Monday 11 December 2017

Magical Magyar mastered the art of scoring at will

Alan Aherne

Puskás by György Szöllősi
Puskás by György Szöllősi

This column dealt with a sportsman's experience of the Communist regime in East Germany recently when a book charting the cycling career of Dieter Wiedemann was reviewed.

This week there's a return to that fascinating topic and, given that the Champions League knockout rounds are upon us, there's no better life to look back on than that of Hungarian goal machine Ferenc Puskás, one of the greatest footballers in the game's fabled history.

His second coming as a player will be best remembered for his incredible four-goal haul in the European Cup final of 1960 when Real Madrid defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in Glasgow.

And just to show that he wasn't losing his touch as his career at the top level neared an end, he hit a hat-trick in the decider two years later but it wasn't enough to prevent Benfica from taking the spoils on a 5-3 scoreline.

Puskás was in exile from his native Hungary at that stage, having defected in the wake of the Uprising of 1956. And while he was revered by football fans as the country's greatest-ever sportsman, it's sad to relate that the fractious political situation meant that he didn't return to the place he called home for quarter of a century.

Puskás had helped Hungary to the 1952 Olympic football crown, scoring a goal and missing a penalty in a 2-0 win over Yugoslavia.

And the game that made him a household name worldwide arrived in the next year when he hit the net twice in his country's 6-3 defeat of England in Wembley which caused a sensation at the time.

One of those strikes has been widely labelled the 'goal of the century', thanks in the main to an audacious dragback with the sole of Puskás' left foot which made legendary defender Billy Wright look like a chump.

The return game on home soil the following year saw Hungary hammer England 7-1, with Puskás once again on target twice.

One of his few disappointments from that era, but a big one nonetheless, was the 3-2 loss to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final. Allegations were made afterwards of drug use by some of the winning team, while Puskás - nicknamed Ocsi - had been 'softened up' in an earlier group game between the countries.

It was felt that West Germany had placed little emphasis on the outcome, safe in the knowledge that they would still qualify, but an injury inflicted on Puskás saw him miss the quarter- and semi-final. Although he returned for the final, scoring once and having another goal disallowed, he didn't manage to get his country over the line.

There was no reason to believe that another opportunity wouldn't arise in 1958, but it wasn't to be. Puskás chose exile in Spain when the communist regime laid down the law after the 1956 Uprising, risking a possible death sentence if he ever returned.

He had to sit it out from football for a year after being banned by FIFA, and he had turned 30 before he returned with Real Madrid. However, his class endured, inspiring the club to three European Cups, five Spanish championships and four individual leading league goalscorer awards.

A nomadic coaching career brought him to five continents after he retired, and he was finally able to return to Hungary after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Indeed, he managed his national side in four games, with the sole win coming against the Republic of Ireland.

Sadly, serious illness took hold and he died in 2006.

By normal biography standards, this is a thin volume of just 153 pages, but it does a truly great player justice.

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