Deadly spearhead of the 'Magic Magyars' - the first national team to win on English soil - and club-mate of Alfredo di Stefano at Real Madrid, the Hungarian Ferenc Puskas was nothing short of a living legend. With an incredible 83 goals in 84 games for his country and 324 in 372 appearances for the Spanish club, the phenomenal talent of this prolific attacking midfielder is beyond dispute.
Short and stocky, with limited aerial ability and strictly left-footed, Puskas was far from the stereotypical striker. But by dint of an amazing eye for goal, he established himself as one of the linchpins of the Hungarian side which dominated word football in the early 1950s.
Born in Budapest on 2 April 1927, Ferenc Puskas Biro inherited his passion for the game from his father, himself a player with the Kispest club that was later renamed Honved. From a very early age, the beautiful game became more than a mere pastime for this lad of uncommon ability. At the tender age of nine, he joined Kispest as a junior, making his first-team debut just seven years later in 1943. Despite coming in for considerable criticism for keeping hold of the ball too long, he soon became the first name on the team sheet.
Two years later, in August 1945, Puskas made his debut for Hungary in a 5-2 win against Austria, scoring his first international goal. "I think a good player has maybe three options in mind when he's on the ball. Puskas always has at least five," enthused the Hungarian right-back at the time, Jeno Buzanszky.
The Wembley wonder-show
Puskas quickly became known as "the Galloping Major", a reference to his club's links with the Hungarian army. But first and foremost, it was his displays for the national side, made up mainly of Honved players, which earned him fame throughout Europe and beyond. In 1952, he won the gold medal at the Helsinki Olympic Games and the following year, the Magyars inflicted a crushing 6-3 defeat on England at their Wembley fortress.
In this resounding triumph, the first ever by a foreign side at the stronghold of English football, Puskas netted the third Hungarian goal with a strike he would later describe as "one of the finest of my career". Before beating the English goalkeeper Gil Merrick, Puskas afforded himself the luxury of embarrassing the English captain Billy Wright with a superb drag-back.
So at the start of the 1954 FIFA World Cup™ in Switzerland, Hungary had naturally become the team everybody wanted to avoid. Puskas and his cohorts justified their favourites tag by rifling home 17 goals in their first two games, including a spectacular 8-3 success over Germany, the side they would meet again in the final of the tournament. Having suffered an ankle injury, Puskas did not play again until the Final, when he was again on the score sheet. But it proved insufficient for Hungary who, after leading 2-0, eventually slipped to their first defeat in four years. Two years later on 14 October 1956, the end of an era came as Puskas bade farewell to the national team in a game against Austria, scoring his 83rd and last international goal.
After the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Puskas, in Spain with Honved at the time for a European Cup match, decided to relocate to the West. Within a year, he had carved out another niche for himself at the very highest level and etched his name in the European football record books once more. In his first full season with Real Madrid, he finished as the club's top scorer ahead of his great friend Alfredo Di Stefano , with whom he enjoyed an almost-telepathic understanding on the pitch.
The partnership with Di Stefano
Crowned top scorer in the Spanish championship no fewer than four times, he unfailingly delivered the spectacular end product for what was an exceptional generation of players. Among his numerous exploits was a goal against the Uruguayans of Penarol, the first in the history of the Intercontinental Cup. But even more memorably, during the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden Park in Glasgow, he scored four goals against Eintracht Frankfurt in a 7-3 win for Madrid, with Di Stefano netting the other three. This game was one of the iconic moments in the history of club football.
After taking Spanish citizenship in 1961 at the age of 31, he played four games in the colours of his adopted country, including one win and two defeats at the 1962 FIFA World Cup in Chile.
That same year, Real Madrid this time lost in the European Cup Final against Portugal's Benfica, despite another hat-trick from the 35-year-old Puskas. On 30 June 1967, he finally hung up his boots, before embarking on a career as a coach which saw him contest yet another European Cup Final as boss of Panathinaikos (2-0 defeat by Ajax). Puskas' new career also took in stints with AEK Athens, Sol (Paraguay) and Colo Colo (Chile), before he returned to Hungary in 1993, where he also had a short spell in charge of the national team.
When he eventually retired, he settled in Budapest where, since 2001, the national team has been playing in a stadium named in his honour. One of the last-surviving heroes of 1950's football passed away after a long battle with illness on the morning of Friday 17 November 2006.
FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter said: "I have great sadness in having learnt of the passing away of the legendary Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest players that I have seen in my life, very deservedly a holder of the FIFA Order of Merit and, certainly, as the Hungarian federation declared in 2003, the greatest Hungarian player of the past 50 years."
He added: "I have always been full of admiration for a man that was capable of scoring an amazing 83 goals in 84 international matches for Hungary, leading the Magyar team to absolute supremacy in the early 1950s with an unbeaten run of 32 international matches that included the 1952 Olympic title and which was only broken in the final of the 1954 FIFA World Cup."