The man who changed the game

On a murky November afternoon in 1953 Ferenc Puskas, who died in Budapest last Friday aged 79, helped to rouse English football from a complacency born of insularity and blinkered thinking.

The awakening was rude and embarrassing. In winning 6-3, Puskas’s Hungarians not only became the first foreign team to beat England at Wembley; they changed English football thinking forever.

As Puskas pointed out: “We demonstrated the golden rule of football, and that is: the good player keeps playing even without the ball.
All the time he is placing himself so that when the ball comes he is able to make good use of it.”

This is elementary stuff now, but 53 years ago, to English eyes, it was football from another planet.

Ron Greenwood, then an attacking centre-half at Chelsea but already set on a career in coaching, was mesmerised. Greenwood, like England’s defence, was bowled over by Puskas, who he described as “a roly-poly little fellow who looked as if he did most of his training in restaurants”.

Puskas had two football careers divided by the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Early reports of the conflict said that Puskas, a Hungarian army major, had died fighting the Soviet invaders. In fact Honved, the team that made up the bulk of the national side, was abroad on tour and Puskas was one of several players who decided to stay in the West.

He played on for eight more years at Real Madrid, scoring 512 times for Real in 528 matches and appearing for Spain in the 1962 World Cup.

The biggest paradox of Puskas’s career is that, while his Hungary team ruled the football world in terms of quality, they failed to win the 1954 World Cup. West Germany won the final 3-2, with Puskas having a last-minute equaliser disallowed for offside.

“Inwardly I wept at the result but my congratulations for Fritz Walter, West Germany’s captain, were sincere,” Puskas recalled. “The loser must have no spite.”

Not a bad epitaph for the Galloping Major.—Â

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