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The Tragedy of the Magyars
by Readers Columnist Corner (Soccer)
Posted on March 16, 2006, 2:01 PM

The Tragedy of the Magyars

Written by Shane LeRoy,

He sits alone today, all alone in the world. The cheering crowds have long since departed, and the memories along with them. Unlike all the other living greats, he has no idea just how great he was, with no recollection of the triumph, or indeed the despair. He is a man without a past as he sits in his Budapest surroundings, but he remains one of the greatest players to ever play the game of Football, and will always be the beautiful game's first superstar. He is Ferenc Puskás.

Puskás Biro Ferenc was born into a poor Hungarian family in the spring of 1927 .The son of a professional footballer, in an era when professionals were de facto amateurs due to the political ideology of the day. Hungary was going through a very difficult period at this time. The population had suffered catastrophic losses in World War 1, and over 2/3rds of her territory had been re-designated to the neighboring states of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the Former Yugoslavian territories. It was a time of great anti-Semitism and genocide as hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered in the late 1920's and early 1930's. Ferenc or "Öcsi" as he came to affectionately be known showed early signs of following in his father's shoes. Dropping out of school aged just 12, Puskas decided to try and make it as a footballer with his father's old team Kispest. His talent shone through in matches with players of his own age, so much so that he began to attract a small number of local admirers. As Biographer György Szöllősi recalled in his book - "Puskas"- locals constructed a step over the fence of the training ground near Puskas' home, to save him having to walk the 300 yards around to the stadium to get to the entrance. The locals would prove to have had a keen eye for talent as only 3 years later; Puskas was fast becoming the first team's star player.

In 1948, having already made his International debut, Puskas' local club were to undergo a major change. Military teams were becoming prominent throughout Communist Eastern Europe and Hungary was to be no exception. Under orders of the authorities, Kispest became FC Honved of Budapest (Literal translation – "Defender of the homeland"), and under the guise of "military service", the club began annexing all the greatest players in Hungary. In the first season of this new entity, Honved swept all before them, with Puskas the undeniable star, scoring 50 league goals, a number all the more incredible when you consider he scored all 50 from outside left, a position more akin to a left winger or support striker in today's world than a striker. Before long Honved became the strongest club in Europe, and in the days before a European-wide Club competition, they won four consecutive Hungarian league championships. During this period of military service, Puskas was to garner the nickname of "The Galloping Major" for his forays down the left side of the field. In 1952, already a star for his National team, Puskas, like all communist professionals, was allowed to enter the Olympic Games for amateur footballers of the day .Having averaged more than 5 goals per game in the preceding 18 months of matches, the Hungarians seemed unbeatable. So it proved, as The Magyars swept all before them, scoring 20 goals and conceding only two. In the semi-final they destroyed defending champions Sweden 6-0 before defeating a powerful Yugoslav team 2-0 in the final. Puskas was an Olympic champion, but sadly, it would prove to be the only International medal he would win.

Puskas and his Hungarian team-mates arrived in London in 1953 for a match against the mighty England. England had never tasted defeat to a foreign country on English soil, a record spanning 90 years. It is often suggested – erroneously- that Hungary were seen as no-hopers for this contest. While many of the individual players remained unknown or underrated (Puskas being seen by many in the stadium prior to the game as unlikely to be a threat due to his short, borderline chubby build), Hungary were seen as the best team in the World at that time due to the successes of Honved and the Olympic team. Indeed, the reason why the match was so eagerly awaited was that it pitted the best team in the world against the inventors of the game for the first time. Of course, with the home record of England, Hungary were still seen as underdogs for the match, particularly by the English public who expected to see their heroes, Alf Ramsey, Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews, and Stan Mortensen prevail. The 105,000 spectators in attendance were stunned when, within 45 seconds of the kickoff, the Magyars scored through Centre Forward Nándor Hidegkuti. However, it was not long before England equalized through Sheffield Wednesday's Jackie Sewell. Nearing half-time, the game was all but over, but to the horror of the crowd, it was the Magyars who lead 4-1 after some of the most mesmerizing football ever seen at Wembley. Hidegkuti had added a second mid-way through the half, and Puskas subsequently added a brace himself before the interval, including a memorable goal set-up by the first studs on ball drag-back seen in football. Stan Mortensen gave England hope as he scored England's second seconds before the half-time whistle. This hope was short-lived however as Centre Back Joszef Bozsik added a fifth before Hidegkuti after a showing described by those in attendance as "completely unmarkable" completed his hat-trick. Alf Ramsey managed to convert a consolation penalty late on, but the humiliation was complete. A 6-3 loss on English soil was incomprehensible. The "Magnificent Magyars" as they became known, had arrived on the World stage. The following year, in the return fixture, despite the return of the great Tom Finney, Hungary astonishingly defeated England in front of 95,000 in the Nep Stadium by an even greater margin: 7-1, which still ranks as England's worst ever defeat to this day. They followed this up with a stunning 3-0 defeat of twice world champions Italy in Rome. With the World Cup in Switzerland only months away, they seemed destined to become only the third nation to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.

While nothing is ever certain in the World of Sport, Hungary were viewed as unbeatable by the time the World Cup of 1954 rolled around. This was due to three factors. (1) They were unbeaten in over 4 years of International matches, spanning 33 games, and had set a world record eclipsing 12 consecutive victories. (2) Their style of play, a precursor to the "Total Football" style perfected by Dutch master Rinus Michels in the 1970's, was so far ahead of its time that opposition managers and players seemingly were powerless to stop it, or indeed the mercurial talents of Puskas, Hidegkuti and Sándor Kocsis, scorers of over 200 International goals between them in their careers. Finally, (3) the opposition was seemingly in disarray with defending champions Uruguay unlikely to repeat outside of their own continent, and with perennial powerhouses Germany and Italy were less than a decade removed from World War 2; neither was viewed as a major challenge for the Magnificent Magyars. Hungary opened their World Cup by demolishing the hapless jet-lagged Koreans 9-0 in Zurich with Kocsis scoring a hat-trick and Puskas adding a brace. The following match against West Germany is one still talked about today. The un-fancied Germans, not tipped to do well at the tournament were managed by the shrewd Sepp Herberger. Herberger - in a decision immediately criticized within Germany- fielded an under strength team against Hungary. A full strength Hungarian team duly routed the Germans 8-3 in a wonderful display of free-flowing football, in which Kocsis, the star of the tournament scored 4 goals, a then record for a world cup match. Herberger was a laughing stock, but his move was later to be seen as a masterstroke as, banking on the fact that they could qualify for the latter stages despite a loss, he had withheld the tactics and players he was planning to use in a later game against the Hungarians. He was vindicated in the following match as a rested German team dismantled Turkey 7-3 to qualify for the Quarter finals.

Hungary would dispose of Brazil on a 4-2 score line amid disgraceful scenes of fighting and unsportsmanlike conduct allegedly instigated by the Brazilians, who complained that Puskas – a touchline spectator due to an injury picked up in the 8-3 win against Germany- had attacked their centre back Pinheiro. The absence of Puskas began to take its toll as they only just managed to defeat defending champions Uruguay 4-2 after extra-time in the Semi-final to qualify for the final where they would meet West Germany. Captain Puskas, still greatly hampered with the ankle injury declared himself fit to start the game, but his performance in the final suggests this was an error due to bravery or perhaps selfishness, understandable given the role he had played in the ascent of Hungarian football. Hungary began the game in spectacular fashion, racing to a 2-0 lead after less than 10 minutes, with Puskas scoring the second. However, with Puskas struggling on the left hand-side and in an era before substitutes, West Germany began to dominate and soon equaled the score at 2-2 before taking the lead through Rahn. Puskas, playing through the pain-barrier cruelly had a goal disallowed for offside and the final whistle was blown with the score at 3-2. West Germany had beaten the unbeatable, and Herberger's masterstroke of playing a weakened team in the 8-3 defeat in which Puskas was injured had come to fruit. The un-fancied Germans had pulled off a shock World Cup victory and the greatest International team to date was to go home defeated. Hungarian football has never recovered.

Three years later, Ferenc Puskas left Hungary following the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The great team was dismantled and the main players fled to other countries seeking an outlet for their talent and finance for their pockets. The 30 year old Puskas was given a chance by his former Honved manager Emil Oestreicher, then manager of European king-pins Real Madrid. The 1955 and 1956 European Champions already had one of the greatest players of all-time on their books in Alfredo DiStefano. Adding Puskas would make them untouchable, and so it proved. He won 3 successive European cups in Madrid culminating in perhaps the greatest match of all time, the defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 on a crisp 1960 night in Glasgow in front of 135,000 spectators. DiStefano scored a hat-trick that night in a masterful showing. Puskas scored the other 4. His record after retiring in 1966 read 35 goals in 39 European games for Madrid. He would declare allegiance to Spain and represent that nation 4 times, as was allowed at that time. He failed to score, but his record of 83 goals in 84 appearances for Hungary is a record only beaten by Ali Daei of Iran. He would return to Hungary in 1993 to manage the national team on a care-taker basis for a short-time. This was sweet reward for a man whose defection in 1957 had caused him great personal pain.

Ferenc Puskas is partly or completely unaware of this history, for he now resides in a state home for the elderly, suffering with Alzheimer's disease. His talent was not rewarded to any large extent financially during his playing days and he will die a very poor man. After an appeal to help foot his medical bills, his supporters helped raise over Ł100,000 through the sale of his memorabilia last November at auction. The memorabilia will form the centre-piece of the new Football Hall of Fame in Budapest. The famous Nepstadion, scene of England's 7-1 defeat in 1953 was renamed Stadium Ferenc Puskas in 2001 in his honor. A stadium now the venue to a team not fit to lace the boots of its predecessors. War, politics, annexation, and communism have contributed to the demise of the Hungarian National Football team from the greatest in the world to whipping boys whose last major tournament was the 1986 World Cup. Hungary never won a World Cup despite the assembling of the best team ever seen at that point. Hungary will never win a World Cup, most people in the street will not be familiar with Ferenc Puskas' name, and Puskas himself were he not in a state-run home in Budapest would be among them. This is the tragedy of the Magyars.

Shane LeRoy

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