Tim Vickery: Arthur Ellis, Mario Vianna and the ‘Battle of Berne’

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Arthur Ellis

Today’s ex-referees turned pundits are not the first media celebrities the profession has spawned.

Britons of a certain age will remember Arthur Ellis, a top English referee who later traded his whistle for a dipstick, the measuring rod which he used to judge performance in ‘It’s a Knockout,’ a TV game show.  He was dubbed ‘Uncle Arthur’ – but behind the friendly smile was a no-nonsense Northerner strong enough to impose himself in difficult circumstances.

Probably the most challenging match of his career was the infamous ‘Battle of Berne,’ a quarter final in the 1954 World Cup between Brazil and Hungary that brought him into conflict with Mario Vianna, his Brazilian counterpart.

There are plenty of stories about Vianna, most of them emphasising his fearless nature.  A bull-necked figure of terrifying natural authority, Vianna was a pioneer in the area of referee-turned- media pundit, where he came up with many a catchphrase on Radio Globo.  He took charge of matches in the Copa America of 1945, 46 and 53, and the World Cups of 1950 and 54 – the year when his international career came to a crushing halt.

Mario Vianna

Vianna was a fervent Brazilian patriot.  One of the most famous stories about him concerns a game he refereed in the early 50s, a final of the South American university championships between Brazil and Uruguay.  It was the first time that representative sides of the two nations had met since the decider of the 1950 World Cup, when Uruguay had stunned a packed Maracana stadium by winning 2-1.  And so when the university sides met, passions were high and the tackles were flying.

One of the Brazilians committed a dreadful foul.  Chest puffed out in an impeccable display of affronted authority, Vianna approached him.  But then the referee’s voice went quiet.  “Look here, young man,” he said.  “Keep a serious expression on your face, don’t laugh at what I’m going to say…  Keep it up, don’t go soft, give these gringos a kicking, …[and then with his voice raised so everyone could hear] if not I’ll send you off, do you hear me?”

Another excess of patriotism got the better of Vianna in 1954, but not before it had also turned a World Cup quarter final into a disgrace.

Brazil’s failure at the last hurdle in 1950 had been attributed locally to a lack of machismo.  Stories, almost certainly fictitious, circulated about the Uruguayan captain giving a Brazilian a slap off the ball, and the Brazilian meekly accepting it.  They might lose to the great Hungarians in 1954, but no one was going to accuse them of timidity this time.  Before the match the players were provoked into a patriotic fervour, ordered to go out and avenge the deaths of their countrymen in the Second World War.  Hungary, of course, had nothing to do with any of this, but this was not a moment for logical calculation.

Football – Official Tournament Poster for 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland
Supplied by Action Images

Instead, quickly two goals down, it was a moment for desperation.  Brazil had plenty of talent – with Didi pulling the strings in central midfield there were already signs of the side that would win the World Cup four years later – and with right winger Julinho in fine form they scored two goals of their own.  But Hungary ended up with four, and Brazil brought out the tool kit.  Two were sent off, more could have been, and the brawl continued in the dressing rooms afterwards.

Arthur Ellis had tried to maintain order.  As far as Mario Vianna was concerned, though, he had been the Hungarians’ 12th player.  The Brazilian was apparently among his compatriots who ran onto the field to remonstrate at the end of the game.  He accused Ellis of having used his whistle in the service of godless communism, said that FIFA were behind the conspiracy and was unsurprisingly told that his services as an international referee would no longer be required.