The beer-bellied genius
It's impossible to write the column this week without some mention of Ferenc Puskas, who died last Friday at the age of 79. Puskas influenced the histories of four nations: Germany, England, Hungary and Spain, in ways that are impossible to countenance now.
Puskas influenced Germany because he was the hub of the Hungarian side that lost so surprisingly in the 1954 final in Swizerland. He was injured before the game but insisted on playing. He went on to score, of course, but then had a goal disallowed in the final minutes - a goal that is second only in fame to the one that for many was the true founding day of the Federal Republic, 'Rahn schiesst. Tor!' (Rahn shoots. Goal!).
Puskas muckied his ticket that day by accusing the German side of taking performance-enhancing drugs, a claim he was forced to retract just before the famous European Cup Final against Eintracht Frankfurt in Glasgow in 1960, with the German side having threatened not to play if Puskas was in the Real Madrid line-up.
He influenced England because his famous performance at Wembley in 1953 focused the world on what an amazing side the Hungarians were - perhaps the best of all time. The game (and the subsequent 7-1 drubbing in Budapest) seemed to make England turn in on itself, in an act of hubris that has continued up to this day.
Others claim that it was the spark which awoke the country from its slumber, leading to the eventual triumph in 1966. Take your pick. But Puskas' outrageous goal that day, with the swivel, the turn and the famous drag-back that so flummoxed England's Billy Wright, was a goal of outrageous simplicity but deadly beauty.
No-one had really thought of doing things like that in Europe up to that point. What was the greatest invention in history? The wheel or the Puskas drag-back? As comedian Lenny Bruce once said, 'Anyone can invent a wheel'.
He influenced Hungary because he became its most famous figure, and he influenced Spain because of his remarkable career with Real Madrid, one which reads like an unlikely tale of ludicrous achievement. In his whole career, which spanned the mid- 1940s to the mid-1960s he scored a total of 765 goals in 805 games. For Real Madrid, he scored 324 in 372 games - figures that make mind-boggling reading when you consider that he was 31 when he joined them.
It's difficult to convey to a younger football audience the sort of volatile political scene that existed in the 1950s, during the painful post-war years of political re-shaping. After the suppression by Soviet troops of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Puskas and the Honved Squad had toured Europe, voluntary exiles from the dangers of Budapest.
In November 1956 they were invited by Franco's wife (apparently) to play against a Madrid Select XI, since any enemies of the Reds were potential friends of the dictator.
Santiago Bernabéu saw the game (a 5-5 draw) and two years later, learning that Puskas had been twiddling his thumbs in Bologna and had not played for a year, invited him over to sign. With apologies to Spanish readers who probably know the anecdote, Puskas was presented to the press on August 1, 1958, a little fat man with an alarming beer belly. The manager at the time, Luis Carniglia, took one look at him and declared famously: 'What the f*** am I supposed to do with this guy? He's fatter than my grandmother', to which Bernabéu replied 'That's what I pay you for. You make him prettier!'
He didn't get any prettier, but he shifted a Real Madrid side who were already in top gear into overdrive. They'd just won three European Cups on the trot, but were to win another three with Puskas. The five-season consecutive winning run of Europe's newest and most prestigious trophy culminated in the staggering 7-3 demolition of Frankfurt in Glasgow in 1960, described by one Guardian journalist in 2002 as 'Olivier at his peak, the Armory Show and the Sydney Opera House rolled into one'. Puskas scored four, and could have had ten.
When people talk about the top players of all time, they are invariably limited by numerical convenience to citing the top three - although for some that number is a crowd. The Holy Trinity, all still alive but not kicking, are for most people Pele, Maradona and Di Stéfano. The Number One amongst them is a topic for endless and probably futile debate, but the other two knocking on the door for admittance are surely Cruyff and Puskas.
Statistics alone put Puskas up there with the best, although like Di Stéfano his reputation suffers from there being less footage of his exploits. In Madrid, however, there is little argument.
Puskas' immediate footballing relationship with Di Stéfano and Gento is the stuff of legends, the kind of harmony that only comes together as a fluke, as a happy confluence of circumstances, however much the pieces might have apparently been planned. Therein lies the beauty of the Puskas story - 'Canoncito Pum' as he was nicknamed in Madrid (Little Cannon Bang!), a phrase which alluded to his ability to generate extraordinary power in his shots with hardly a lifting of the leg.
Against Santander this weekend in the Bernabéu, the ground observed a minute's silence and various acts took place to pay homage to the man who had retired before any of Sunday's home players were born. Madrid won 3-1, despite playing rather poorly, and after each goal the scorers lifted a symbolic hand to the sky. Touching stuff, and nice to see genius acknowledged, especially the variety that comes with a beer-belly attached.
Elsewhere, Sevilla were on the national television for the Saturday night match, the first time that they've been on Channel 6's night game this season because of a row with the television companies over fees. Since everyone was raving about them and it looked a tasty fixture against high-riding Valencia, I stayed at home to sample the goods.
Apart from the fact the new channel's commentary team make your set sound like the Tower of Babel, with hundreds of them babbling and shouting at the same time and making no sense at all, the game was an excellent one. Valencia lost Silva to a red card after 16 minutes, after which it was never going to be easy for the visitors on such a hostile ground as Sevilla's, but they would probably have been stuffed anyway. To their great credit, they tried to play their way out of the mire - a noble mistake which played right into Sevilla's hands. And if Barça slip up at all this season, then beware, Sevilla look the side most likely to overtake them and stay there.
It's strange to report, but after several seasons under Joaquin Caparrós, Sevilla had garnered a reputation for being a tough-tackling, physical side who took no prisoners. Now they are nothing of the sort. Centre-back Javi Navarro has the killer look it's true, and Poulsen plays a fairly hard game in the centre of midfield, but in general the side is stocked full of small nimble ball players (excepting Kanouté), who are all comfortable on the ball and who whiz around the pitch in such a dizzying fashion that opposing defences simply wither out of sheer fatigue. Valencia could have used the injured Albelda and Baraja to shore up the middle, but it might not have made much difference.
The Brazilian Alves is supposed to be a full-back, but played most of the game like a right-half or right winger. Kanouté and Fabiano's movement up front was ceaseless, and Adriano, Renato and Puerta in midfield ran Valencia ragged. Sevilla are high on confidence, low perhaps in self-awareness, but on a roll. If you stop them playing, rush their midfielders and rough them up, like Santander did last week, then they struggle.
But if you try to play them at their game - like Barça did at the start of the season, they simply steamroller you. And they steamrollered Valencia without their most exciting forward, Jesus Navas, out injured.
More than anything they're fantastic to watch. They play frenetic stuff, with constant movement off the ball a high priority. Even when the excellent David Villa got behind the lines, the goalkeeper Palop (originally from Valencia) proved again that he's worth a try out in the national side.
I don't know what odds you'd get on them winning La Liga, but if they're at all long, I'd have a flutter. Barça won 1-4 at Mallorca despite all their injuries, but you never know. This year there's more pressure. Can they cope on all fronts? Sevilla are involved in Europe (the UEFA) too, but they look as fresh as frisky rabbits. All power to them. They've made La Liga competitive again.