Ferenc Puskas is an icon, arguably one of the best players to have never won the Ballon D’or and his legacy is indelible.
Kispest is a small suburban district on the outskirts of Budapest. It is quiet. Interrupted by the intermittent racketing of the city’s main tram line.
Back in the early 1900s, the small little district was even more suburban. The tram was still running, but less frequently. It was a cloistered place, largely undisturbed by the bombing which wreaked havoc on the centre of Budapest during Puskas’ teenage years.
There were no skyscrapers or towering supermarkets. In those days, the district resembled a village with little hamlets and cottages blotted around vast expanses of fields.
As a kid from Kispest Puskas had only one obsession. To become a footballer. It was in his blood. His father was a former player and a coach. Puskas was determined to follow in his footsteps.
He would often race against the city’s old tramcar whilst it rattled along the tracks. Why? To become a better footballer. He cites in his autobiography.
When he wasn’t chasing trams, he’d play on the grund – an unkept field right next to his house . His friends would chase rag balls, made of old stockings and sheep fur, until it was so dark they could’t see.
A Personal Story
Ferenc Puskas’ name is everywhere in Hungary. It’s almost the first word you learn. It’s akin to Godwin’s law. Inevitably every conversation about football will somehow or someway lead back to Puskas. You grow up with his image on the streets in every souvenir shop. He’s like a god. The archetypal hero of Hungary who has become to embody much of our culture and earnt himself ethereal status in the process.
In my youth I’d often visit this little old lady called Ibi Neni. She was a distant family relative. She lived on the outskirts of Kispest, right by the 1 tram line.
It was a dingy old house. A crammed kitchen with a similar sized living room and bedroom.
But despite this, I’d look forward to visits to her house. Her kind hospitality was endearing and her stories of Puskas gripped me.
Ibi Neni knew Puskas. Her husband, was a dear friend of his. They grew up in the same district. They played football on the same grund. And after he emigrated abroad he’d send back letters and images of his spell in Madrid to the then young couple.
Her photo album was full of images of Hungary’s hero.
She used to tell me of Puskas’ kindness. His warm heart and how her husband and him would play for hours on end during their youth.
She’d tell me about the stories of his early days in Honved. The games she’d go to. The terrific atmospheres. The large crowds all huddled together signing and cheering.
Ibi Neni loved football. She’d lament about the national team of my childhood and reminisce about the golden years.
She’d tell me stories about Puskas coming back in the 1980s for the first time. How he’d greet her and her husband as if no time had passed. How he gathered all his friends for another kick about on the old grund of their childhood and about his immense aura.
‘Puskas made you believe in everything.’ She used to say. ‘When you were around him you’d instantly become happier.’
Puskas wasn’t an ordinary player. He exuded the same kind of charisma on the pitch as he did off it.
He was a leader and a pioneer. He’d skip past players with ease. He wasn’t blessed with lightning pace, but his mind was faster than anyone else. He was two steps ahead of all his opponents.
And his left foot. No one possessed a more lethal shot than the Hungarian.
Puskas was born with talent. However, his ability was honed more than borne out of a miraculous happenstance.
His father trained him with meticulous attention to detail. He drummed him into a machine. He demanded precision.
He’d make him practise his shots day and night. Back in those days the practise goals didn’t have nets. That kind of luxury was only afforded to the ones occupying the playing fields.
So his father used to get Puskas to aim for the bar. And every time he missed he’d have to go running after it. Ferenc Puskas would practise this every day for hours until he managed ten successful attempts in a row.
And he never stopped. Even at Real Madrid, he go through the same drill. Sometimes he’d stick small sticks in the top corner of the net and try to knock them off to hone his precision even further.
A career like no other
Whether it was waltzing past England on the Wembley turf or running rings around his opponents in the World Cup, Ferenc Puskas was always turning heads.
He scored 242 goals in 262 Appearances for Real Madrid. Including four in one European Cup final match. He won three European Cups, five La Liga titles in total with Real Madrid which is a mighty feat.
His omission from the Ballon D’or awards remains an enigma to this day.
Sadly, a lot of his legacy will be entrenched in the myth of what could have been? Would he have been recognised if Hungary won the World Cup? If his second goal of the 1954 World Cup Final wouldn’t have been ruled offside?
No one will know. However, that bitter defeat and his exile from Hungary after the civil war almost threatened to tarnish his legacy.
The communist regime spread many falsehoods about Puskas upon his depature from the country. He was unable to play for two years, between the age 29 and 31 – some of his prime footballing years. And the whole time the communist party labelled him as a traitor which would continue in the 60s and 70s.
It was to no avail. Puskas would draw a sell out crowd upon his return to Hungary for a friendly match in the 1980s.
The Puskas Arena, built in Ferenc Puskas’ honour, stands only a short twenty minute tram journey along the 1 line in the shadow of Kispest. It’s the same tram Puskas used to chase in his youth. Back then he would have never imagined that almost 100 years later they would name a state of the art Stadium in his name.
The stadium is impressive, the towering dome can be seen from almost anywhere in the city and it stands as a proud reminder of a legend who will never be forgotten.
Built in 2019, it will host its first significant European game when Bayern Munich take on Sevilla on Thursday night. It promises to be an enthralling encounter.
The pressure will be on the teams to live up to the stadium’s name.
Neither Ibi Neni or Ferenc Puskas have lived to see the football cathedral in its marvellous beauty but they will be looking down from the heavens with fervent excitement and with pride as Puskas’ legacy continues to endure.