Hungary’s finest ever player and one of the greatest footballers to grace the FIFA World Cup, Ferenc Puskas was the figurehead of the ground breaking ‘Magical Magyars’ team that dominated world football in the early 1950s. Alas, the supreme distinction of being world champion eluded this magnificent forward after Hungary suffered a historic 3-2 loss to West Germany in the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final in Berne.
Puskas was born in 1927 in Budapest and started playing for Kispest’s junior side from an early age. By the time he was 16, Puskas was a first-team regular, his ambition and iron will already evident despite his tender years. He made his international debut at the age of 18 against Austria in only Hungary’s second fixture after the end of the Second World War, starting as he meant to carry on by finding the net in a 5-2 win.
An unlikely footballer in many respects, Puskas was short and stocky, not particularly strong in the air and almost exclusively left-footed. But his gifts were undeniable, as the statistics show. In 84 appearances for Hungary, Puskas scored 83 goals – a strike rate that remained unsurpassed in international football until Iran’s Ali Daei rewrote the record books in November 2003. He was also inspirational for Kispest, who in 1949 became the army team and were renamed Honved. Puskas, their star striker, earned the sobriquet of the ‘Galloping Major’ in recognition of his army rank, and he went on to captain the team to five league titles.
Hungary were the dominant national team of the early 1950s. In 1952, Puskas captained his country to Olympic gold in Helsinki and Gusztav Sebes’ side arrived at the 1954 FIFA World Cup undefeated in four years. Their most resounding victory came on 25 November 1953 at the ‘home of football’, the historic Wembley Stadium, where England had never lost to a team from outside of the British Isles. Hungary emerged emphatic 6-3 victors in a contest that would go down in history as one of the matches of the century, Puskas helping himself to two of their goals and his attacking cohort Nandor Hidegkuti netting a treble.
Puskas and company gave a master class of wonderfully varied short and long passing in front of 100,000 supporters, outclassing their hosts. This Hungarian team, built around Puskas, played a brand of attacking football the English had not seen before. Where England were still set up in the old WM formation, Hungary operated in a 4-2-4 with Sandor Kocsis and Puskas attacking from the inside-right and left positions respectively, and central striker Nandor Hidegkuti dropping deep. And in just one game they destroyed the myth of supremacy England had enjoyed in world football.
“Wright went past him like a fire engine going to the wrong fire” was how The Times newspaper described Puskas’ wrong-footing of England captain Billy Wright prior to scoring one of his two goals. The humiliation did not end there as less than six months later, England received their second lesson when Hungary won the return fixture 7-1 on home soil.
It is no wonder Hungary were the undeniable favourites for the 1954 FIFA World Cup. They had the strongest forward line in the world and were quick to demonstrate their firepower at the tournament in Switzerland. They overwhelmed Korea Republic 9-0 in their opening game – where Puskas scored the first and final goals – before sweeping aside a second-string West Germany side 8-3, with their talismanic skipper again on target.
However, that latter success came at a great cost as Puskas injured his knee in a tackle with opponent Werner Liebrich and was forced to sit out the quarter-final and semi-final. He could only watch from the stands as his team-mates recorded successive 4-2 victories over Brazil and two-time world champions Uruguay in the semi-final.
All eyes were on the Hungary captain going into the 1954 Final. Was he completely over his injury? Not wanting to miss the match, the pinnacle of his career to date, Puskas played despite suggestions that he was not fully fit. The Magical Magyars enjoyed a perfect start, Puskas seemingly silencing all the doubters by opening the scoring in just the sixth minute.
Two minutes later it was 2-0 but in the pouring rain in Berne, West Germany responded. By the break it was 2-2, and with three minutes remaining Helmut Rahn struck the Germans’ third goal. There was still time for Puskas to find the net but his effort was disallowed for offside. After 31 matches undefeated, Hungary were beaten.
Following the Final, that great Hungary team gradually disintegrated and Puskas’ own life was soon to change dramatically. In 1956, he travelled with Honved to Spain for a UEFA European Cup fixture against Athletic Bilbao that coincided with a period of national uprising in Hungary. Puskas and a number of his team-mates never returned home, taking sanctuary in the West. After a 15-month suspension from football, the now 31-year-old’s friend Emil Oestreicher, Honved’s financial secretary during his latter years at the club who had scored a job as Real Madrid’s technical director, persuaded his new employers to recruit Puskas.
There he embarked on the next hugely successful chapter of his career. Forging one of the game’s most famous strike partnerships alongside the great Alfredo Di Stefano, Puskas helped Real Madrid to five league crowns, establishing them as one of the most dominant forces in Europe. His finest hour came in the 1960 UEFA European Cup final in front of 130,000 fans at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, where los Merenguesbeat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. Di Stefano scored a hat-trick but the evening belonged to Puskas, who struck four times in a legendary victory. He ended that season with an incredible 35 goals in 39 games.
In 1962, Puskas was called up by the Spanish national team for the FIFA World Cup in Chile. It proved an unhappy campaign, Spain going home after the group stage with Puskas unable to find the net. Puskas remained with Madrid until 1967, before retiring aged 40 having recorded 367 goals in 383 games for the Spanish giants. He turned to coaching and led Panathinaikos to the 1971 European Cup final as coach, but his greatest personal triumph came in 1992, when he returned to his homeland, Hungary, to live at the age of 65.
Name: Ferenc Puskas Biro
Date of birth: 2 April 1927
Birthplace: Budapest, Hungary
Died: 17 November 2006
Hungary: 1945 – 56
84 caps, 83 goals
62 wins; 11 draws; 11 losses
Spain: 1961 – 62
4 caps, 0 goals
2 wins; 2 losses
1954 FIFA World Cup runner-up
1952 Olympic Football Tournament winner
1943-1956: Kispest, now Honved
1958-1967: Real Madrid (Spain)
Intercontinental Cup winner: 1960
UEFA European Cup winner: 1960
Hungarian Championship winner: 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955
Spanish Championship winner: 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965
Spanish Cup winner: 1962
UEFA Golden Player Hungary
Spanish Championship top scorer: 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964
Hungarian Championship top scorer: 1947/48, 1949/50, 1950, 1953
Top scorer in Europe: 1948
1970 – 1971 Panathinaikos (Greece)
1975 – 1976 AEK Athens (Greece)
1976 – 1978 Colo Colo (Chile)
UEFA European Cup runner-up: 1971
Greek Championship winner: 1971, 1972
Did You know?
Puskas described the ball as his kabala (lucky charm), and so it proved as he became top scorer in the Hungarian and Spanish Championships four times apiece.
Hungarians observed an official day of mourning when Puskas died aged 79 in 2006. A memorial service was held at the national stadium.
Puskas scored a first-half hat-trick for Real Madrid in the 1962 UEFA European Cup final against Benfica, but the Spaniards ended up losing 5-3.
Exiled from Hungary, Puskas returned to Budapest in 1981 for an exhibition game. Demand for tickets was five times more than the capacity.
As a boy, Ferenc Puskas had the nickname Ocsi (kid brother) and he lived next door to future international team-mate Jozsef Bozsik.
“If he kicked the ball once, he scored two goals.”
Zoltan Czibor, Puskas’ team-mate with Kispest and Hungary
“He had a full career in Hungary and he repeated it in Spain with Real Madrid. That’s why he is not only world class, but he belongs to the realm of dreams.”
Gyula Grosics, Hungarian goalkeeper who played alongside Puskas
“I believe that if a good player has the ball, he should have the vision to spot at least three options. Puskas always saw at least five.”
Jeno Buzanszky, Puskas’ former Hungary team-mate