Continuing with our series on the greatest footballers of all time, here’s No. 9 on our list.
No. 9 – Puskas
The match was billed as the ‘Match of the Century’. The Hungary national team, also known as the ‘Aranycsapat’ or Golden Squad, were the Olympic champions and had been unbeaten for the past three years. However, they were not the overwhelming favorites. After all, the venue was the Wembley Stadium and their opponents, England, had lost just one game on home soil in the history of the sport. As one rather chubby and rotund Hungarian footballer quietly warmed up before the game, an overconfident English player looked at him and said, “Look at that little fat chap. We’ll murder this lot.”
Cut to full time. 6-3 was the final scoreline that day, and the spectators had just witnessed some of the most excruciating displays they would ever see on a football pitch. Never before had England, who considered themselves supreme till then, been outclassed like that. As Tom Finney, the great English right winger of that time, observed from the stands as he sat out injured – “I came away wondering to myself what we had been doing all these years. It was like cart-horses playing race-horses.” And the mastermind behind this massacre of the English team was the same fat bloke who played at inside left that day and throughout his career, the same player whom the English had massively underestimated.
Born to a footballer in a working class district of Budapest, Ferenc Puskas was miles ahead of budding footballers of his age from the very start. So much so that when he initially enrolled at Kispest Honved FC (where his father worked as coach) as a junior, he used a pseudonym to encompass the minimum age rules in Hungarian football before officially joining at the age of 12. He made his senior club debut in 1943 and his international debut two years later at 18 years of age, and was fondly named ‘Ocsi’ (meaning ‘little brother’) by his team-mates in due course.
The year 1945 was the year when the Second World War finally ended. The year was also Puskas’ breakthrough season, when he set the Hungarian league on fire with 35 goals in 33 appearances. Blessed with a powerful left foot, he combined that with unnerving passing accuracy, deadly precision and clinical finishing. He followed up that year with another 30-plus goal tally the next season before winning the European Golden Boot in 1948, scoring 50 goals in 32 games. He also won his first league winners’ medal that season, the first out of the five championship titles he played a pivotal role in.
A year later, Kispest Honved was taken over by the Hungarian Ministry of Defence, and it became the Hungarian Army team, renamed as Budapest Honved. As a result, all its players were awarded military ranks and Puskas eventually became a major, earning the sobriquet ‘The Galloping Major’. When Honved became an army club, it used its clout to enlist the services of the best Hungarian players like Zoltan Czibor and Sandor Kocsis, in tandem with whom Puskas won many honours both at club and international level.
The Hungarian national team was brimming with talent, but it was kept under wraps behind the Iron Curtain for some years until the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Here, the ‘Magical Magyars’ blew every opposition away and beat Yugoslavia 2-0 in the final, with Puskas scoring 4 goals in the tournament. A year later, they beat Italy to win the Central European Championship, this time Puskas getting 10 goals. In the meantime, Englandwere beaten twice by huge margins – 6-3 in London and 7-1 inBudapest. And the Magyars were on course to win the 1954 World Cup, where they were odds-on favorites, before West Germany came from two goals down to beat them 3-2. Puskas was denied the equalizer on account of an offside decision.
When Budapest Honved travelled to Spain to play Atheltic Bilbao in the 1956 European Cup, the Hungarian Revolution broke out. The team embarked on a short fundraising tour across the world following their exit at the hands of Bilbao, before the players disbanded to join other clubs. After talks of a move to either of the Italian giants AC Milan and Juventus broke down and FA rules regarding foreigners stopped him from playing for Manchester United in the aftermath of the Munich disaster, Puskas finally joined Real Madrid in 1958 at the age of 31.
Fitness issues and injury problems could not stop him from enjoying an immensely successful first season in the La Liga, during which he netted four hat-tricks. Playing with the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano upfront, the duo wrecked havoc among the opposition defenders. In all, Puskas spent eight seasons at Real Madrid, scoring 242 goals in 262 appearances, with the highlights being the 1960 European Cup final in which he scored four goals in a 7-3 win over Eintracht, a hat-trick in a losing cause against Benfica in the 1962 European Cup final and the two hat-tricks against arch-rivals Barcelona in the 1963-64 La Liga season. His time at the Bernabeau was studded with club as well as individual honours – the Los Merengues emerged La Liga champions five times in a row, the European Cup thrice and Puskas won the Pichichi (La Liga top scorer) four times.
Puskas took up Spanish citizenship in 1961 and turned out for the La Roja in the World Cup finals at Chile a year later. But he failed to inspire the team to any sort of success as he failed to find the net, and Spain finished at the bottom of their group, making a early exit. That was perhaps the only blot in his otherwise illustrious career.
There are quite a few anecdotes as to how Ferenc Puskas never lost his touch even after retirement. George Best once spoke of how young footballers in a coaching camp in Australia couldn’t believe what they saw after they had naively challenged ‘old fat’ Puskas to hit the crossbar ten times in row. There’s another story about he demoralized his team’s goalkeepers with the power of his shooting during his coaching stints in Vancouver. Former Hungarian striker Nandor Hidegkuti spoke of how “he had a seventh sense for soccer – if there were 1,000 solutions, he would pick the 1001st.”
Puskas was not only a great player, but also a great human being. He was humble, modest and believed in keeping his life low-profile despite being the superstar that he was. One of his neighbours when he lived in Madrid remarked, “Although he was a famous footballer, he seemed very normal compared to today’s modern stars. He lived in a modest flat below ours and was very generous. He often brought home footballs from training for the kids in the block to play with.”
It was an end to a glorious era of football when Puskas finally lost his six-year-long battle against Alzheimer’s disease in 2006. Condolences from all around the world poured in, as people remembered the true exponent of the ‘art of football’. And FIFA could not have paid a more fitting tribute to the footballing wizard than when they decided to instate the ‘Ferenc Puskas Goal of the Year Award’ for the player who scores the most beautiful goal.
One of the finest players ever to grace the game, Puskas’ name will remain etched in the memories of millions of football lovers worldwide for generations to come.
And now for the customary video. This clip may be grainy and in black-and-white, but the sheer genius of Puskas still shines through. Take a look for yourself!
Here are the other players who have made it so far:
No. 20 – David Beckham; No. 19 – Oliver Kahn; No. 18 – Jurgen Klinsmann; No. 17 – Luis Figo; No. 16 – Romario; No. 15 – Marco van Basten; No. 14 – Eusebio; No. 13 – Lionel Messi; No. 12 – Zico; No. 11 – Paolo Maldini; No. 10 – Michel Platini
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: