The Galloping Major

Ferenc Puskas was playing for his local team, Kispest, at the age of 16 and was a regular Hungary choice as a teenager.

The first time I saw Ferenc Puskas play was in Rome in May 1953 on the inauguration of the Olympic Stadium; originally built to his self-glorification by Mussolini but not finished. The Hungarians strolled supremely past an Italian "team of the heart," so called because it was chiefly composed of Lazio and Roma players. It was beaten 3-0 but did not disgrace itself though this did not stop a cynical Demochristian Government, on the eve of elections in which they would do poorly, from immediately plonking a ban on foreign players, as if this were the cause of an honourable defeat.

Puskas scored, of course. He usually did, with an amazing total of 83 goals for Hungary. I wrote at the time in an English magazine `Sport Express' that England should beware, the Hungarians were due at Wembley in November. And of course they thrashed England 6-3, the first foreign team ever to win on English soil.

Puskas, their captain, of the ferocious left-foot, got a couple of the goals. Before the game the garrulous Deputy Minister of Sports, Gustav Sebes, the supremo of Hungarian soccer, gave a long-winded dressing room talk to the team. Once he had gone Puskas told them to forget it all, and gave them a brief address himself.

Especially memorable was the goal he scored when he drew the ball back with the sole of his boot prior to shooting and in the words of `The Times' correspondent, Geoffrey Green, England's skipper Billy Wright "went past him like a fire engine going to the wrong fire."

Puskas was already playing for his local team, Kispest, at the age of 16 and was a regular Hungary choice as a teenager. Kispest was amalgamated by the Communist regime into the Honved, Army team, and Puskas, very quick in body as well as mind before he put on weight, being nicknamed The Galloping Major. Not that the members of the team did much soldiering.

Hungary were red hot favourites to win the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland and they surely would have done so had not Werner Liebrich, the German centre-half, not kicked and lamed Puskas when the teams met in their second game. Hungary won by an avalanche of goals, 8-3, but in FIFA's madman's flytrap of a competition, they would actually meet again in the Final in Berne. Puskas played when he shouldn't have. Out of the team till then, it had functioned perfectly well without him, the left-winger Zoltan Czibor taking Puskas' place at inside-left. Puskas wasn't match fit, but his writ ran: and he insisted, too, on other changes which arguably cost the team dear.

In the event, Hungary roared into a 2-0 lead but Puskas missed chances he would normally have taken. This though at the very end, with Hungary 3-2 down, he typically raced through to score what looked like a good goal. But it was ruled out by the Welsh linesman Mervyn Griffiths and the English referee, Bill Ling. Afterwards Puskas told of seeing German players vomiting in the dressing room.

It was widely believed at the time that they had been on drugs; something seemingly confirmed a few years ago when a dressing room attendant revealed that he had found syringes in the dressing room drains.

In 1956, at the time of the Hungarian revolution, Puskas and Honved found themselves on tour abroad. He, Czibor and Sandor "Golden Head" Kocsis stayed there, and after a two-year suspension, all three played in Spain, Ferenc for Real Madrid.

There he continued to score in abundance and was shrewd enough to work out a modus vivendi with the team's dominant star, the tireless centre-forward, Alfredo Di Stefano, always kind of the castle. Di Stefano had frozen out other stars but the tale goes that when he and Puskas were neck and neck as joint top-scorers, in line for the so-called Primera Liga, Pichichi, title, Puskas, in the last game, spurned an easy chance, rolling the ball to Di Stefano, who thus prevailed.

The two were in deadly form when one saw them demolish the defence of Eintracht Frankfurt in the European Cup Final of 1960 at Hampden Park. Puskas scored four of the goals, Di Stefano three and the Scots crowd, some 130,000 strong, stayed behind to roar their applause.

Two years later, in Amsterdam, one admired a first-half hat-trick by Puskas in the final against the holders, Benfica. Not least the way he trotted rather than galloped half the length of the field, to exploit an exquisite through pass by Di Stefano. But Benfica, inspired by the equally dynamic, right-footed, shooting of the young Eusebio, won 5-3. The story goes that afterwards in a dramatic gesture Puskas gave him his jersey but the only time I met Puskas, fittingly on the Wembley turf, he brusquely denied it.

How sad that he should die in Budapest, which eventually welcomed him back, in poverty and with Alzheimer's. Sad, too, that Real Madrid, whose President had paid him gushing tribute, should take almost double the money for expenses from a charity game they played for him in Budapest than they donated to Puskas himself.

He played three games for Spain in the 1962 Chilean World Cup, but didn't enjoy it. I still recall seeing him grinning and eating monkey nuts in a street doorway, the night ecstatic Chilean fans were celebrating their team's third place. Ever the irrepressible Budapest urchin, with a left-foot unparalleled even, surely, by Diego Maradona.