A physical alien among Adonises trundled, panting, into his new club’s dressing room one morning in 1958.
A light session of fitness drills, in which he had only semi-partaken, had caused the sweat-saturated jersey of the man described by former England manager Ron Greenwood as 'a roly-poly little fellow who looked as if he did most of his training in restaurants' to cling inflexibly to his upper torso. After struggling to remove it, he headed for the showers.
His Real Madrid team-mates, an assembly of the world’s finest players, wondered what on earth their superiors had been thinking when signing Ferenc Puskas. He had not played professionally for over two years; he was, at 31, at an age when footballers were, epochally, past their best; they had heard stories about his penchant for a drink; the chubby frame which had failed to prevent him terrorising opponents during the first half of the decade had thickened considerably. Surely he could no longer make magic happen with a football?
They rapidly discovered Puskas could with a far more immoderate object. “I threw him a bar of soap and, without hesitating, he caught it on his left foot, flicked it on to his knee, and began a juggling act!” recalled Francisco Gento. “We stood there in amazement – it was a bar of soap!”
Naturally, if Puskas could make a bar of soap sing to his unique tune, he could direct a football with military precision akin to his army background. His weapon of choice was a left foot that possessed inexplicable power and accuracy; his target was opponents’ nets. In total he rippled them 512 times in 528 games for Los Merengues, helping them win, among other honours, three European Cups and five league titles in the process.
Puskas’s time at the Bernabeu was merely the epilogue to an astonishing career. It began at Kispest in 1943 and during 12 years with the club – it was renamed Honved in 1949 – he managed 357 goals in 354 games and collected five Hungarian league winners’ medals.
But if those statistics earned him national celebrity, it was his performances for his country that earned him global immortality. Puskas inspired Hungary to Olympic gold in 1952, a 6-3 victory over England at Wembley the following year and a 7-1 reverse of the same opponents in Budapest six months later, as well as the Central European International Cup title, which the Magical Magyars won courtesy of a 3-0 defeat of Italy in Rome. During these halcyon days the Hungarians also managed a 32-match unbeaten streak, which was ended by West Germany’s 3-2 triumph in the 1954 FIFA World Cup™ Final. Who knows what would have transpired had Puskas, who hobbled through the game, not sustained an injury in an 8-3 demolition of the eventual champions in the group stage?
Ultimately, Puskas netted an astounding 83 goals in 84 internationals, yet quantity was superseded by quality. “He scored countless goals after dribbling past opponents within spaces that didn’t exist” in the words of his long-time Hungary team-mate Nandor Hidegkuti, which is something Billy Wright can pay testament to. In that celebrated 6-3 victory at Wembley, ‘The Galloping Major’ employed a breathtaking drag-back to outfox the legendary England centre-back, before thumping the ball home. "Nine times out of ten I'd have won that ball. But this was the tenth, and my opponent was the incomparable Puskas," rued Wright.
Puskas, however, scored an even greater percentage of his wonder goals with long-range thunderbolts. “Puskas scared the hell out of goalkeepers from the 30- to 35-metre range,” said his former Real colleague Raymond Kopa. “He did not just have a powerful shot, but precision as well. Even from that range he could put the ball exactly where he wanted.”
Zoltan Czibor, his former Hungary team-mate, once said: "His goals did not just come with incredible consistensy, they also came with incredible beauty. He is one of the greatest goalscorers in history, but he is the greatest scorer of wonder goals.”
Wonder goals will be on the considerable menu in Zurich tonight, when either Hamit Altintop, Matthew Burrows, Linus Hallenius, Lionel Messi, Samir Nasri, Neymar, Arjen Robben, Siphiwe Tshabalala, Giovanni van Bronckhorst or Kumi Yokoyama will have their effort crowned the best of 2010 – and revel in the prestige of collecting a prize, the FIFA Puskas Award, incepted to honour an outstanding marksman and person.
“He’s always got time for everyone. That smile, that charm… everybody loves Puskas,” said his former Hungary coach Gusztav Sebes in 1969. That same year over 80,000 attended his testimonial against Rapid Vienna; two days later less than 32,000 watched the European Cup final between Ajax and AC Milan.