Hungary | Ferenc Puskás dies, aged 79


Shrines in Budapest pay tribute to Puskás on Friday. Video at Hungarian websites shows passersby laying amaryllis blooms and lighting votives at Puskás Ferenc Stadion, rededicated in his honor in 2002 (see also a video montage of photographs, set to string music). (Meggyesi Bálint | Nemzeti sport)

Budapest | “The Galloping Major,” star of the Hungarian national team and Real Madrid in the 1950s and ’60s, has died of pneumonia. “The best-known Hungarian of the 20th century is gone,” said prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány on Friday. Ferenc Puskás had been living in a Budapest hospital for six years with a form of Alzheimer’s (see 30 Jun 05).

Tributes honored the left-footed goal-scorer for his humanist impulses, for accomplishments that came despite a 25-year exile from Hungary in the middle of his life and for guidance of a Hungarian team that, in winning a record 32 consecutive games in the early 1950s, set standards for possession and flair that Brazil and others later would imitate. His renown in football was such that tributes were worldwide. “You say Hungary, and people think Puskás,” said György Kárpáti, three-time gold medalist in water polo. “If you go to Venezuela, or Naples, or Australia, people know Puskás. Puskás is Hungary. Hungary is Puskás” (quoted in Jonathan Wilson, “My Life Is Like a Love Affair, I Loved Football at the Start and I Will Love It at the End,” Sunday Herald [Glasgow], 19 Nov 06). In Madrid, cellist Laura Bení­tez played a Pablo Casals arrangement of “Song of the Birds” as players linked arms at the center circle.

Puskás had a simple love for the ball, which he treated as a kabala, “lucky charm” (Márton Dinnyés, “Puskás, Hungary’s Greatest,” uefa.com, 17 Nov 06). His childhood friend and future international, József Bozsik, grew up in the same neighborhood in Kispest, outside Budapest. “We soon became friends and had a secret sign,” Puskás said. “If I knocked on the wall, it meant: let’s go and play football.”

Nemzeti sport offers a tribute section on Nov 18

Nemzeti sport

The child’s game, however, would get more complicated. Puskás played for Kispest FC during the Second World War, but with the pro-Soviet state’s nationalization of football he suddenly was representing Kispest Honvéd, the army team. The side’s players created a nucleus for the national team, the “Magical Magyars,” under Gusztáv Sebes. In November 1953, a friendly with England in Wembley Stadium became a pivotal juncture both for the sport and Hungarian nationhood. The Magyars’ 6–3 victory would be memorialized in the name of a Budapest bar; the players in cherry-red shirts, emphasizing passing and interchange, confounded England, for whom Wembley had been a fortress (Christopher Condon, “Football Legend Puskas Dies,” Financial Times, 17 Nov 06).

“Improvisation, not formalized coaching, was their strength,” said Sandor Barcs, former head of the Hungarian soccer association (Rob Hughes, “Puskas, Soccer Star of the 1950s and ’60s, Dies,” International Herald Tribune, 17 Nov 06).

Inside that Wembley dressing room, Sebes had lectured the players for one hour, but when the old man went to the toilet, Puskas said two or three sentences about what to do, and that was it.

Puskás began that game imperiously, in the view of John Goodbody, writing in the Times (London) (“Puskás, the Man with the Left Foot of Legend,” 18 Nov 06): “[Y]ou can observe his attitude by the way he juggles the ball on his left instep before kick-off as if to introduce himself to a new audience.” Famously, Puskás scored after a drag-back in the penalty area, bewitching onrushing defender Billy Wright. It might be one of the most replayed goals in history (the goal occurs at the front of a video segment on the Marca website). Later, at Real Madrid, Puskás would sometimes hear the cry Hat harom (“six-three”) from expatriate Hungarians (“Puskas on Life and Football,” The Observer, 19 Nov 06).

The loss to Germany in Berne, Switzerland, in the 1954 World Cup final still stings. Leading 2–0 early in the match, Hungary allowed Germany to escape 2–3 in driving rain, with a late Puskás equalizer controversially overturned. Violent street protests occurred in Budapest after the match. In a post-game tableau reconstructed by historian David Goldblatt (The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football [Viking, 2006], 352), based on the collection Puskás on Puskás: The Life and Times of a Footballing Legend (Robson, 1997), Puskás downs sausages while Sebes searches for an explanation:

Puskás: (Still eating sausage) It wasn’t long before we were two goals up and we had at least half a dozen other clear chances to score which we missed. Then we sat back and tried to keep the ball in midfield.

Sebes: At half-time everyone was complaining about the ref … Isn’t it odd we always seem to get British referees?

Puskás pushes his plate away and directly addresses Sebes.

Puskás: We gave two silly goals away. We should have pressed on then looking for the third to kill the game off. I got an equalizer right at the death but that Welsh linesman [Mervyn] Griffiths … disallowed it for offside. Even the English ref Billy Ling had given it.

Sebes: If Hungary had won there would have been no counter-revolution but a powerful thrust in the building of socialism in the country …

Puskás snorts and slurps down a small beer.

In 1956, as tanks suppressed an anti-Soviet rebellion in Budapest—these events were commemorated just weeks ago in 50th-anniversary celebrations—Puskás found himself with Kispest in Bilbao, Spain, for a European Cup match. Friendlies were arranged as gestures of sympathy for Hungarians in their struggle. Puskás participated in the fund-raising exhibitions, ensuring that he would face an 18-month ban on a return to Budapest. He defected and, ever in fear of retribution, would not go back home until 1981, following terms as manager at, among other locales, the Vancouver Royals of the North American Soccer League, Panathinaikos, Colo Colo of Chile, AEK Athens, and al-Masry of Egypt.


Puskás cradles Szöllósi’s biography on its publication in 2005. “The reason why we came out with this book,” said Szöllósi, “is to give the country back a real hero that was torn away by the political storms.” A documentary, Puskás: The Legend of the Magical Magyar, is scheduled for release in 2007. (www.ma.hu)

At Real Madrid, which Puskás joined in 1958 following a two-year UEFA ban instigated by the Hungarian football association, he began at 31 a second phase to his playing career and the phase that gained him the most notoriety. According to György Szöllósi, author of Puskás (Budapest, 2005), the unplanned move to Spain forced the player out of his comfort zone. He lost some 40 lbs. and “had to become a real professional” (Márton Dinnyés, “Restoring the Puskás Legend,” uefa.com, 17 Nov 06), at the same time conscious that he was being used as a negative exemplar by propagandistic media at home. He was labeled fat, a smuggler, a deserter; then, use of his name was censored, banned from mention in the official press for 15 years.

Yet supporters at home could still follow his exploits and the European dominance of Real Madrid via Radio Free Europe and the BBC World Service. For Madrid, Puskás scored 324 goals in 372 games in all competitions, providing the finishing touch for creators Alfredo Di Stéfano, Francisco Gento and Luis Del Sol. Accounts vary concerning the number of games and goals to his credit, although for both Madrid and Kispest he came close to a goal per game over his career. He scored 83 goals in 84 games for Hungary and, after gaining Spanish citizenship, played four international matches for Spain (three at the 1962 World Cup) without scoring.

Puskás helped Real Madrid to three European Cups, the most notorious before 130,000 at Hampden Park in Glasgow in 1960 (see Hugh McIlvanney, “McIlvanney Reports from Hampden, 1960,” The Scotsman, 18 Nov 06). Puskás scored four times in a 7–3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt that readers commenting on McIlvanney’s account recall had long-lasting effects on the game in Scotland. Football clubs received a tape of the match to show as an expression of the game’s ideal. The game featured during film nights at community centers (brief clips appear at the Real Madrid website; registration required).

Puskás made one of his final public appearances at Hampden Park in May 2002 at the Champions League final between, appropriately, Real Madrid and another German side, Bayer Leverkusen. As Hughes of the International Herald Tribune remembers, Puskás arrived with a doctor and nurse as companions, with the sense already having dawned that Puskás “will not know where he is or why he is here.” Yet Hughes sensed a flicker of recognition in Puskás’s face after Zinédine Zidane swiveled home a game-winner for Madrid.

The goal was a volley, left-footed, from outside the penalty area, with extraordinary power and timing. It was almost a replica of one scored by Puskás in that same stadium wearing the same shirt 42 years earlier.

Mexico | Sánchez accepts naturalized players
Named coach of Mexico on Nov 16, former Mexico and Real Madrid striker Hugo Sánchez said he would consider naturalized Mexicans, despite having objected to former coach Ricardo La Volpe‘s policy of including non-natives. (Reuters, 17 Nov 06)


Miguel Juan, 35, with, from left, children Andres, 4, Maria, 5, Rosenda, 2, and Margarita, 3. (Michael Wetzel | The Decatur Daily)

USA | Hispanics find ‘home’ in Decatur, Ala., soccer leagues
Michael Wetzel reports on Liga Revelación in the Tennessee Valley city, where Sunday soccer reminds immigrant families of old routines. More than 500 Hispanics participate in Decatur leagues, with Liga Revelación boasting 24 teams in two divisions. (See earlier reports on immigrant leagues, 23 Aug 06 and 11 Apr 06).

Migrants, many of whom work in the poultry industry or construction, savor the weekends, which becomes a family affair based on food and fútbol. Miguel Juan (see above), from Guatemala, says that he and friends refer to the park fields as “little Guatemala,” “little Mexico,” or “home.” Says Ricardo Lagunas, 19, of Atlético Juniors:

I can’t imagine life without soccer. Everyone out here speaks Spanish. Actually you can say it is Mexico, only the fields in Mexico are not this good. (The Decatur Daily, 16 Nov 06)

M. Antony

Israel | Columnist says, ‘Save our game’
Jerrold Kessel, quoting Marc Antony, among others, cries out for integrity in football, “the people’s game.” “[S]occer is in mortal danger of being wrecked, annihilated, tossed onto the trash heap of unsavory pursuits. The uncouth, the unpleasant, the unsmiling that is so fast becoming soccer is replacing the joy, the fun, the unadulterated pleasure. …”

The sport, in Kessel’s view, compares unfavorably with rugby, where one would not feign injury or manhandle a ref. He cites with approval the tablet at Rugby School in England, which cites the transformative moment in 1823 when one William Ebb Ellis,

with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game. (Ha’aretz, 17 Nov 06)

Scotland | Thank you, Professor, but tell us something we don’t know
Glasgow Evening Times columnist Alan Davidson thinks little of a Glasgow University report highlighting sectarianism in Scottish football (17 Nov 06). The document is “about as illuminating as a pencil torch in the depths of the Atlantic,” writes Davidson of the fans’ consultation executed by Bert Moorhouse of the Research Unit in Football Studies.

Writes Moorhouse, “A generally expressed view was that, while the rest of Scotland has “moved on,’ the Glasgow region is still locked into an outmoded, strange, and unpleasant, “tradition.’ ” The tradition to which Moorhouse refers of course is the division by religion, expressed most starkly among supporters of Rangers and Celtic football clubs, the Old Firm. Moorhouse suggests, among other proposals, merging the two teams’ anti-sectarian programs and reconfiguring pre-game and halftime match activity to limit sectarian chanting.

In more positive news, the Times of London reports that more than 10,000 children to date have taken part in the Old Firm Alliance, a football program that allows Protestant and Roman Catholic kids to play together (“University Report into Sectarianism Sparks Controversy,” 17 Nov 06).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (2)

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  1. The problem of sectarianism will refuse to go away until the two clubs actually start punishing their fans—home and away.

    All the PR schemes and window dressing in the world won’t change the fact that for an away fan Glasgow is a fearsome place to go. Or that their travelling support is even worse.

    It’s odd that the two fierce rivals are joined together by such a sickening and ridiculous problem.

  2. [...] The senior team would not play a competitive game again until Apr 1937, the month and year of Ferenc Puskás’s birth. At the 1938 World Cup final—which was in Paris—Hungary lost 2–4 to [...]

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