents, the Polish half-backs began to impose themselves.

Showing the trickery of a circus performer, Wilimowski scored twice to make it 3-3 after 59 minutes. Then the rain stopped. Brazil regained confidence and Peracio made it 4-3 with 19 minutes left on the clock. But Wilimowski wasn’t finished: he completed his hat-trick with 60 seconds left to make it 4-4 and force extra-time.

A Brazilian stick of dynamiteIf the second half belonged to Wilimowski, Leonidas shaded extra-time. According to a reporter quoted by Bellos: “Leonidas was simply amazing. He was like a stick of dynamite. He did the impossible. Every time he touched the ball there was an electric current of enthusiasm throughout the crowd”.

He scored twice. Opinion differs on which goal Leonidas scored barefoot. Either way, he did play for a while in his socks until referee Ivan Eklind ordered him to put his boots back on. Under today’s rules, the barefoot strike would not have stood but Eklind may not have noticed because Leonidas was wearing black socks.

Even with the Poles 6-4 down in the second half of extra-time, Wilimowski didn’t give up. He grabbed another goal in the 118th minute. Polish midfielder Erwin Nyc hit the bar as Brazil shredded their coach Ademar Pimenta’s nerves. But a third comeback was too much for Poland.

There is a strange clip of this game on YouTube. But the fact that this footage only covers some of the 11 goals seems to symbolise the fate of this strangely neglected match.

The footage – click here to watch

Forgetting the unforgettableIn Brazil, this 6-5 has been overshadowed by five World Cup triumphs and the controversial defeats in 1950 and 1998. After beating Poland in 1938, the Selecao made the semi-finals, losing to Italy after Pimenta decided to rest Leonidas, his top scorer, for the final. By 1950, the next World Cup, the Rubber Man had hung up his boots – and his black socks.

In Poland, honouring the heroes of this thriller was, for many years, politically difficult. World War II destroyed the nation and the team. Many Polish internationals, who hailed from Silesia, were regarded as ethnically German and, for various reasons, signed the Volksliste to register as German or fought for Germany.

The agonising choices these players faced are evident in Wilimowski’s war. He signed the Volskliste, escaped military service by joining the police and just managed, with the assistance of a famous Luftwaffe pilot called Hermann Graf, to rescue his mother from Auschwitz.

Unsurprisingly, the post-war Polish government regarded Wilimowski and others of his ilk as traitors so he settled down in Karlsruhe to run a restaurant. In the 1970s, he met Kazimierz Gorski, the great Polish coach who led the country to the 1974 finals, at a hotel. As a youngster, Gorski had idolised Wilimowski. But when they met he told his former idol he should have returned to Poland to defend himself. Wilimowski replied: “I was afraid”.

He had reason to be. Edward Madejski, the Polish keeper beaten six times by Brazil, stayed loyal to Poland and spent months under arrest by the Gestapo awaiting execution. But in 1956, he was jailed for three years by Poland’s Communist government on trumped-up charges of spying, a sentence that wrecked his life.

In the euphoric aftermath of the 6-5, Wilimowski was invited to join a Brazilian club. It might have been better for him and his family if he had accepted.

Brazil 6 Poland 5 in 1938 is not just an unforgettable game. It remains a poignant reminder of a truth we often forget during World Cups: glory on the pitch has never shielded footballers from real life’s tragedies.

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