There really is only one place to start when discussing Ferenc Puskas – with possibly the greatest anecdote in the game’s history.
“I was with Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Puskas, coaching in a football academy in Australia,” George Best once recalled. “The youngsters we were coaching did not respect Puskas, making fun of his weight and age, so he decided to try and hit the crossbar ten times in a row with a shot.
“Law asked the kids how many they thought Puskas would get out of ten. Most said less than five. Best said ten. Puskas stepped up and hit nine in a row. For the tenth shot he scooped the ball in the air, bounced it off both shoulders and his head, and then flicked it over with his heel and cannoned the ball off the crossbar on the volley. They all stood in silence and then one kid asked who he was. I replied, ‘To you, his name is Mr. Puskas.'” Wonderful.
Mr Puskas was one of, if not the, greatest goalscorers in the history of the game. He scored 84 goals in 85 international matches for Hungary, and 616 in 620 games for Budapest Honved and Real Madrid. When FIFA were looking for a name for their award for the most aesthetically significant goal of the calendar year, Puskas was the obvious choice.
Known as the Galloping Major – after Budapest Honved were taken over by the Hungarian authorities every player was given a token military rank – the kindest way of describing Puskas’ physical appearance would be ‘ample’. ‘He was short, stocky, barrel-chested and overweight, could not head the ball and could use only his left foot,’ the first lines of his BBC’s obituary read.
Tom Finney called him “a roly-poly sort of figure”, while England manager Ron Greenwood called Puskas “a fellow who looked as if he did most of his training in restaurants”. Both also described him as the best striker they had ever seen. He might only have been able to use his left foot, but what a left foot it was.
Those English opinions were shared by Puskas’ team-mates. “If he kicked the ball once, he scored two goals,” said Zoltán Czibor of his friend’s scoring ability, while Francisco Gento described Puskas’ left foot as “like a hand, such was the control”. “He is not only world class,” said Gyula Grosics. “He belongs to the realm of dreams.”
When Puskas died in 2006 after a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s – if the one-sided and ultimately futile fight against such a horrifying degenerative condition can ever be called a battle – an entire nation went into mourning. “There is not one Hungarian who would be left untouched by the death of Ferenc Puskas,” Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said. “The best-known Hungarian of the 20th century has left us, but the legend will always stay with us.”
If those tributes marked Puskas’ status as Hungarian icon, it was a long and winding road to national hero status. It was in 1993 that Puskas finally returned back to his country, 35 years of exile pierced only by an exhibition match in 1981. As part of the Honved squad that decided not to return back from a European trip to Bilbao after the outbreak of Hungary’s October revolution, Puskas was banned from football for 18 months and exiled in Spain. He returned to coach the Hungarian national side on a brief caretaker basis, but then shied away from the public eye.
“When I arrived at the airport it was packed with people who gave me the most warm welcome I could wish for,” Puskas wrote in his autobiography. “It was unbelievable. There were people screaming and shouting as if a pop star had arrived. As soon as I could, I visited the Kispest cemetery where the graves of my parents lay. I had never visited my mother before.”
That 18-month ban split Puskas’ career into two distinct sections, but it would be more accurate to describe him as having two careers in one. Between 1943 and 1956 he was the homegrown hero and Mighty Magyar. Between 1958 and 1966, he was the trailblazing foreign superstar.
It could easily have been so different. Almost 30 when the ban began, Puskas described it as a “virtual death sentence”. Rejected by Italian clubs because of his weight issues, the striker turned up at Real Madrid 18 kilograms overweight, with supporters unconvinced by a portly new signing who described himself as “the size of a large balloon”. Eight years later, he had won five La Liga titles and three European Cups, lifting Spain’s Pichichi trophy on four separate occasions. Between the ages of 33 and 36, Puskas was named in the World Soccer World XI four years in succession.
Both halves of Puskas’ career have their own defining performance, the first coming for his country at Wembley in 1953. Hungary’s 6-3 victory (and subsequent 7-1 thrashing) became a defining moment in English football’s progression from the darkness of post-war football into the bright sunshine of the modern game. England’s first Wembley defeat to an overseas nation was followed by their heaviest ever loss. As centre-half Syd Owen said: “It was like playing people from outer space.”
Puskas, Hungary’s captain, scored four goals in those two games. It was his second goal at Wembley that is replayed most, his dragback sending England captain Billy Wright flying into a tackle on only thin air and Wembley turf. As Alex Ferguson recalled after Puskas’ death: “He cut back inside and took Wright so far out of the game he had to pay ‘three and six’ to get back into the ground.”
It may seem alien now, but that one skill had shown the world a glimpse of the future, like Johan Cruyff’s turn 21 years later. England had previously been tactically rigid, each player trained to a particular specification, technical coaching a virtually untested strategy and mesmeric tricks simply not used. “We demonstrated the golden rule of football, and that is: the good player keeps playing even without the ball,” Puskas said. The Mighty Magyars were the prototype for Rinus Michels’ Total Football.
The second definitive Puskas performance came at Glasgow’s Hampden Park in May 1960 in the European Cup final. He scored four goals to Alfredo Di Stefano’s three as Eintracht Frankfurt were beaten 7-3. It was Real Madrid’s fifth straight European Cup victory, and Puskas and Di Stefano’s goals account for two of the four hat-tricks in European Cup final history. The third came two years later, as Puskas repeated the feat against Benfica.
There is a distinct danger of overlooking Puskas’ greatness. Football is guilty of availability heuristic bias, whereby we place importance (and therefore preference) on recent players and managers, ranking them above those of yesteryear through familiarity. To give a brief example of his ability, Puskas was named by L’Equipe as the greatest European player of the 20th century. He was the captain of one of the world’s greatest international sides and, almost a decade later, the top goalscorer for one of the greatest club teams. The game may have never seen a better finisher, and may never do again.
Most of all, Puskas was a gentle, kind man with a breathtaking talent, one who lived to immerse himself in football. He enjoyed socialising with his supporters but lived a modest existence with no delusions of grandeur. Neighbours in Madrid remember him giving out footballs to the children of the neighbourhood, while former team-mate Ferenc Kovács recalls Puskas buying medicine that was not available in Hungary for local pensioners on an international trip to Austria. He handed out the packages upon his return to Budapest, refusing payment. “Everything nice that you can say about someone can be said for Puskás, as both a player and a person,” Kovacs says.
“I wasn’t all that interested in politics, inside the bubble of my football world, playing and training, and leading a happy family life,” Puskas wrote in his book, but it is a quote shortly before his death that epitomises the man.
“I will write of my life as a footballer as if it were a love story, for who shall say that it is not?,” Puskas said. “It began with my great love of football and it will end the same way.”