*TRIBUTE by KEIR RADNEDGE
— Ferenc Puskas, who died on November 17, 2006, aged 79, was one of the very greatest players of all time – a symbol of the legendary “Magic Magyars” who dominated European football in the early 1950s and stand as perhaps the greatest team never to have won the World Cup.
Puskas’s father was a player and later coach with the local club, Kispest. At 16 Ferenc was a regular at inside-left, terrorizing opposing goalkeepers with the power of his shooting. He rarely used his right foot but then his left was so lethal that he seldom needed it. At 18 he was in the national team, too.
His brilliance had much to do with the decision to convert Kispest into a new army sports club named Honved, that formed the basis of the national side. The players held army ranks – hence Puskas was nicknamed the ‘Galloping Major’ in England – but they never went anywhere near a parade ground.
For four years Hungary, built around goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, right-half Jozsef Bozsik and the inside-forward trio of Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti and Puskas, crushed all opposition.
They won Olympic gold in 1952 with a new tactical concept. The inside-forwards, Kocsis and Puskas, formed the spearhead of the attack, with Hidegkuti a revolutionary deep-lying centre-forward. Hungary won the 1952 Olympic title before ending England’s record of invincibility against continental opposition with a stunning 6-3 triumph at Wembley.
Early the following year, Hungary thrashed England again, 7-1 in Budapest. No wonder they were overwhelming favourites to win the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. But Puskas presented a problem. He had been injured in an early round game against West Germany and was a hobbling spectator at training before the Final, against these same West Germans, in Berne.
Could his great left foot withstand the strain? Puskas thought so and decided to play, thus taking one of the most controversial gambles in the game’s history. After only 12 minutes the gamble appeared to be paying off when Hungary led 2-0. However, they lost 3-2, th eir dominance finally ended in the one match which mattered most.
It was eight long years before Puskas would return to the World Cup finals. Then, in Chile in 1962, his trusty left foot was doing duty for Spain, because Puskas had, in the meantime, defected to the West, joining Real Madrid. Honved had been abroad when the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 erupted.
Puskas and several team-mates decided to stay in the West. He made an attempt to sign for several Italian clubs, but they thought him too old. How wrong they were was underlined when Puskas developed, at Madrid, a new career to emulate his first in brilliance.
Four times Puskas was the Spanish league’s top scorer and his partnership with the Argentine centre-forward, Alfredo Di Stefano, was one of the greatest of all time. They hit perfection together on the famous night when Madrid thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the European Cup Final before a record 135,000 crowd at Hampden.
Di Stefano scored three goals, Puskas four. The Spanish fans loved him. In his Hungarian army club days at Honved, Puskas had been known as the “Galloping Major”. Now they called him Cañoncito – the little cannon.
Trophies and records
Puskas set a string of records only eclipsed, ultimately, by Cristiano Ronaldo. He even returned to the World Cup finals, playing for Spain in Chile in 1962.
In 1966 Puskas finally retired. He won 15 major world, European, Spanish and Hungarian club trophies and was top scorer four times in both Hungary and Spain. His career tally added up to 616 goals in 620 club appearances and 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary.
His future was secure, thanks to business investments which included a sausage factory near Madrid. He tried his hand at coaching without a great deal of success – save for a remarkable 1970-71 season when he took Panathinaikos of Athens to the European Champions Cup Final.
In the course of time he was able to visit his native Hungary, where he was celebrated once more as a national hero. Hardly surprising. After all, how many can boast 83 goals in 84 games for their country? In 2002, the Nep Stadium itself was renamed in Puskas’s honour.
THE PUSKAS TIMELINE
1927 Born on April 2 in Budapest
1943 Made his debut for his father’s old club, Kispest
1945 Played his first international for Hungary against Austria
1948 Transferred with the entire Kispest playing staff to the new army club, Honved, and top-scored with 50 goals in the League championship
1952 Captained Hungary to victory over Yugoslavia in the final of the Olympic Games soccer tournament in Helsinki
1953 Earned a place in history by inspiring Hungary’s historic 6-3 victory over England at Wembley
1954 Played despite injury, amid controversy, in the World Cup Final which Hungary lost 3-2 to West Germany in Berne – their first defeat for four years
1956 Stayed in western Europe when the Hungarian Revolution broke out while Honved were abroad to play a European Cup tie against Bilbao
1958 Signed for Real Madrid by his old manager at Honved, Emil Oestreicher
1960 Scored four goals for Madrid in their famous 7-3 demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt in the European Cup Final at Hampden Park, Glasgow
1962 Played in the World Cup finals in Chile, this time for his adopted country of Spain
1966 Retired and turned to coaching
1971 Achieved his greatest success as a trainer, guiding outsiders Panathinaikos of Athens to the European Cup Final (they lost 2-0 to Ajax at Wembley)
1993 Appointed, briefly, as caretaker-manager of Hungary during the 1994 World Cup qualifiers
2006 Died on November 17, aged 79
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** From The Complete Encyclopedia of Football, by Keir Radnedge, new revised edition published by Carlton Books, on sale now
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