Growing up, Ferenc Puskás had one ideal, one principle, and one creed – to be the best at football. But to achieve this in an era flaunting some of the greatest ever players, Puskás couldn’t just succeed; he had to dominate.
Never one to relax and let success find its own way, Puskás began playing professional club football at the age of 16 and went on to debut for the Hungarian national side merely two years later. He began his national career as he intended to proceed by scoring a goal. In 84 games for Hungary, Puskás would tally an astounding 83 goals, a phenomenal figure which explains his legendary status in Hungary.
Although I am loath to compare across generations, I can’t help but point out that goal-a-game form has only recently redefined ‘prolific’ – Ronaldo, Messi, Huntelaar and Van Persie all spring to mind. Back when Puskás was playing, his international record wasn’t prolific, it was lucrative. Even Pelé couldn’t keep up with him.
It was this free-scoring form which provided the pointed foil to Hungary’s innovative ‘Mighty Magyars’, widely regarded as one of the best – if not the best – international sides ever. Designed around the prodigious abilities of Puskás, their style was an early form of ‘Total Football’, later adopted and refined by the Dutch. It was an unfamiliar style which proved impossible to deal with for most, including England.
On the 25th November 1953 an arrogant England side, undefeated at their home ground Wembley, fancied themselves as invincible. Upon seeing Puskás, an English coach remarked, “Look at that little fat chap. We’ll murder this lot.” To an extent, the coach was right – Puskás’ ‘women and wine’ lifestyle meant he was stocky as well as short. But England’s eminence was a myth. Puskás scored twice en route to a resounding 6-3 victory which sent shock waves throughout the footballing world. Coincidentally, English clubs began to adopt continental coaching and tactics soon after the defeat.
Back home, Puskás’ club team Kispest had been adopted by the Hungarian army and renamed Honved. Therefore, to be part of the team was to be a part of the Hungarian army. At first this seemed of little consequence and the fans and press revelled in labelling their talismanic forward ‘The Galloping Major’. However, while Honved were in Spain for a European Cup tie against Athletic Bilbao, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution entangled the worlds of football and politics. Aware of the precarious position they now occupied as soldiers, Puskás and a handful of the Honved squad realised it was impossible to return home and opted to seek sanctuary in the West.
The repercussions hit them hard. UEFA banned all Honved players who had defected, and after fifteen months out of the game Puskás struggled to find a new home. Considered too old and too fat by most, Real Madrid took a risk and offered him a place on their team. The risk paid off. Hailed as the greatest team to have ever played the game, Los Blancos destroyed opposition at home and abroad for the next seven years. Puskás, Di Stefano, Gento, Zarraga: the team sheet reads like poetry. Surrounded by a plethora of legends, Puskás easily tallied 157 goals in 182 games before leaving Real.
Today Puskás is remembered as a renegade, a playboy, and one of the most naturally talented players in history. Short and overweight with a stubborn refusal to use his right foot for anything other than balance, doubters repented every time he graced the field. To prevent younger generations from forgetting the virtuoso, Hungary’s national stadium was renamed Puskas Stadium, and FIFA introduced the FIFA Puskás Award, gifted for “the most beautiful goal” of the year. At the age of 79 Puskás succumbed to pneumonia and his nation observed a national day of mourning. The rebel was forgiven by Hungary; the genius was exalted by the world.