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Legends: Ferenc Puskas

It was not until Lionel Messi began to realise his true potential that one individual swept away opposition with such ease as Hungary and Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas.

A player who was of such an untouchable ability that he elevated the standard of each team he played for to legendary, Puskas scored more than 600 goals in a tremendously successful career. From humble beginnings playing for his father’s old club, Puskas is one of the greats of European football.

Puskas began his career with local side Kispest. Early on, doubts were expressed over his lack of height and bulky physique, but Puskas’ ball control allowed him to compensate. This was despite his apparent inability to use his right foot. Puskas began to score immediately and was capped internationally by the age of 18.

Politics transformed Puskas’ career at Kisvest. In 1848, the Hungarian Ministry of Defence took over Kisvest, renaming the team Budapest Honveld, and used conscription to acquire the league’s best players.

This enabled them to win five titles between 1949 and 1955 during which time Puskas topped the league for scoring on four occasions. Puskas was given the rank of major in the army, hence his nickname ‘The Galloping Major’.

Hungary's 'Golden team'

This successful Honveld team formed the nucleus of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ – Hungary’s ‘Golden team’ of the 1950s who went 32 games unbeaten. Manager Gusztav Sebes revolutionized attacking play with his innovative formation.

Centre forward Nandor Hidegkuti played a deep role allowing inside-forwards Sandor Kocsis and Puskas to exploit the space left by wandering defenders practiced in man-to-man marking.

Never was this more evident than in a 1953 friendly when Hungary came to Wembley to challenge England’s 52-year unbeaten home record. The match became known as the ‘Match of the Century’ and marks a hugely significant moment in English football history.

Hungary went ahead after one minute and never looked back, creating chance after chance and dominating the entire game, eventually running out 6-3 winners.

England players and fans were astonished by Hungary’s style of play. Despite their constant attacking, Sebes instructed the forwards to drop back into defensive roles when the ball was lost.

'Prototype for Total Football'

Sebes also stressed the importance of flexibility hoping to create a system where all players were capable of playing in each position. Puskas himself commented that the team were “the prototype for Total Football”.

England Legend Tom Finney who watched the game from the stands, said: “I came away wondering to myself what we had been doing all these years”.

Five months later, England sought revenge in a friendly in Budapest, just three weeks before the 1954 World Cup got underway. Hungary triumphed 7-1 in a game which remains England’s heaviest defeat. In both games, Puskas scored two goals.

Puskas scored four times in three games as Hungary set a tournament record total of 27 goals. They were unexpectedly defeated in the final against West Germany despite being 2-0 after eight minutes.

Hungary only played five games but followed an opening 9-0 victory over South Korea with an 8-3 victory over the eventual winners. Puskas’ performance was hampered by a hairline fracture which kept him out of the quarter and semi-finals, though returned to open the scoring in the final.

Hungarian Revolution

In 1956, after losing 3-2 away at Athletico Bilbao in the first round of the inaugural European Cup, Puskas and his Budapest Honveld team-mates found themselves stranded, unwilling to return home following the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution.

The players arranged to play the return leg at a neutral venue in Belgium but were knocked out after a 3-3 draw.

After a brief fundraising tour, the players disbanded, some returning home, others moving to new clubs. Puskas joined Jose Villalonga’s Real Madrid and began the second phase of his career.

It takes a special breed of player to be part of two legendary teams but Puskas was exactly this. Admittedly he joined a team that was a class apart from all the competition having won the first three European Cups.

But despite this, the Hungarian played his part. Along with Argentine Alfredo di Stefano, Puskas formed perhaps the most prolific attack in European history.

Devastating form

Both players were in devastating form during the 1960 European Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt as Puskas scored four goals, Di Stefano three to earn Real a 7-3 victory and their fifth consecutive title.

This enabled them to keep the original trophy and rightfully be talked about as one of the greatest teams of all time.

Statistics in football can often be far more tedious than they are useful. Some however, hit the nail on the head.

Though there are differing accounts in terms of exact figures, what is for certain is that Puskas scored over 600 goals in his career at little under one a game. In 1995, Puskas was honoured as the top scorer of the 20th century.

Puskas’ legacy in the game is profound. In 2009, Sepp Blatter introduced the FIFA Puskas Award which is given to the player judged to have scored “the most beautiful” goal of the year.

Debt of gratitude 

Giovanni van Bronckhorst took the award last year for his fantastic goal for Holland in the 2010 World Cup semi-final against Uruguay, with Cristiano Ronaldo winning in the award’s first year.

A true pioneer of the beautiful game, everyone from Diego Maradona to Wayne Rooney owes a debt of gratitude to the Hungarian legend Puskas.

All great sides from Johan Cruyff’s Holland to Lionel Messi’s Barcelona have more than a little of Puskas about them. Puskas’ story is in many ways a common one in football: boy from humble beginnings using football as an escape ends up enthralling the world.

However, Puskas’ talent was so incongruous to the world of football he was born into that it is perhaps only the precocious Messi who could ever reach his heights.

By Chris Smith

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