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At the 1954 FIFA World Cup, the top two teams from each group advanced to the quarter-finals.

Strangely enough, all four group winners ended up in the same bracket, and the runner-up teams faced each other in the other bracket. This made a dream final between Hungary, Brazil, or Uruguay impossible, and eventually helped group runner-up West Germany reach the final more easily.

Why was this decision taken?

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Looking at a decent number of articles about the 1954 world cup, none of them talk about why the tournament had the strange format. Some only mention the format and note how strange it was comparing to current-day format. But that being said, the format is strange to us because we've had a format that hasn't changed much in many years and is very symmetric.

Let's take a look at the previous tournaments:

  • The 1930 world cup had 13 teams, hard to imagine having odd number of teams now a days.
  • The 1934 and 1928 tournaments had no group stage, all matches were knockout matches.
  • The 1950 games had 2 rounds of group stages. The 4 winners of the initial group round played another set of round robin matches to determine the champion.

So although the 1954 tournament had a weird format, there had been no agreed upon format yet. All world cups till then had a strange format with today's standard. The hosts and FIFA were still trying to figure out a "fair" format. Traveling was much harder back in the day - think of having teams travel to Uruguay back in 1930! Also as the tournament gained more and more popularity, and with the rise of broadcasting, having more matches and teams to increase revenue became a goal for the organizers.

Nonetheless, the format was criticized, eventually leading to a format we currently have.

All that aside my guess is the mentality was that the best team should win the tournament, regardless of the format. If I had to speculate why the knockout stage of the tournament was held that way, these are what I can think of:

  • It guarantees blockbuster match ups

    • Currently, the group winners play another group's runner up. By forcing the group winners to play each other, you guarantee that you get higher anticipated/quality match ups. Under current format it's possible there are no group winners left in round of 8 or after. Again, if the best team is supposed to win, format doesn't matter.
  • It makes knockout matches more intriguing

    • Teams playing each other would be playing opponents of similar quality. You could argue the current format benefits top teams as they don't tend to play teams of their quality or better till the very end, while weaker teams have to pull an upset match after match to get deep.
  • It exhibits higher fairness for weaker teams

    • By matching up teams of similar strength, a weaker team is given more chance of getting to the final and winning the tournament. After all, West Germany's win over Hungary was a major upset. West Germany was an unseeded team in the tournament and they had already beaten 8-3 by Hungary in the group round.
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    I had the same conclusion after reading a lot of articles; no article really explains why. Thanks for your insights though, you made it more obvious for me how lightly they handled the seedings and the tournament format.
    – Nurp
    Mar 10 at 16:39
  • Yup, really hard to tell why they did it that way after nearly 70 years. But again, there was no set format so they were probably trying things out
    – alamoot
    Mar 10 at 16:40
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It's not true that the group-winners ended in the same bracket. Instead, Group1 played against Group2 and Group3 against Group4:

  • Austria (G3, 1st) - Switzerland (G4, 2nd)
  • Uruguay (G3, 2nd) - England (G4, 1st)
  • Hungary (G2, 1st) - Brazil (G1, 2nd)
  • West Germany (G2, 2nd) - Yugoslawia (G1, 1st)

This is pretty much the modus of modern FIFA World Cups (since 1982). So the reason there was no "Dream Final" like Brazil-Hungary was that Brazil ended up second in their group. The weird thing about the 1954 World Cup was the first stage, where two teams in each group were seeded and did not need to play each other. This lead to repeated games in the first round (West Germany vs Turkey and Switzerland vs Italy). This was supposed to make sure the seeded teams advance more likely to the next round. I agree with the other answer that it took FIFA a long time to figure out a decent mode.

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    What's your source for the group positions? See e.g. Wikipedia which makes it clear that Brazil won Group 1 and Uruguay won Group 2.
    – Philip Kendall
    Mar 13 at 21:10
  • According to the German Wikipedia, which is far more detailed on the mode, in case of equal points among first and second rank, the winner was drawn.
    – E. Sommer
    Mar 14 at 10:57
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    Interesting. The English Wikipedia explicitly says "Brazil finished ahead of Yugoslavia on drawing of lots." which directly contradicts the German Wikipedia. We may need a primary source to determine this...
    – Philip Kendall
    Mar 14 at 11:59
  • Another possibilty is that the quarter finals were drawn as well, regardless of who finished first or second.
    – E. Sommer
    Mar 14 at 13:34

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