Ferenc Puskas: The Mightiest Magyar Who Came From Nothing to Rule the World

Ferenc Puskas is number 14 in 90min’s Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series

?It started, as all good football stories do, with a ball made of rolled up rags. 

In the early 1930s, in the thistled fields of Kispest, Hungary, a young Ferenc Puskas learned his love for football with eight friends. They had no football boots (and, as he wrote in his 1955 autobiography, ‘seldom boots of any kind’) but played with anything faintly spherical they could get their hands on. 

Once, they sold the local butcher’s cat to pay for tickets to an important local match. The lesson is, presumably, to never trust children. 

When the young Puskas – an avid Arsenal fan – was ten, he and his friends were stopped in their field by a man named Nandor Szucs, a coach at local side Kispest Athletic Club; later Budapest Honved. He took them to the club’s ground, handed them boots (far too big) and a real, leather ball, and brought them into the heart of the club. 

Uncle Nandi, as the children called him, might be the man to whom Hungarian football owes its greatest debt. He nurtured the country’s greatest ever player; telling him he was ‘so slow that a cobbler could mend your boots in the time you take to move one step’. He didn’t stay sluggish for long. 

With his father coaching the side, the precocious inside-forward made his club debut at the age of just 16 in a 3-0 defeat to reigning champions Nagyvarad; and was ‘initiated’ into the first team on the train journey home with the traditional mixture of physical abuse and vile alcohol. 

His international debut followed soon afterward, scoring in a crushing 5-2 win over Austria. From there, he scarcely slowed down – joined by a selection of the greatest players the country had ever produced, all along in one astonishing generation. 

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Kispest didn’t win the league for years in Puskas’ early years, not until they became a Hungarian army team under the new name Budapest Honved in 1949. That Honved team almost immediately became the defining force in Hungarian football – conscripting ?Sandor Kocsis into the forces (and, as such, the team) in 1950, Zoltan Czibor in 1953 and many more in between times. 

With the country’s very best at his side and a new army rank, which gave birth to his nickname ‘the Galloping Major’, Puskas earned five Hungarian titles and a number of seasons as the country’s top scorer. That Honved side also ended up forming the basis of the Hungarian Golden Team; the Mighty Magyars, who went 31 games unbeaten from 1950 up until the World Cup final of ’54. 

Football, like history, is circular. In the autobiography he wrote the year after the final against West Germany – the game dubbed the ‘Miracle of Bern’ – Puskas complained bitterly about decisions made by English referee  Ling. ‘We were deprived,’ he wrote, ‘of the World Championship.’ 

Some of that frustration may have come from his own performance; injured as he was in the group stage in a 8-3 win over the same West Germany team who downed his team in the final. A fracture of his ankle ruled him out of the the quarter- and semi-finals, but he returned for the championship game – even scoring the opening goal to help the red-hot Hungarians to a 2-0 lead inside just eight minutes. 

A German comeback and three contentious refereeing decisions from Ling and his assistants saw the most dominant team in world football lose the final 3-2. 

Puskas never returned to the World Cup final with his home nation; the Hungarian Revolution erupting in 1956 when he and his Honved teammates were abroad for a European Cup match in Bilbao. Many of the players refused to return home due to the unrest, instead finding new clubs in Western Europe despite opposition from Hungary and worldwide footballing authorities – with UEFA eventually banning Puskas from football for two years for his refusal to go back to Hungary. 

Having realised in ’54 after the World Cup that questions were being asked of his future, a two-year ban from the game (running until 1958) could very well have been the end of his career – if the Galloping Major had not been so set on prolonging his career, pointing at ‘England’s famous Matthews’ as an example. 

‘I cannot believe that I shall give up football in six or seven years’ time’, he wrote on the border of ’54/’55. ‘I would like to play for another twelve years, and not only play but to keep my place on the front rank as Matthews has done.’

True to his word, he kept playing in his self-imposed semi-exile with Kocsis and Czibor in Madrid. Not only did his career last almost smack on those promised dozen years, he did indeed stay on that front line – winning Spain’s Pichichi trophy for top scorer five times after the age of 30 and lifting the European Cup three times in the white of Real. 

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He returned to the World Cup too, for his adopted Spain in 1962, but slid out in the group stage after disappointing narrow defeats to Czechoslovakia and Brazil. 

His body refused to carry him on as he approached the age of 40, forcing a switch into management. A spell in Greece brought him success; a league title and the country’s only European Cup final appearance with Panathinaikos, but he rarely spent long anywhere else. 

Spain, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Paraguay and Australia all got visits before – in 1993 – he returned to Hungary for his final coaching job, taking charge of the national team he had left 37 years previous for four games. 

To talk about Puskas without mentioning his goalscoring record (358 in 350 for Honved, 156 in 180 for Real, 84 in 85 for Hungary) seems remiss, so here you go. But aren’t stories, narratives and yarns more interesting than raw numbers anyway? 

For more from Chris Deeley, follow him on Twitter at @ThatChris1209!

90min’s ‘Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time’ can be found here.

Number 50: Luka Modric

Number 49: John Charles

Number 48: Hugo Sanchez

Number 47: Jairzinho

Number 46: Omar Sivori

Number 45: Paolo Rossi

Number 44: Paul Breitner

Number 43: George Weah

Number 42: Kaka

Number 41: Lev Yashin

Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl

Number 39: Kevin Keegan

Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov

Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon

Number 36: Johan Neeskens

Number 35: Xavi Hernandez

Number 34: Luis Suarez

Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge

Number 32: Andres Iniesta

Number 31: Rivelino

Number 30: Bobby Moore

Number 29: Socrates

Number 28: Sandor Kocsis

Number 27: Lothar Matthaus

Number 26: Ronaldinho

Number 25: Ruud Gullit

Number 24: Bobby Charlton

Number 23: Giuseppe Meazza

Number 22: Raymond Kopa

Number 21: Romario

Number 20: Eusebio

Number 19: Marco van Basten

Number 18: George Best

Number 17: Zico

Number 16: Franco Baresi

Number 15: ?Cristiano Ronaldo


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