Etched into the history of the European Cup are feats by some of the football's world's greatest names, and among those names there are arguably few greater than Ferenc Puskas, Hungary's finest ever player.

A European champion with Real Madrid, he helped establish the reputation of the tournament in its early years, playing a shining part in a team who brought a lustre to a trophy which will glint anew in Istanbul this week, where AC Milan and Liverpool meet in the UEFA Champions League final.

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However, while Puskas tasted glory with Madrid, his hopes of winning football's ultimate prize, the FIFA World Cup, vanished in one of the sport's biggest upsets as Hungary lost the 1954 final to Germany FR. That final, which ended in a 3-2 defeat, ought to have been the crowning moment for a side who had not lost a game for four years and who found their chief source of inspiration in Puskas's left foot.

Read the classic profile of Ferenc Puskas

Born in Budapest in 1927, Puskas started his career at his father's old club, Kispest Budapest. With his short, stocky physique he might cut an incongruous figure beside the athletic modern-day footballer, but his prodigious scoring ability would have earned him star billing in any era. A first-team regular at 16, Puskas made his international debut at 18 and following Kispest's rebirth as the country's army team, Honved, he became the biggest name in the dominant club team in Hungarian football.

'Galloping major'
Honved's association with the army brought him his nickname, the 'Galloping major', but it was his exploits with the national team – ostensibly made up of Honved players - which brought him recognition across Europe and beyond. Puskas won a gold medal with Hungary at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and the following year he led the 'Mighty Magyars' to one of their greatest triumphs, the 6-3 victory over England by which they became the first continental visitors to win at Wembley.

The story goes that one England player took a look at Puskas before kick-off and said: "Look at that little fat chap. We'll murder this lot." As it was Hungary blew their hosts away, Puskas himself striking a third goal which he would later describe as "my favourite of all time".

Ahead of beating England goalkeeper Gil Merrick with a near-post finish, Puskas evaded the lunging England captain Billy Wright with a dragback which, according to The Times newspaper meant "Wright went past him like a fire engine going to the wrong fire". Puskas's own observation was more prosaic: without the quick footwork, he recalled, "Wright would have taken me and the ball off the pitch and into the stands".

Look back at Switzerland 1954

Not surprisingly, Hungary entered the 1954 FIFA World Cup finals as favourites. They certainly justified the tag in their opening matches, beating Korea Republic 9-0 and West Germany 8-3 in the group stage. Puskas struck twice in the first match and was on target again against the Germans.

In that second match, however, he was hurt in a tackle by Werner Liebrich and it would have telling consequences. As the English journalist Brian Glanville notes in The Story Of The World Cup: "In retrospect, it was the kick that won the World Cup. Puskas would later vow it was deliberate."

The ankle injury he suffered meant Puskas missed both Hungary's quarter-final win over Brazil - which became known as 'the Battle of Berne' after fighting broke out between the teams afterwards - and their semi-final defeat of Uruguay. The big question before the final was whether Puskas would recover in time; as it was he did start the match, and scored the opening goal but, writes Glanville, was "clearly hampered by his ankle". That said, after the West Germans had fought back from two goals down to 2-2, Puskas had the ball in the net again, only to be denied by the offside flag. Hungary then conceded a third goal at the other end, and a dream was dead.

As the Hungarian Football Federation's website states proudly, Puskas scored a remarkable 84 goals in 85 appearances for Hungary and it could have been many more given he stopped playing for his country in 1956, the year he turned 29. The reason was his defection to the west after the Hungarian uprising occurred while he was in Spain for a European Cup tie with Honved.

Second glorious chapter
He spent his first year in the west in Austria but was unable to find a club before his former Honved manager, Emil Oestreicher, took him to Real Madrid, where a second glorious chapter in his career unfolded. He joined a team crowned European champions for four years running and struck up an immediate rapport with Alfredo Di Stefano which bore fruit spectacularly in the 1960 European Cup final where Madrid recorded their fifth consecutive success: Di Stefano struck a hat-trick but Puskas went one better on an unforgettable night for those present at Glasgow's Hampden Park, scoring four goals.

Before retiring in 1966, Puskas scored over 300 goals for Madrid and was four times the Spanish league's top scorer. Even when he finished on the losing side in the 1962 European Cup final against Benfica, he still managed to score a hat-trick in the match – not bad for a 35-year-old. The same year he played for Spain, his adopted country, in the FIFA World Cup finals in Chile.

Puskas would play a part in one further European Cup final, this time as coach of Greek club Panathinaikos in 1971. The match was at Wembley, the scene of one of his finest moments, but this time he was on the losing side in a 2-0 defeat by Ajax. He also held coaching roles with AEK Athens, Chile's Colo Colo, Al-Maszri in Egypt and Australia's Panhellic Melbourne before finally returning home to Hungary in 1993.

Even then, in his mid-60s, such was his popularity that he served for a short time as caretaker coach of the national team. Today he lives in Budapest where the national stadium was renamed in his honour in 2001.