Who played the most beautiful football?

What does David Ball of Fleetwood Town and Lionel Messi of Barcelona both have in common? The answer is they were both nominated for FIFA’s Puskas Award. Neither has actually won it. It should be one of the most talked about awards as the winner must have scored a beautiful goal in a beautiful manner for the beautiful game. The goal should have been scored fairly and the player should not have been booked or cautioned during that match. It should be the most hotly-contested prize. But who was the person who inspired such an award?

He must have scored plenty of goals. Ferenc Puskas certainly did. He scored 84 international goals in 85 appearances for his native Hungary and 514 for the two clubs he played for. 358 of them were for his boyhood club in Budapest where he played some 350 times. When a player scores more times than he appears you have to check him out. Real Madrid certainly did and he scored 156 times in 180 appearances for them. You see, statistics don’t lie.

Ability beyond beauty

This overweight, short and stocky star’s story is enmeshed in politics. Yet all who had the privileged to see him were mesmerised by the beauty of his play and the power of his left foot. Puskas’s boyhood club was called Kispest until the Communist regime renamed it Budapest Honved. With a strangling policy of centralisation, Honved became a type of national team of Hungary as most of its stars joined the team and they were coached by Gustav Sebes. The Mighty Magyars were conscripted and were all given the rank of Major. Puskas was dubbed the Galloping Major partly due to his official rank and the demands he made on his co-players.

This team, driven by Puskas, rocked the international footballing world and were touted by the totalitarian regime as a symbol of national pride. Puskas scored two of the six goals in the match of the century against England. A 3-6 defeat at Wembley made sure that Hungary were favourites to win the World Cup of 1954. It was an unexpected victory for democracy as West Germany took home the Jules Rimet.

European dream

The increasingly global nature of football led to the rise of the European club competition. Honved were drawn against Athletico Bilbao in the 1956 competition. After losing in Spain, the team could not return for the second leg as Hungary was undergoing a political revolution. Puskas had spoken out against the Communist regime. Unsurprisingly, he refused to go back home despite pressure from FIFA. They banned him from playing in Europe for two years. It seemed like this amazing talent would be cut short. I mean, who would sign this ageing, portly Hungarian? Once the darling of the Communists and now seen as some kind of outlaw.

Manchester United considered having him in 1958 to bolster their side after The Munich Air Disaster. This irony isn’t lost on me as United refused to have Real Madrid’s Di Stefano. So, Real Madrid had Puskas partner Di Stefano as one of the most lethal strike partnerships in the history of the beautiful game.

The Bernabeu saw the talent and knew he had the experience to keep Real Madrid at the top of Spanish and European football. He was instrumental in scoring the goals that won Madrid five La Liga Championships and three European Cups. The symbol of the Rakosi  Communist regime was now a poster boy for Franco’s Fascists. Yet this is not how he was remembered.

He was certainly a comeback kid. His mouth may have gotten the better of him on occasions and we were nearly denied the privileges of seeing him in one of the most talked about European matches of all time. Puskas scored four of the seven goals for a Real Madrid side that demolished the German favourites, Frankfurt. His partner scored the other three. Those with a television set will also remember seeing beautiful goals being scored in the beautiful game. This performance made Sir Alex say that Puskas was “without question one of the greatest players of all time.”

High praise indeed.

Big mouth striker

In the age before the twits of Twitter who witter nonsense that often comes back to haunt them, Puskas had claimed that the West German team that defeated Hungary in the 1954 World Cup Final had been doped. He had made these claims in an interview for France Football and alleged that the winning side all developed jaundice after the match as proof of his theory. His Mighty Magyars had defeated the eventual winners 8-3 in the group stages of the competition and the shock loss was still a shock. It clearly offended the German sense of pride and decency as all German teams were forbidden from playing in a side that featured Puskas. He had to submit a formal apology before he was allowed to demolish Frankfurt.

This match was the fifth consecutive European Cup that Madrid had won. It was the legacy of Hungarian dominance of the game as the Benfica side that won the following two European Cups were managed by the Magyar Bela Gutman. Even a Puskas hat-trick could not give Real the victory in 1962. Yes, Puskas has scored two hat-tricks in two European cup finals. A statistic often overlooked as victory was not theirs.

Puskas was nicknamed Pancho and like Di Stefano was given Spanish nationality. They both played for more than one national side. On reflection, Puskas is now revered in the country of his birth. The national stadium bears his name. He is seen as a national icon as he scored his way into the record books in an era of unrest.

As a manager, he had success too. In 1971, he guided Panathinaikos into the European Cup final. They did lose to the Cruyff-inspired Ajax, however. In 1993, he managed the national team of Hungary for four matches. It was more an act of forgiveness and reparation as Hungary welcomed home a favourite son.

He died on November 17 2006 from pneumonia. He had previously been diagnosed with Alzheimer disease. He was honoured with a state funeral. His coffin was taken from the eponymous stadium to Heros Square for a military send-off. A fitting tribute for the Galloping Major. The player of the beautiful game.

The 2018 winner of the award that bears his name plays for Liverpool. As an aside tribute, there is actually a Blue Plaque in Merseyside that bears tribute to Ferenc Puskas. It is not found at the stadium where Salah can display his Puskas Award. It is located at South Liverpool Parkway rail interchange where Puskas played in a charity game in May 1967. He scored a hat-trick for the losing side for a crowd of 10,000 to enjoy. The thrill of watching Puskas is really that remarkable.