If anyone ever tries to tell you that Lionel Messi cannot be considered among football’s all-time greats simply because he has not won the World Cup, politely point them in the direction of Ferenc Puskás.
Puskás isn’t the only legend who never won football’s greatest honour, as Alfredo di Stefano, Eusebio and Johan Cruyff can attest. But few players have defined an era of football, and defined their country’s entire footballing history, quite like the Magyar magician.
Born in Budapest in 1927 to German parents, Puskás began his career with Kispest AC, which later became Budapest Honvéd when it was absorbed by the Hungarian Ministry of Defence. Every player was assigned a military rank, with Puskás becoming a major, and so the famous moniker ‘the Galloping Major’ was born.
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Puskás made his club debut at 16 and scored on his first start for Hungary at 18. Four times he was the top scorer in Hungary, and his 50 goals in 1948 was the most of any player in the world that year. But the Iron Curtain masked Hungary’s best-kept secret, and it wasn’t until 1952 that Puskás could finally showcase his talents on the world stage.
Although the World Cup was starting to gain prestige, many still regarded the Olympic Games as the pinnacle of international football achievement. The gold medal in 1952 went to Hungary, for whom Puskás scored four goals in five games. Suddenly, the world knew all about the Magical Magyars and their talismanic genius.
Some were not convinced though, including Great Britain, whose Olympic team consisted entirely of amateurs, only two of whom went on to play for England. And these Hungarians had the cheek to play actual professionals?! Clearly, this would not stand, and Hungary were promptly invited to Wembley to receive a damn good thrashing.
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Nándor Hidegkuti scored a hat-trick, but the name on English lips after the game was not his. Puskás had to settle for two goals, but the first was truly sublime. With Billy Wright racing in to tackle him in the box, Puskás casually dragged the ball back, leaving Wright charging past him “like a fire-engine going to the wrong fire,” as the Times reported.
“None of these players meant anything to us,” said Sir Bobby Robson, who was yet to make his England debut. “We didn’t know about Puskás. They called him the 'Galloping Major' because he was in the army – how could this guy serving for the Hungarian army come to Wembley and rifle us to defeat?”
Still England didn’t get the message, and demanded a rematch, this time to be played in Budapest. Hungary were clearly very impressive, but come on – they couldn’t score six again, could they? No, they couldn’t. Puskás and co. scored seven goals instead, and England managed just one in response. It remains the Three Lions’ heaviest ever defeat.
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Their reputation was only enhanced by a 9-0 victory over South Korea in their opening game in Switzerland, with Puskás scoring the first and last goals.
Next up was a tougher test - in theory - against Germany. But any team playing against Puskás were just guests at Hungary’s party. The Magyars led 3-1 at half-time, with Puskás scoring the second, before they extended their lead to 5-1 after the interval. And then disaster struck.
Puskás tormented the German defence all afternoon, and eventually Werner Liebrich had enough. Unable to match Puskás for pace, he dealt with him the only way he knew how – with a crunching, no-holds-barred tackle which left Puskás wincing. He played on through the pain as Hungary won 8-3, but the damage had been done: Puskás had suffered a hairline ankle fracture.
It kept him out of Hungary’s wins over Brazil and Uruguay in the knockout stages, and he wasn’t fully recovered by the time of the final against Germany. But Puskás was desperate to play, and manager Gusztáv Sebes acquiesced to his demands. After all, 60% of Ferenc Puskás is still better than 100% of most players.
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At first, it seemed like the right decision. Hungary flew out of the traps, and Puskás put them ahead within six minutes after Sándor Kocsis's shot had deflected into his path. Minutes later, Germany got themselves in a mess at the back, and Zoltán Czibor profited. A repeat of the 8-3 scoreline from the group stages did not seem out of the question.
That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, Germany produced an astonishing comeback, Max Morlock reducing the arrears before Helmut Rahn scored twice. Puskás was a shadow of himself, but even so he nearly proved to be the saviour, scoring a late goal which was ruled out for offside – a call that Puskás would dispute until his dying day.
The Hungarian team was ripped apart after the national revolution of 1956, calling time early on many of their best players’ careers. Puskás moved to Spain, where he won three European Cups with Real Madrid, most famously scoring four in the 1960 final against Eintracht Frankfurt.
On this day in 2006, Ferenc #puskas died aged 79.— HUNDRED|SIXTY (@HundredSixtyy) November 17, 2017
He has the second-most international goals scored (84), just behind Ali Daei (109). 🇭🇺⚽
🏆Olympic champion in 1982
🏆3 European Cups
🏆10 national championships
🏅8 top scoring individual honors 🥈World Cup runner up in 1984 pic.twitter.com/jn8B7FQLOA
After playing for Spain at the 1962 World Cup, Puskás hung up his boots in 1966. An unsuccessful coaching career followed, although it did culminate in fitting fashion when he briefly took charge of Hungary in 1993.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2000, and in 2006, Ferenc Puskás died in his home city at the age of 79. He was given a state funeral, where his coffin was transported from the Ferenc Puskás Stadium, named in his honour, to Heroes’ Square for a military salute. One last ride for the Galloping Major.