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Born: Friday 1 April 1927, Budapest, Hungary
Died: Friday 17 November 2006, Budapest, Hungary (aged 79)
Position: Inside Forward
Regularly mentioned in lists of the very best players of all time, Hungary's Ferenc Puskás was the dominant figure in European football for much of the 1950s. Despite not looking like a natural athlete, he was the most inspirational figure in his country's greatest ever team which came so close to winning the World Cup in 1954. He also went on to be a star of the great Real Madrid team which dominated the early years of the European Cup.
Born Ferenc Purczeld on 1 April 1927 in Budapest, his father changed the family name to Puskás ten years later. It was his father who helped his football career to get off the ground as he worked as a coach at local side Kispest. Puskás and his childhood friend József Bozsik, with whom he had grown up playing football in the streets, were both signed up even though Puskás was officially too young and had to use a false name. He signed officially at the age of 12 and came through the youth ranks to reach the first time when he was 16.
Puskás seemed at first glance to be too short and too heavy to be a top class player, as well as not being particularly strong in the air or on his right foot. His ball skills however helped him to overcome these weaknesses, spending hours juggling a tennis ball to perfect his technique. While his right foot was not especially strong, he packed a fearsome shot with his left and was an incredibly powerful player. Even as a 16-year old in a struggling team, he scored 14 goals in his first season with Kispest.
Kispest were not one of Hungary's strongest teams around the end of the Second World War, but Puskás' performances from inside-left quickly alerted the national team selectors and he made his debut for Hungary in August 1945, scoring in a 5-2 win over Austria in Budapest. Inspired by Puskás, who was the league's leading scorer in 1947-48 with an astonishing 50 goals, Kispest became contenders for major honours through the late 1940s.
Following the Communist takeover of Hungary in 1949, Kispest were renamed Budapest Honvéd. They became the army team, with the players given military rank, giving rise to Puskás' nickname 'the galloping major'. He was again the league's top scorer as Honvéd won the league title in 1949-50, before repeating the feat in another success in the shortened autumn championship later in 1950. Another title came in 1952, the year in which Puskás and the Hungarian national team really announced their arrival on the international stage.
Hungary travelled to the Olympic Games in Helsinki as one of the favourites and swept through the competition in style. Puskás scored four goals in the tournament, including the vital opening goal in the final against Yugoslavia as Hungary claimed the gold medals. On the back of those performances, the team was invited to play a friendly against England at Wembley in 1953. A member of the England set-up allegedly dismissed Puskás as the 'little fat chap' in a poor team, but England's arrogance was shattered as Hungary won 6-3 with Puskás scoring twice. He added two more in a 7-1 win in a return match in Budapest the following year, shortly before the World Cup in Switzerland where Hungary, on a long unbeaten run, were again favourites.
They stormed through the group stage, with Puskás scoring three of the team's 17 goals against South Korea and West Germany, but he suffered a bad ankle injury against the Germans. He missed the wins over Brazil and Uruguay which took Hungary into the final, but declared himself available for the return meeting with West Germany. There were doubts about whether he was really fit, but Puskás opened the scoring inside six minutes as Hungary opened up an early 2-0 lead. West Germany however hit back, quickly levelling before taking the lead late on. Just before full-time, Puskás raced through to score but the goal was ruled out for offside, a decision he always disputed and one which ultimately cost Hungary the World Cup.
Puskás helped Honvéd claim further league titles in 1954 and 1955, but the 1956 uprising in Hungary changed his life dramatically. Honvéd were away playing in the European Cup at the time, and many of the players decided not to return home. Puskás was one of those who didn't and found himself hit by a UEFA ban, putting his career on hold for 15 months. At the time he left Hungary behind, Puskás had scored 84 goals in 85 international games, a record which stood unmatched in men's international football for more than 50 years.
When his suspension was lifted, Puskás signed for European champions Real Madrid where he formed a remarkable partnership with Alfredo Di Stéfano. Puskás would be top scorer in the Spanish league four times in his first six seasons at the club, as well as helping the team to extend their run of European Cup wins to five in a row. He missed the 1959 final with injury, but did appear in the famous 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960. Puskás scored four times in that match, still a record for the final, with Di Stéfano adding the other three. He would also score twice in the Intercontinental Cup win over Peñarol later that year.
Real had finished second in the league in each of Puskás' first two seasons, but he did win his first league title in Spain in 1961. In 1962 he scored another European Cup final hat-trick, but that match against Benfica ended in disappointment as the Portuguese side came from 2-0 and 3-2 down to win a remarkable match 5-3. Having gained Spanish citizenship, he was called into the national team for the 1962 World Cup in Chile but did not have a good tournament and was unable to prevent Spain crashing out in the first round. In total Puskás played four games for Spain without scoring.
Puskás remained a prolific goalscorer for Real until the mid-1960s, with the 1961 league title proving to be the first of five in a row including a league and cup double in 1962. Such was their dominance that the 1963-64 title was won by 12 clear points from city rivals Atlético. His final season with Real would be the 1965-66 campaign, during which Real finally lost their hold on the league. He did however play a crucial role in Real's run to the European Cup final, scoring five in the 6-2 aggregate win over Feyenoord in the opening round, but missed the win over Partizan Belgrade in the final.
Retiring as a player in the summer of 1966, Puskás embarked on a coaching career which would take him to six different continents. The highlight of his time as a manager would come with Panathinaikos, with whom he won league championships in 1970 and 1972 and reached the European Cup final against Ajax in 1971, the only Greek side ever to do so. His only other major honour as a manager came with Australian side South Melbourne, winning the National Soccer League in 1991.
After his defection in 1956, Puskás remained exiled from Hungary until 1981, when he returned for an exhibition match. Following the fall of the Communist regime, he was at last able to return permanently to his home country and even became manager of the national team for a brief spell in 1993, his last managerial appointment. After a battle with Alzheimer's Disease, Puskás died in November 2006 at the age of 79. Budapest's main stadium is named in his honour.
References (all accessed 22 March 2012):
- Published on Thursday, 22 March 2012 14:23