Asif Burhan on Ferenc Puskas
Asif Burhan, who began blogging for Kick It Out during the 2012 UEFA European Championships, provides readers with a look at the social and cultural impact of football nationally and globally.
In his latest blog, Asif discusses the life of Ferenc Puskas, ten years on from his death.
“Looking back, I seem to have so much to thank football for in my life”
He was more prolific than Pelé, had a deadlier left foot than Maradona and was a tactical revolutionary long before Cruyff. He was the first man to score in a World, Olympic and European Cup final and he played for three of the greatest teams in the history of football. He was arguably the first global superstar of the game but its least well-known. He was Ferenc Puskás and he died ten years ago today.
His was a life and career shaped by the changing politics of the world around him. Born on the outskirts of Budapest in 1927 as Ferenc Purczeld, his father felt compelled by the nationalist government of the 1930s to change the family name to the more Hungarian-sounding ‘Puskás’.
When he began his playing career in 1943 his country was allied with Nazi Germany. Post-war, fearing reprisals against his family due to their German ancestry, he rejected a $100,000 offer from Juventus to stay in Budapest. He went on to become an icon in a socialist state and was a made a nominal major in the Hungarian army as the captain of the national team. Then as Russian tanks rolled into Budapest following a failed uprising in 1956, Puskás, like hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, defected, technically becoming a deserter, a transient political refugee seeking employment.
After vowing never to set foot again in his country, Puskás was banned from all footballing activity by UEFA in 1957, at the peak of his powers. When he attempted to return to the game at the age of 31, he was rejected by Italian clubs as overweight and briefly considered by a Manchester United team looking for players after the Munich Air Crash, but then under a fascist government in Spain he scaled new heights in an unlikely partnership with another all-time great, Alfredo Di Stéfano, the first and most stellar of Galacticos.
Puskás went on to coach teams in all six continents of the world but never returned to Hungary until invited back for a reunion in 1981. He was not officially pardoned by the government until 1993. In 2002, the national stadium, the Népstadion (People’s Stadium) was re-named after him.
Yet none of his remarkable story off the pitch would be remembered today were it not for his remarkable exploits as a player on it. During the 1950s, in an age before European competition and before World Cups were televised, his legacy was nevertheless felt throughout the game. He was the star and fulcrum of the Hungarian team that dismantled England twice during the 1953/54 season – 6-3 and 7-1. The first, England’s first-ever defeat to foreign opposition at Wembley, the second in Budapest, England’s record defeat of all time. It prompted The FA into the kind of coaching and tactical overhaul that is nowadays biennial but unthinkable in the cradle of the game before then. A decade later, the English right-back at Wembley in 1953 would become England’s first full-time manager and lead them to World Cup victory.
Led by Puskás, the Hungarians seemed like footballing visionaries. Conquering all before them, it is difficult now to comprehend how dramatic their impact must have been. As the late Sir Bobby Robson explained: “We saw a style of play, a system of play that we’d never seen before, none of these players meant anything to us. They were men from Mars as far as we were concerned.”
The Magical Magyars were in the midst of a 31-game, four-year unbeaten run which had brought them the 1952 Olympic title and took them to the 1954 World Cup Final. In The Story of the World Cup, Brian Glanville describes them as “the team which had brought new dimensions and horizons to the game. They had squared the circle, solved football’s equivalent of the riddle of the Sphinx: how to reconcile the traditional skills, the supreme technique, of Continental football with the strength and shooting power of the British”.
At a time when teams played in a 3-2-5 formation, Hungary’s masterstroke was to pull their centre forward, Nándor Hidegkuti, deeper into a play-maker role behind the forwards Puskás and Kocsis, leaving the opposition centre back with no-one to mark. With one of the half-backs dropping to play alongside his centre back and a goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics, willing to come off his line and play with his feet, it was a tactical revolution. According to Glanville: “Though nobody applied the term at the time, it can be seen with hindsight that Hungary’s tactics were an early version of 4-2-4″. It was a system imitated throughout the world, most notably by Brazil in winning three of the next four World Cups.
In Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich’s excellent collection of interviews, Puskás on Puskás, the man himself admitted: “Regardless of tactics, you’ve got to have the players to make the tactics work; it was the players themselves that made it possible”. At the heart of the team was Puskás, who according to Glanville was ‘the star of stars, a squat little Budapest urchin-figure, plastered hair parted down the middle, with superb control, supreme strategy, and above all a left-footed shot which was unrivalled in the world’.
A small Budapest side, Kispest were nationalised in 1949 and renamed as the army team, Budapest Honvéd (defenders of the Motherland). The national coach Gusztav Sebes conscripted the best young players around the country to form the nucleus of a great side at club and international level.
When Honvéd, went on a tour of Britain in December 1954, playing in front of huge crowds it awoke UEFA to the potential of midweek floodlit games between their member states’ national league champions. The hysteria of the English press in proclaiming Wolverhampton Wanderers as ‘champions of the world’ after defeating Honvéd at a deliberately flooded Molineux prompted another journalist Gabriel Hanot to propose the set up of the first European Champions Club Cup in 1955.
Puskás, later playing for Real Madrid would win the competition three times and become the leading goalscorer in the most celebrated club side of all time, the FIFA Team Of The Century, scoring four in the 1960 European Cup Final and a first half hat-trick in the 1962 Final which they ultimately lost to Eusébio’s Benfica.
Despite his two year ban from the game, Puskás ended his international career for Hungary with 84 goals in 85 games, more than Pelé. Had he remained in his country following the 1956 Uprising, he would surely have become the first footballer to score 100 international goals. His record of seven European Cup final goals may never be broken – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have two apiece.
Yet Puskás was not merely a goalscoring machine, he was a player who brought joy, a street footballer always known as Öcsi (kid). He over-ate, he smuggled from the west and made fun of those in the establishment who nevertheless used him as a role model. A man who was the antithesis of the modern player off the pitch, but a thing of wonder on it and it is fitting that the annual FIFA prize for the ‘most beautiful’ goal scored each year is called The Puskás Award.
Speaking at the inauguration of the award in 2009, Sepp Blatter remarked: “It is important to preserve the memory of those football greats who have left their mark on our history, Ferenc Puskás was not only a player with immense talent who won many honours, but also a remarkable man.”