Almanac (Soccer) History: Remembering Ferenc Puskas, on not growing old (with Youtube highlights)

 

It’s 10 years ago since the death of Ferenc Puskas, one of the most gifted and idiosyncratic forces of nature ever to walk on to any field, anywhere. But, as I discovered when I talked to him, Puskas never forgot one special night in Glasgow when he swaggered into posterity. Here is my piece:

 

 

The ‘Galloping Major’ was 73 when I interviewed him in 1999 – he died ten years ago  – but it was clear his memories of the famous 1960 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park would never be erased.

 

For many people, it was the greatest of all football dramas and Puskas was the man who scored four times as the Spanish club demolished their opponents 7-3, en route to a fifth successive trophy in front of 130,000 fans.

 

Although many of the participants are no longer with us, even now it is part of footballing folklore and a plaque has been unveiled at Hampden to commemorate Puskas’ achievements in that game.

 

He truly was a nonpareil, a character who performed with an infectious joie de vivre and drank deep from the well of inspiration. But he never lost his connection with the people who watched him perform.

 

As he told me, Glasgow was one of his favourite places. “It was remarkable, the amount of affection that the people of the city showed towards us.

 

“Every time we moved forward, they were shouting and bellowing and encouraging us to keep trying new things.

 

“Maybe it was because I was a member of the Hungarian team which twice beat the English [6-3 at Wembley, 7-1 in Budapest] or maybe they just enjoyed the way we played the game.

 

“Whatever the reason, at the final whistle, the Scots were cheering so loudly you would have thought one of their own teams had just become the champions of Europe.

 

“And I met so many Scottish people that night who were thrilled for us. I loved it and it has stayed with me.

 

“I think when you are able to look back on evenings such as that one, you never really grow old.”

 

With hindsight, Glasgow’s warm embrace of Puskas was unsurprising.

 

As one of life’s peripatetic souls, the little Hungarian maestro loved tackling new challenges, visiting bars and restaurants, and accepted every party invitation as if it was his last.

 

There was another foray to the west of Scotland during which he and the fabled Rangers and Scotland internationalist, Jim Baxter, shared an evening’s entertainment in Drumchapel.

 

The language barrier was immaterial, as Puskas declared: “We loved football and we met so many fans who loved football as well. That was all that mattered.

 

“I couldn’t understand what Jim was saying sometimes, but there was a connection between us and between the supporters.”

 

He was slapped down by FIFA with an 18-month suspension for embarking on an unofficial tour of Brazil, as the prelude to arriving at Real Madrid. Yet many people are probably unaware of how close he came to signing for Manchester United in the mournful months following the ghastly Munich air disaster.

 

Just imagine it! Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, George Best and Ferenc Puskas plying their trade together in the Swinging Sixties.

 

He told me: “After I was banned by FIFA, I panicked a bit about the future might hold. I couldn’t play anywhere, even though Manchester United tried to borrow three of us after they lost all those people in that terrible tragedy.

 

“I was keen for the move to go ahead – who wouldn’t when you looked at a place like Old Trafford? – but the English FA refused. I still sometimes wonder how that would have turned out, but there’s no point in worrying what might have been.”

 

Puskas reminisced about some of his contemporaries and it was obvious he held a high regard for Baxter (“He could do anything with a ball”), Law (“There was nothing of him, but what a talent”) and John White, who was fatally struck by lightning in 1963. (“We were totally shocked by that. He was a genius”.)

 

But he thrived at a time when individuals were less important than the sum of their parts.

 

As he stated: “If you ask me what makes a great team, I would answer that it’s essential to build very close relationships between the players.

 

“That’s how it was at Real in my days. After we had trained, we usually stayed together all afternoon, drinking wine and soda water and beer, and eating good spicy sausages.

 

“It might not have made us fit, but it built a bond between us, and that was a big factor during our tougher assignments in the European Cup.

 

“I’ve never believed in filling up your head with tactics and jargon. Looking back to Hampden, it was true that we created the biggest sensation of our time.

 

“But there was no secret to it. We had excellent players who knew how to keep the ball and pass it quickly, and we were 11 men who always knew where the rest of our team-mates were.

 

“We went, we won, we came back. It was simple, but it was effective, and we never forgot we were entertainers.

 

“I might be in my old age now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get a buzz from soccer any more. It’s the opposite. Whenever I meet up with some of the survivors from those tussles in 1953 and 1960, you can immediately see that we are all old men, but old men with a mad passion for football.”

 

As a vaunted member of football’s international Hall of Fame, Puskas could hardly have been more modest or self-deprecating.

 

And it was evident the statistics and baubles meant far less to him than the bonhomie and camaraderie.

 

His parting words were: “I don’t bother myself with what I might have earned if I had been born 40 years later, that doesn’t matter.

 

“We enjoyed ourselves immensely and I played football to score goals, not win prizes. The fact that I did both in my time was a bonus.”

 

No wonder Glasgow – and Scotland – warmly embraced this talismanic character.

 

 

Comments

  1. Shane John Backx says:

    He wanted to emigrate to Melbourne after coaching here in the 80s, but his wife wanted to go back to Hungary for family reasons

  2. Neil Drysdale says:

    He was a joy to talk to, even if an interpreter provided me with some help. What shone through was his utter love for football, family and great players wherever they came from. He was sad about Hungarian football’s decline, but he knew you can’t force anybody to love any sport if they don’t want to.

  3. Thesaurus Rex says:

    Thanks for reminding us of this very great footballer. Part of Hungary’s “Mighty Magyars” which dominated the world game for 4 years before losing (unbelievably) to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final … one can only reflect on how, had Puskás been fully fit in that match, Hungary may well have had its name inscribed at least once on the Jules Rimet Trophy. The Mighty Magyars” were much more than just Puskás (for instance Kocsis, a phenomenal striker with an extraordinary 75 goals in 68 internationals) but Ferenc was the general the team’s success all revolved round.

    And later of course for Real Madrid, his legendary combination with Alfredo Di Stéfano, humiliated defences all over Europe!

    Puskás managed South Melbourne Hellas in 1990-91 to a victory in the National Soccer League.

  4. Great stuff. Thanks Neil. Diego Maradona with his left foot, small stature, dinky runs and incredible ball control – looks like a clone of Puskas to my untrained ‘football’ eye. I think I heard Alex Ferguson talking about being at that 1960 Cup Final at Hampden Park and how much it shaped him. Did they really fit in 130,000 spectators? Wow.

  5. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Thanks Neil,
    I was lucky enough to visit the stadium named after Ferenc in Budapest in 2010. Mighty figure in world football and managed South Melbourne Hellas to an NSL title in 1990-91. Much loved and respected by Melbourne’s Greek community.

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