Illustration by Federico Manasse
The parameters for defining greatness are increasingly measured quantitatively. Players are judged by trophies won, goals scored and appearances amassed. But can such a mutable construct solely be reduced to numbers? Surely true greatness is a distillation of footballing supremacy and something more nebulous. The truly great player transcends the banality of statistics and holds a cultural significance that goes beyond the field of play. Ferenc Puskás encapsulates this nuanced interpretation.
Born in 1927, Puskás’ path to greatness was torturous. He grew up amidst the social and political upheaval of World War Two, and later the dictatorship of Hungarian Communist leader, Mátyás Rákosi. His career was interrupted by war, revolution and defection. Despite this, he still became the century’s most prolific scorer, registering 511 goals in 533 top-flight appearances for Budapest Honvéd and Real Madrid.
On the international stage, his ratio of 84 goals in 85 games remains unparalleled, putting him ahead of Pelé, Gerd Müller, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. In recognition of this prowess, FIFA created the Puskás Award, a yearly honour given to the player judged to have scored the most beautiful goal in world football.
As a player, the Hungarian had poise, power, flair and one of the most ferocious left feet the game has ever seen. More poignantly, during an era of regimented authoritarianism, he provided individual ingenuity and joie de vivre. Nurtured on a rustic plot of land in Kispest – where he and his childhood companion József Bozsik would play with a ball made of rags – these attributes convinced the Communist apparatus to build a team around the ‘Galloping Major’.
Puskás was nicknamed as such whilst playing for his boyhood club Honvéd (formerly Kispest), the Hungarian Army team who in the early 1950s won five domestic titles and brushed aside all international opposition. Under the state’s policy of centralisation, Honvéd had become a de facto national team, with the majority of Hungary’s football stars joining Puskás and Boszik at the club. This allowed national team coach, Gusztáv Sebes, to foster a golden generation, with Puskás as their magisterial major.
Original Series | The 50
The Aranycsapat, Hungary’s Golden Team, developed a pioneering and tactically fluid style of football that took the world by storm. This was devastatingly demonstrated during the 6-3 evisceration of England at Wembley in 1953. Nándor Hidegkuti scored a hat-trick, but Puskás stole the show with one moment of genius; a nonchalant drag-back past England captain Billy Wright, followed by a left-foot cannonball into the top-corner – the goal of the century. Six months later, Hungary beat England 7-1 in Budapest, Puskás again scoring twice.
Unfortunately, the Galloping Major never claimed the grandest prize, as the Magical Magyars lost the 1954 World Cup final 3-2 to West Germany, an upset so great that the game was dubbed the ‘Miracle of Bern’. The defeat had revolutionary repercussions, as Hungarians piled onto the streets of Budapest to vent their anger at the Communist’s totalitarian rule.
In 1956, revolution truly broke out and Puskás, at the time touring South America with Honvéd, did not return. After the revolution was quashed, Puskás went from poster boy to pariah in the eyes of the Communist leadership. Outlawed from Hungary and banned by FIFA for defecting, Puskás spent a year in the wilderness, until Real Madrid gambled on the 31-year-old in 1958.
It was a remarkable comeback and one that saw Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano form one of the deadliest partnerships in European football. In eight years, Puskás (nicknamed Pancho) won five consecutive Spanish titles and scored seven goals in two European Cup finals, winning one and losing one. His four goals against Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 final remains one of the European Cup’s seminal performances, and one that moved a young Sir Alex Ferguson – present at the game – to later conclude Puskás was “without question one of the greatest players of all time”. In Madrid, Pancho remains immortal.
After Puskás was finally allowed to return to Hungary in 1981, his reputation was rehabilitated and he quickly entered into the realm of national myth. If anything, Hungarian football’s decline and ongoing malaise since the golden era has only intensified this reverence. When Puskás died in 2006, the Hungarian parliament broke off its session and tens of thousands attended his funeral. His tomb is located in Budapest’s Szent István Basilica, the national stadium is known as the Puskás Ferenc Stadion, the football mad Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, founded a team in his childhood village called Puskás Akadémia, and they play in the Pancho Arena.
Puskás was an era-defining player, who set era-defining records, all of which will continue to inspire Hungarians for eras to come. This was achieved under prolonged political unrest and the spectre of persecution. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that Hungarians consider Puskás to be one of the most important figures in the history of the nation