BUDAPEST, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Ferenc Puskas, the most mesmerising of the Magical Magyars, was the captain, inspiration and match-winner of a 1950s Hungarian national team that some still argue was the best the world has ever seen.
His lethal left foot, the scourge of defences in the 20 years immediately after the Second World War, earned him a goalscoring record in international soccer that stood for 50 years.
Puskas had an extraordinary tale to tell. He was the Budapest street urchin who rose to the pinnacle of world soccer against the austere backdrop of an eastern European communist state system before fleeing to the west and starting a second career with the world's most glamorous club, Real Madrid.
His football fantasy life, interwoven with drinking sprees, rebellions and off-field antics which would make present-day coaches cringe, evokes nostalgia for a golden era when the name of the game was goals galore and caution was left blowing in the wind.
Puskas has a unique place in soccer folklore as the only man to play in what were perhaps the two most famous games in history - Hungary's stunning 6-3 victory over England at Wembley in 1953 and Real Madrid's 7-3 demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final.
The 'galloping major', as he was known in Britain, scored six of the 19 goals in those two epics and brought the house down in both.
Puskas was born Ferenc Purczeld in April 1927. The family name change - Puskas means 'rifleman' - came later.
He learned his skills in the Budapest backstreets, impish, instinctive but driven to succeed. Under the harsh communist regime, football offered an escape from the rigours of state control and financial hardship.
His Hungarian nickname, even into his 70s was always 'Puskas Ocsi', 'Our little brother Puskas'.
He made his national debut in 1945. Seven years later, he scored one of the goals that won Hungary Olympic soccer gold at the Helsinki Games.
Short and stocky and with the ever-present tendency of his stomach to flow above and beyond the confines of his shorts, Puskas hardly cut the figure of a world class player.
Indeed, prior to the kick off of the 1953 Wembley game, one of the England players mocked him as 'that little fat chap'.
But, just as Diego Maradona was to do some two decades or so later, he used his low centre of gravity to devastating effect, scoring an amazing 83 goals in 84 games for Hungary.
The vast majority were with his ferocious left foot. The right, it was always suggested, did little more than guarantee he did not have to hop around the pitch.
The ever impish Puskas almost revelled in this, saying: 'If you kick with both feet, you fall on your arse'.
Hungary's then tactically advanced 4-2-4 formation and the brilliance of Puskas, Joszef Bozsik, Nandor Hidegkuti and Sandor Kocsis made the team virtually unbeatable.
Olympic champions in 1952, they became the first continental team to vanquish a supposedly invincible England at Wembley, bewildering the sport's inventors with tactical and technical brilliance. Puskas scored two of Hungary's six goals.
England suffered a 7-1 humiliation in Budapest the following year and Hungary were hot favourites to lift the World Cup in Switzerland that summer.
That they did not was always the greatest regret of Puskas's career. Injured in an earlier round 8-3 drubbing of Germany, Puskas returned for the final, again with Germany, and scored as his side took an early 2-0 lead.
But luck seemed to desert them as Germany went 3-2 ahead and, after the team had failed to convert numerous chances, a Puskas equaliser in the dying minutes was belatedly ruled out for offside.
'Of course, it was disappointing for me that we did not win the World Cup,' he said. 'I have nothing against the Germans or my team-mates, who did their best. But maybe a little bit against the referee...'
Puskas, officially a major in the Hungarian army, took advantage of hero status at home to cock a snook at authority whenever he pleased.
He was the ringleader of a squad which supplemented meagre pay by smuggling on trips abroad.
Following the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, he defected to the west and, after serving a FIFA ban, signed for the Real Madrid side led by Alfredo Di Stefano.
Most people thought he was fat and finished. He emphatically was not and his second career turned into one of the finest comebacks in sport and earned yet another nickname from adoring fans, 'Canoncito Pum', 'the booming cannon'.
'I had to lose 18 kilos when I joined Real and I had to behave a bit differently because I was the new boy at Real and there were a lot of established stars there,' he said. 'Luckily I got on well with Alfredo.'
On the pitch they came close to a perfect understanding, their zenith coming in the 1960 European Cup final victory over Eintracht when Puskas scored four and Di Stefano three. It was Real's fifth successive European title.
Though Puskas was already 33 then, he went on to score 35 goals in 37 European Cup games for Real, including a hat-trick in the 5-3 defeat to Benfica in the 1962 final and four in one match against Feyenoord in his final season when he was 38.
His overall tally of 36 European Cup goals (one for Honved) was only bettered by Di Stefano and Benfica's Eusebio before the expansion into the Champions League gave modern strikers many more opportunities for scoring.
Puskas refused to be drawn when asked whether Hungary were better than the Brazil team of 1970 or whether Real were really superior to the Ajax Amsterdam side of Johan Cruyff in the 1970s.
But he left no doubt where his heart lay as he fondly recalled the Hungarian team based around his Honved club side, containing many childhood friends, like Bozsik.
'We were all friends, we just knew each other so well and worked for each other all the time,' he said.
Puskas retired in 1967 and went into coaching, flitting between continents - from Egypt to South America, from Saudi Arabia to Canada, Greece and Australia.
In 1971, he coached Greek side Panathinaikos to the European Cup final, losing out to Ajax Amsterdam.
He finally returned to Hungary in the early 1980s with his wife Erzsebet.
'When I left Hungary I vowed never to come back. However, in 1981 they were making a film about the 'Golden Team' and I was the only one missing so I agreed to return,' he said.
Of that team, there are now just two survivors, goalkeeper Gyula Grosics and midfielder Jeno Buzanszky.
In July 1999, Puskas was given the honorary title of Hungary's sports ambassador and the following year his old club Honved withdrew the famous Number 10 shirt in his honour.
Hospitalised in September 2000 with arteriosclerosis, later diagnosed with an Alzheimer's-like disease, Puskas still lived for football, turning out, to huge applause, for the Hungarian FA's centenary friendly against Germany in August 2001.
The late Stanley Matthews, one of the few soccer names to merit mention in the same breath as Puskas, said once: 'They are the best team I ever played against. That wonderful Hungarian team. They were the best ever.'