Ferenc Puskas is, undoubtedly, one of the best footballers of all time. During his heyday, he could demoralise opposition defences by his clever movement, skill and remarkable shooting prowess. He was short and stocky, but possessed remarkable vision and a thunderous left foot.
He was the lynchpin of the all-conquering “Magical Magyars” and led them to unprecedented success. During the second half of his career, Puskas formed a deadly combination with the great Alfredo Di Stefano while his stint at Real Madrid as they the duo tore up defences and guided the Los Blancos to five straight league titles and three European Cups.
Puskas was born in a working class family on April 2, 1927 in Budapest. His father too excelled at the game and had represented the local club Kispest AC.
Puskas honed his skills by juggling a tennis ball at his feet for hours together. Upon seeing his potential, Kispest AC soon snapped him up. It was here that he played alongside childhood friend Josef Bozsik, the duo would soon become key players for Hungary in the coming years.
In 1948, the club was taken over by the army and each player was assigned a military rank. This led to him being called “Galloping Major”. The period also saw the inclusion of players such as Sandor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor into the side.
The side dominated the Hungarian League as it won five league titles from 1947 to 1953 with Puskas playing a vital role in each one of them.
Puskas made his international debut at the age of 18 against Austria. It was under the aegis of Gustave Sebes that Puskas, Kocsis and Czibor formed a formidable triumvirate that would wreak havoc in the opposition half. The side deployed a 4-2-4 formation with Puskas and Kocsis playing left and right half respectively. It was a formation that would also be used by Brazil in the 1958 World Cup.
It was in the 1952 Olympic Games that Hungary, captained by Puskas, were in full flight. The Magyars were in top form as they demolished all opposition to comfortably take the Gold. Throughout the tournament, they pumped in 20 goals in 5 matches and announced themselves on the international stage.
In all, Puskas played 85 games for the national side and scored 84 goals. His incredible goal-scoring tally would stand as a record for 53 years before Iran’s Ali Dae would eclipse it.
Demolition of England
In November 1953, the Hungarian team arrived in England to face Billy Wright’s talented side at Wembley. The match was billed up to be finest of all time with 100,000 fans gathering in the stadium to witness it.
Though what followed was stunning as the Magyars toyed with the English defence, scoring six times with the final score reading 6-3. It was the first time that the British side had tasted defeat against any team outside of the Isles. This completely dispelled the myth that England was unbeatable at home.
The ignominy did not end there for England as they were annihilated 7-1 in the return fixture with Puskas scoring a wonderful brace.
World Cup Heartbreak
After trouncing England both home and away and comfortably winning the Olympic Gold, Hungary were the favourites to win the World Cup in 1954. The Puskas-led side arrived in Switzerland on the back of a 27-match winning streak.
Sebes’ side started the tournament in style by routing South Korea 9-0. They faced West Germany next, whom they defeated 8-3. But the match will always be remembered for Werner Leibrich’s challenge on Puskas which resulted in a hairline fracture and forced him out of the following games.
Hungary reached the final in Berne despite the absence of their marquee captain. In the final they again came up against West Germany once more. All the pre-match drama surrounded on whether Puskas would be fully fit to play or not. However, Puskas played through the pain barrier and after a mere six minutes into the game, put Hungary ahead. Two minutes later, Czibor doubled the lead, the sight of Hungary being world cup champions was looked like reality. But in the rain, the Germans dug deep and at half-time, the score was 2-2.
Germany’s Helmut Kahn’s goal deep in the second half ensured West Germany would take the title and put a halt to the Hungarian dreams. The impossible had been done as the spirited Germans’ had halted the march of the Magyars, thus snapping their 31-match unbeaten run. The match was a classic with end-to-end football witnessed all through the game and is fondly called “Miracle at Berne”.
Career at Real Madrid
Post the World Cup loss, the side had disintegrated and the Hungarian Revolution had begun thus, resulting in most of the players seeking asylum in other nations.
At 31, Puskas was signed by three-time European Cup champions Real Madrid for over 10,000 pounds. Puskas quickly settled in at the club and formed a fearsome partnership with Alfredo Di Stefano. The pair scored goals at will and guided Real Madrid to newer heights.
In fact, Puskas was so prolific that he scored over 20 goals in his first six seasons at the club. He also won the Pichichi award (Given to the top scorer of the Spanish First Division) four times. In the European Cup, he netted 35 times in 39 games, including seven goals in three finals.
Puskas had scored 352 times for the Los Blancos before he hung up his boots in 1966. He won ten titles with Real Madrid including the League, Spanish Cup, European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. In 1962, he represented Spain at the World Cup although with no success.
Mixed Coaching Career
Puskas coached several sides during his stint but rarely enjoyed as much success as he did when he was a player. Perhaps his best moment came with Greek side Panathinaikos whom he guided to the 1972 European Cup final only to come up short against Johan Cruyff’s Ajax.
In 1993, he came back to his native country (Hungary) to coach. But success eluded him as Hungary crashed out in the qualifiers.
Death and Legacy
In 2000, it was reported that Puskas had contracted Alzheimer’s disease. On Nov 17, 2006 Puskas breathed his last in Budapest.
It is fitting that Bulgaria’s National Stadium is named after him. Puskas will forever be remembered as one of the best players of his generation. In 1999, he was voted as the sixth best player of the 20th century after Pele, Diego Maradona, Cryuff, Franz Beckenbauer and Di Stefano. He is perhaps the best player to have never won a World Cup or even a Ballon d’Or.
It is befitting that in 2009 FIFA introduced an award “Ferenc Puskas Award”, which is handed to the player who scores the best goal of the year.
Puskas will always be remembered for his inspiring leadership, prolific goal scoring ability and thorough professionalism.