He carved a niche for himself

Puskas scored an astonishing 83 goals in 84 games for his country.

GULU EZEKIEL

FERENC PUSKAS was world football's first superstar. He ruled the game for his native Hungary and his club Real Madrid in the 1950s with his magical left foot and prodigious goal scoring ability. He scored an astonishing 83 goals in 84 games for his country.

Today the `Galloping Major' as he was known around the football world, is a shell of a man, virtually oblivious to his surroundings, being cared 24 hours a day in a hospital in Budapest.

Born in the Hungarian capital on April 2, 1927, Puskas began by playing barefoot with his friend Jozsef Bozsik in the town of Kispest with a rag ball made from his mother's stockings. The two friends would go on to play for the great Hungary team of the Fifties, known as `The Immortals' and `The Magnificent Magyars.'

He first played for Kispest, also his father's old club at the age of 16 and just two years later made his international debut. Hungary had been a football superpower even before World War II and had been beaten 4-2 by Italy in the third World Cup final in France in 1938. The Soviet Union's grip on Eastern Europe after the War changed the face of football too. Suddenly it was military teams that garnered all the glory. As a result, Kispest in 1948 was turned around and transformed into Honved, the team of the Hungarian army. In his very first season with the newly named club, Puskas scored 50 goals for the first of his four national club titles.

He also led his country to Olympic gold when they defeated Yugoslavia in the final at Helsinki in 1952. The Hungarian team was essentially built around five remarkable players. Gyula Grosics in goal, Bozsik at half-back, and forwards Sandor `Golden Head' Kocsis, Nandor Hidegkuti and Puskas. They began a revolutionary development in attack. While inside forwards Kocsis and Puskas were the main thrust of the attack, centre-forward Hidegkuti played deep.

It was these tactics that on 25 November 1953 turned the football world on its head. The Magyars stunned England 6-3 in front of an awe-struck and shell-shocked full house at Wembley. It marked the first defeat of England at home by a side outside of the British Isles.

The match was termed an exhibition but its impact was felt around the world.

The home side was brimming with confidence while the visitors' camp was fraught with tension on the eve of the match. According to Grosics: "One could almost feel the fear and concern amongst us."

Indeed the photograph of the two teams being led onto the field by Puskas and the experienced Billy Wright shows the England captain beaming and the Hungarian a picture of tension with his grim-faced team-members following him. Within less than a minute, it was the Hungarians who drew first blood. A series of dazzling moves in double-quick time left the English defence bewildered and before they knew what had hit them, Hidegkuti had smashed the ball past goal-keeper Gil Merrick.

Jackie Sewell within 13 minutes restored parity and it seemed normal service had been resumed. But it was merely a false dawn.

Hidegkuti and Puskas struck two hammer blows in quick succession. Puskas rated this goal his favourite of all time. One journalist wrote that "Wright went past him like a fire engine going to the wrong fire," such was the magic of Puskas' left foot. Bozsick's deflected free-kick made it 4-1 before Stan Mortensen reduced the lead just before half-time.

AP

The home dressing room was a subdued place. On the other side, the Hungarians were a picture of barely suppressed elation. The shock in both teams was perhaps of the same magnitude.

But more shocks were to follow. Bozsick made it 5-2. Then a smart pass by Puskas gave Hidegkuti his third goal. The Wembley crowd couldn't believe it and even though Alf Ramsey scored from the spot, the 6-3 score-line remains one of football history's most remarkable.

The celebrations continued for days. Back home, the train carrying the heroes was mobbed by adoring crowds at every station.

And it was no one-off either. Just six months later in the return fixture, Hungary did even better, this time winning 7-1.

But in the 1954 World Cup Puskas and his men were to taste bitter defeat. They were stunned 3-2 by West Germany, one of the biggest upsets in a final.

That score was all the more amazing considering the same two teams had clashed in the league stage with the Hungarians running out winners by a huge 8-3 margin. This, after crushing South Korea 9-0 in their opening tie.

But Puskas got injured during a tackle with Germany's centre half Werner Liebrich and was forced to miss the quarter-final against Brazil. This match degenerated into a free-for-all between the teams after the final whistle and was dubbed 'The Battle of Berne'. Puskas could only watch from the bench as his team won 4-2.

He missed the semifinal too as champions Uruguay were dethroned 4-2 after extra-time and Hungary were in the final.

Though not fully fit, Puskas declared himself available for the match. He was a bit slow due his ankle injury, but scored the second goal to put Hungary 2-0 up after just eight minutes. Germany then stormed back to make 3-2. Puskas scored again five minutes from time... but his goal was ruled off side.

Political upheavals back home meant that the Magnificent Magyars would never again regain their glory. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 with Soviet tanks on the streets of Budapest saw to that.

Puskas and many other sportspersons defected to the West. Real Madrid signed him up in 1958 though by now he was grossly over-weight and lacking in match fitness at the age of 31. However, he was still a force to reckon with in the famous all-white strip of the Spanish giants. It was like a second life for Puskas.

He struck up a wonderful partnership with the Argentinean Alfredo de Stefano. Four times he was leading scorer in the Spanish championship. Real's golden run in the European Cup final saw them lift the title five years in a row, from 1956 to 1960. Puskas and de Stefano turned on the magic in front of 1,35,000 spectators at Hampden Park in 1960. In one of the finest exhibitions of attacking football ever seen, Real crushed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. De Stefano performed a hat-trick. But Puskas went one better — he hammered in four! Puskas also performed a hat-trick in the European Cup final in 1962. But Portugal's Benfica won 5-3 and Puskas was 35 at the time.

In 39 European matches for Real, he scored an amazing 35 goals. And all this by a man who was everything a footballer should not be — short, plump, useless with headers and capable of scoring only with his left foot. It was as if football logic was being turned on its head every time Puskas stepped on to the field.

He represented Spain in the 1962 World Cup, his third in all. Four years later, he bowed out of competitive football with one of the most consistent goal scoring records of all time.

The disease that has today robbed Puskas of his memory is a form of the dreaded Alzheimer's. But it would be a sin if football fans around the world too deigned to forget his golden deeds.