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Nov 14, 2008

Puskas, the Galloping Major

Short, one-footed, lacking in pace, belly bulging over his waistband, Ferenc Puskas was one of the greatest players of all time.

November 17 will mark two years since he passed away at age 79, back home in the city from where he had once been exiled for three decades.

A generation-defining man with a left foot that plundered over 600 goals, Puskas was mourned across the footballing world, his standing as a key man with both the greatest club side of all time and the best team to have never won the World Cup marking him out as a genuine great. In Britain, two matches, at Wembley in 1953, and Hampden Park in 1960, made an indelible mark on the game in these isles.

Hungarian football's greatest hero, from a time when the Magyars were truly mighty, Puskas's playing career was divided into two separate but equally distinguished parts. As well as his 84 goals in 85 international appearances for his country, a record only surpassed by Iran's Ali Daei over forty years later, he is also a Real Madrid great, scoring 157 goals in just 182 games during eight years at Spain's most decorated club.

Puskas, known from childhood as "Ocsi" (little brother), was an international star in a very different era. Hungary was part of Europe's Soviet bloc and Puskas' first club Kispest AC were assimilated in 1949 by the Hungarian Ministry of Defence, making them the army's team. Honved, as they became known, soon acquired the country's best players through conscription and Puskas was given the all-but honorary rank of major. "The Galloping Major" was the other nickname that would stay with him for life.

Honved swept to five league titles on the domestic scene but by then Puskas had made his name on the world stage. Having made a scoring international debut at just 18, he became a regular for his country from then on. Accompanied by team-mates of the class of Zoltán Czibor, Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik and Nándor Hidegkuti, Puskas became a gold medallist at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, though it was at Wembley in 1953 that Puskas made his name in Britain.

When captain Puskas and his team travelled to London, England had never been beaten at Wembley by a team outside the 'Home Nations'. Hungary desecrated that record with a 6-3 thumping that had English football wringing its hands for years. Amid all the talk of Hungary's formation, Puskas' left foot became the most feared implement in world football after a drag-back to flummox England captain Billy Wright was followed by a thunderous shot that gave goalkeeper Gil Merrick no chance.

Puskas left Wembley with two goals while Hidegkuti grabbed a hat-trick. A return game was even more catastrophic for England as they were pummelled in Budapest, 7-1 the scoreline this time, Puskas grabbing another brace.

After that game in May 1954 few could see the Hungarians not winning a World Cup that started the following month in Switzerland. When West Germany were given the England treatment in an 8-3 group-stage thrashing, the Jules Rimet trophy looked all but Hungarian. Yet a hack to Puskas' ankle by defender Werner Liebrich changed destiny. Puskas limped from the field, only to return in the final against Liebrich and his team-mates.

Rushed back to fitness ahead of any normal schedule and with Puskas' dedication to fitness never the strongest, the final in Berne saw the half-fit skipper have an early impact by scoring the opening goal but thereafter appear below-par. He was responsible for a series of mis-hit shots as the Germans pulled ahead and had a late equaliser chalked off for offside.

One of the greatest shocks in football history, the "Miracle of Berne" occurred via a 3-2 West German victory. An unbeaten run of 33 matches had ended for the "Golden Team", yet another record. They would never get the chance to right such a perceived wrong. Their international careers were soon to be over.

As stars of a communist regime, Puskas and his colleagues had enjoyed favours never granted to their compatriots, able to live a life of luxury denied to the common man. Though Puskas said until his death that he was "non-political", he was also used as propaganda for the country. Unlike their fellow Hungarians, Honved's players were granted foreign travel by being sent on tours of Europe. December 1954 saw them travel to face English champions Wolverhampton Wanderers, who had staged 'friendlies' with a series of leading European clubs. After Wolves won 3-2 at Molineux the English press hailed them as "Champions of Europe".

It was on another foreign trip, this time in the fledgling European Cup, that Puskas and his colleagues found themselves fugitives from their own country. While Russian tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956 to crush an "October Rising" led by Imre Nagy, Honved had been playing Athletic Bilbao. With their position as symbols of a lax regime now crushed by hardline Soviets, few of the team wanted to return home. A return 'home' leg with Bilbao saw Honved crash out of the competition in Brussels.

The exiles made ends meet and supported their families by taking on more tours, travelling to Italy, Portugal, Spain and even Brazil. The matches played by Honved were recognised by neither FIFA nor UEFA and Puskas found himself banned for two years by the European body for refusing to return to Budapest, thus denying him moves to AC Milan and Juventus.

The ban had taken its toll on Puskas by the time it was over. By 1958 he was 31 and years of good living had further expanded his waistline. Italy was no longer an option. After a spell guesting at Espanyol, he made his home in Spain despite mooted interest from Manchester United. Real Madrid were prepared to gamble on his fitness and application in the same way they had done with Alfredo Di Stefano on his arrival from the outlawed Colombian league five years earlier.

Real were rewarded with goals galore. Puskas' left foot was still as powerful as ever and he bagged four hat-tricks in his first season, beginning a run of 20 or more goals in his first six seasons in Madrid. Denied the chance of his first European Cup in 1959 through injury after scoring the decisive goal in the semi-final, Puskas made a surely unsurpassable impact on Real's triumph of 1960.

May 13 1960 was another day in the education of British football fans. Real's 7-3 dismantling of Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park was watched by 130,000 enraptured spectators. Puskas scored four goals, with Di Stefano unable to claim the match ball after his own three. It is still hailed as the best final of the tournament's 53-year history. Though he missed out on repeating that amazing feat, Puskas managed to score a first-half hat-trick in the 1962 final as Benfica beat Real 5-3 in Amsterdam. Puskas remains the only player to have scored a hat-trick in two European Cup Finals.

Real won the European Cup in Puskas' last season, with him scoring five goals over two legs the first round against Feyenoord though by the time the 1966 final came, Puskas was pushing 40 and Real had a new and vibrant team. So began a nomadic coaching career which saw him take Panathinaikos to the 1971 European Cup Final. Puskas could not revive the Wembley wizardry of 1953 as his team perished at the hands of Johan Cruyff's Ajax.

Five years at Panathinaikos brought him two Greek titles but he could never sustain that success at any of his other clubs. Spells with Murcia, Chile's Colo Colo, back in Greece with AEK Athens, El-Masry in Egypt, Club Sol de América and Cerro Porteño in Paraguay and South Melbourne Hellas in Australia all saw him fail to find a home. Despite over 30 years of exile he was eventually welcomed home and became caretaker coach of Hungary as they tried - and failed - to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. During exile he had become a naturalised Spaniard, even featuring for his adopted country at the 1962 World Cup. Spain may well be the only team he never scored for, Puskas being off-target in his four internationals.

The fall of communism allowed him to return to his country of birth and the city he made his name. The chubbiness of his youth gave way to corpulence in old age but the cheeriness that once made him the darling of Hungary saw him retain his popularity after all that time away. In 2001, Hungary's national stadium was named after him.

When Puskas died in 2006, it was after years of illness. The horror of Alzheimer's Disease had laid him low for some years. Real Madrid courted genuine controversy in 2005 when they pocketed £892,000 for a friendly game in Budapest which was trumpeted as a fundraiser for their ailing former star; his family received just £7,000 from the company who set up the match. Though they themselves may well been misled, Real were decried across the football world for their perceived avarice.

When his passing came, the memories and tributes piled in from across the world. Known equally in South America as in Europe, Puskas was remembered as perhaps the first world football star. And still one of the greatest.

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