"Look at that little fat chap. We'll murder this lot." These were the intemperate words of an English footballer as they took the field at Wembley to play Hungary in 1953. The "little fat chap" was Ferenc Puskas, the Hungarian captain. He was short, stocky, barrel-chested, slightly overweight, could only shoot with his left foot and couldn't head the ball. Despite all these shortcomings, he and his team had the last laugh slaughtering England 6-3 and in the process being the first continental team to win at Wembley. Puskas scored two goals in that game among a remarkable 84 in just 85 games for his country.
Today, Ferenc Puskas is recovering after being taken into intensive care into a Budapest hospital this week. The 79-year-old Puskas has been living in Budapest's Kutvolgyi Hospital with Alzheimer's disease since 2000 and went into intensive care earlier this week. Puskas is idolised in Hungary where has the nickname Ocsi Bacsi “our little brother”. His more famous nickname to the rest of the world is The Galloping Major after his Hungarian army rank at the time he became world famous. Puskas was the captain of Hungary’s “golden team” of the 1950s before going on to great success with Real Madrid winning the first five European cups between 1956 and 1960.
Puskas was born in 1927 in Budapest. He made an early impression making his debut for his father's old team Kispest at the age of 16. At aged 18 he made his first international appearance for Hungary against Austria in 1945. After the war, military teams sprang up all over Eastern Europe under the auspices of the new Soviet masters. In Hungary the authorities took the Kispest club and all their players and turned them into Honved, the team of the Hungarian Army. Because Communist sports teams were technically amateurs, they could compete in the Olympic Games. Puskas was captain of his country when they took the soccer gold medal by defeating Yugoslavia in the final at Helsinki in 1952.
By 1954, Hungary were the hot favourites to win the World Cup in Switzerland. Just to show that their earlier victory over England wasn’t a fluke, they demolished them 7-1 in Budapest. Going into the tournament, the Magical Magyars hadn't lost for four years. They scored 17 goals in their first two games of the finals. They beat South Korea 9-0, and then thrashed Germany 8-3. But this win came at a cost. Their captain and talisman Puskas was injured and missed the quarter-final against Brazil, a brutal game that went down in football history as the Battle of Berne. Hungary won and after the game, the Brazilians invaded the Hungarian dressing room claiming that Puskas had attacked and wounded their centre-half while watching from the touchline. In the ensuing fight, players hit each other with bottles and football boots.
Puskas's damaged ankle kept him out of the semi-final against Uruguay who had never lost a World Cup match. Hungary won 4-2 in extra time. The final was a rematch with West Germany who they had annihilated in the early rounds. Captain Puskas declared himself fit, but it was a controversial decision. According to Brian Glanville in his book, The Story of the World Cup: "Puskas, clearly hampered by his ankle, was unwontedly heavy and slow." Nonetheless, Hungary led 2-0 after just eight minutes with Puskas getting the second goal. The gamble looked like it was paying off. But the Hungarians' game began to go awry. Germany pulled back to 2-2, and then took the lead through Rahn. With minutes to go Puskas broke clear and slid the ball past the German keeper Turek. Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths had his flag up. The goal was disallowed for offside. West Germany held on to win 3-2 and caused one of the football upsets of the century to win the World Cup. Hungary, having conquered all before them, had been beaten in the most important game of all.
The 1956 Hungarian uprising changed Puskas’s life forever. He was with the rest of his Honved team-mates playing a European Cup tie in Bilbao, Spain when the revolution took place. Puskas, and two of his team-mates Kocsis and Czibor, defected to the West. The trio were banned for a year. Although Czibor and Kocsis soon found employment with Barcelona, Puskas was less fortunate – as his weight increased his stock fell, with no clubs willing to take a risk on him. Puskas spent a year in neighbouring Austria, but was unable to get a playing permit. He wanted to play in Italy, but he piled on weight as he drifted aimlessly around Europe. Having turned 30 he was considered too old and too fat. He was rescued from ignominy by his old Honved manager Emil Oestreicher, now in charge at Real Madrid. The Spanish team had been turned into a club that dominated Europe by the vision of their president, Santiago Bernabeu. They had won the first European Cup in 1956 and had retained it the following year. Among their star players were centre-forward Alfredo Di Stefano, a naturalised Argentinean, and Francisco Gento, the flying winger.
In 1958, Oestreicher took a gamble on the 31-year-old overweight Puskas. The player rejected by the Italians struck up a sensational partnership with Di Stefano and was four times the leading scorer in the Spanish Championship. They retained the European Cup in 1958 and again a year later. This magnificent Real side climaxed in their fifth straight final in 1960 played in front a European record crowd of 135,000 at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Puskas scored 4 and di Stefano 3 as they trounced Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in one of the greatest exhibitions of football ever seen. The young Billy Bremner was at the game and described it thus: "It was awesome; nobody could believe what they were seeing, and at the end there was this incredible indescribable buzz all around, like some unbelievably illustrious people had been allowed to come and visit, like Frank Sinatra had just sung to us personally."
Puskas played in one more European Cup Final against Benfica in 1962. Real were no longer the force of old and Benfica won 5-3 but it was still the 35 year old Puskas who scored all three Real goals. The same year he was picked to play for Spain in the World Cup Finals in Chile. The team was packed with talent. Apart from Gento, there was Luis del Sol and Luis Suarez. It made little difference, Spain won just one of their three matches and finished bottom of their qualifying group. During his time in Spain Puskas was top scorer four times in the league, as Real won six domestic trophies and three European Cups.
Puskas retired in 1966 to concentrate on coaching. He had only mediocre success until 1971 when he took the Greek Champions Panathinaikos to the European Cup Final where they lost 2-0 to Ajax. As well as Greece, he coached in Chile, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Egypt and Australia. It was in Australia where George Best met him. Best said of Puskas "the players he was coaching did not respect him until he put the ball down outside the area and intentionally hit the cross bar ten times in a row.” But the most poignant moment of his later days was in 1993 when he returned home to Hungary. The man who defected to flee the uprising was appointed caretaker manager of the national side during the World Cup qualifiers. The Hungarians failed to qualify but a great national hero was rehabilitated. Hungary renamed their national stadium Stadium Puskás Ferenc in his honour in 2001. The country will be plunged into mourning when the major gallops no more.