Ferenc in 1956.

by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

17 November 2006 – Ferenc Puskas, the “Galloping Major” passes away

On 17 November 2006 Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest ever footballers, passed away.  Great is a word that can sometimes be tossed around lightly but Puskas’s career statistics reflect the skill he brought with him onto a football pitch, and showed he truly earned the tag.  He scored 84 goals in 85 internationals for Hungary, and 514 goals in 529 matches in a career that saw success in Hungary and Spain.

Nicknamed the ‘Galloping Major’ in reference to the rank bestowed upon him while playing with the Hungarian army side Honved, he first came to international attention in his role as captain of the magnificent Hungarian side of the 1950s that revolutionised football.  The team, which was labelled the ‘Magical Magyars,’ went on an unbeaten run of 32 games between 1950 and 1954, during which time they picked up the Olympic title in 1952, beating Yugoslavia 2-0, with Puskas opening the scoring.  They also famously defeated England twice.  First, 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, the first ever defeat for England at home by a team from the continent.  They then won a return fixture 7-1 in Budapest in 1954.   Puskas scored twice in both games, with one of his goals at Wembley coming when he coolly pulled the ball back with the sole of his boot so that, in the words of Geoffrey Green in The Times, the English captain Billy Wright rushed past him “like a fire-engine going to the wrong fire.”  In 1953 they also won the Central European Championship, a precursor to the European Championships that was competed for by Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and Italy.  In this competition Puskas finished top scorer with 10 goals, which included two in a 3-0 win over Italy in a game that decided the title.

In the 1954 World Cup Puskas and the Hungarians were highly fancied to be the tournament winners and they did not disappoint in their first two games.  Puskas netted three times as they beat South Korea 9-0 and West Germany 8-3, but, after a heavy tackle by a German defender, Puskas suffered a hairline fracture to his ankle, and did not play again until the final.

The final saw the Hungarians again pitted against West Germany.  Puskas scored the first goal after 6 minutes, and when Czibor added a second two minutes later it seemed that Hungary were going to romp to the crown that so many thought was rightly theirs.  However the German’s hadn’t read the script, and they pulled the scores level before half-time, and then took the lead with six minutes remaining.  Puskas obviously in pain, but playing on with his fractured ankle, thought he had equalised in the 88th minute only to see the goal ruled out controversially for offside.  The Germans held on to achieve one of the most unexpected scorelines ever in a World Cup finals and deliver the Hungarians their first defeat in over four years.

Following the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising while the Honved team was away in Spain for a European Cup game, some of the players, including Puskas, refused to return home, earning him a two-year ban from UEFA.  After the suspension was over Puskas could not at first find a club to play for, with a host of Italian clubs turning him down with concerns about his age and weight.  Manchester United tried to sign him to strengthen their squad after the Munich air disaster but the FA’s regulations restricted foreign signings.  Eventually at the age of 31 he signed for Real Madrid, and, when other players may be thinking of slowly winding down their careers, Puskas was about to embark on a remarkably successful second stage of his career.

During eight seasons at Real, Puskas played 180 La Liga games and scored 156 goals, which included two hat tricks, home and away, against Barcelona in 1963. While he was at Madrid they won the title five consecutive times between 1961 and 1965.  Puskas also helped Madrid to European glory.  In the European Cup, which he won with Real for the first time in 1959, he scored 35 goals in 39 games.  It is in this competition that he will be forever remembered for the four he scored in the remarkable 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park, a game which is still talked about today.  Two years later he got another three in a European cup final, this time against Benfica, however it wasn’t enough to prevent him ending up on the losing side.

In 1962 Puskas took Spanish nationality and played four times for them, including three appearances in the 1962 World Cup in Chile.  However, playing out of position as centre-forward, he struggled to make an impact in these games.

After retiring from playing he turned to management and again achieved success by steering the previously unheralded Panathinaikos of Greece to the 1971 European Cup final, where they were defeated by the majestic Ajax side of the time.  Later in life he became re-united with the country of his birth and took charge of the Hungarian national football team in 1993 for four games.  As the last millennium drew to a close the International Federation for Football History and Statistics voted Puskas as the 20th century’s sixth best player.  When he died in 2006 at the age of 79 he was buried with full state and military honours.  In 2008, an international annual cup competition for U-17s, the Puskas cup, was started by the Hungarian FA to honour his memory, and this has been held in Hungary every year since.  In 2009 FIFA honoured the man with the inauguration of the Puskas Award, which is awarded to the scorer of the year’s “most beautiful” goal.

While the statistics demonstrate the man’s genius as a footballer, another football related story shows his decency as a human being.  In 1967, at the age of 40, having only recently retired, he appeared in a charity game at Holly Park, the ground of non-league South Liverpool, after the organiser of the game, Brian Taylor, sent him a letter.  Taylor admitted that sending the letter was a long-shot and that he never really expected a reply.  On the day the Puskas XI lost the game 5-3, but the main attraction put on a display for the crowd, scoring all his side’s goals. What was more important though was the fact that the game was a 10,000 sell out; with just as many reported to have been locked out.   The generous gesture of Puskas meant that more money was raised than the organiser could have ever dreamt of.