Ferenc Puskas, one of the most charismatic and finest players in international soccer history, died Friday in Budapest, Hungary. He was 79.
Known as the “Galloping Major” during his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, Puskas died of cardiovascular and respiratory failure after recently contracting pneumonia. Hospitalized for six years with Alzheimer’s disease, he had been under intensive care since September.
A giant in the world of soccer, Puskas was voted the sixth-best player of the century in 1999, after Brazil’s Pele, the Netherlands’ Johan Cruyff, Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, and Argentina’s Alfredo Di Stefano and Diego Armando Maradona.
“The best-known Hungarian of the 20th century has left,” said Hungary’s prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany. “Ferenc Puskas has left us, but ‘Puskas Ocsi’ the legend will always stay with us.”
Hungarians indeed saw Puskas as a “little brother,” which is what Ocsi means. He was a street urchin whose natural athletic gifts and desire for a better life led him to become one of the most celebrated soccer players in history.
A gold medal winner at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, Puskas was the outstanding star on the glorious Hungarian national team, whose only loss during one six-year spell was to West Germany in the final of the 1954 World Cup.
The team was known as the “Magical Magyars” and Puskas was the most gifted of its magicians.
There were plenty of stars on the Hungarian squad, including Joszef Bozsik, Nandor Hidegkuti and Sandor Kocsis, but as Hidegkuti said in later years, “Of all of us, he was the best. He had a seventh sense for soccer. If there were 1,000 solutions, he would pick the 1001st.”
Born in Budapest on April 27, 1927, Puskas learned soccer on the streets. Stocky, he used his low center of gravity to great advantage while the mischievous streak in his nature brought all kinds of on-field invention.
His dribbling skills were mesmerizing, and he had a deadly left-foot shot that was virtually unstoppable. But it was his vision, his ability to see three or four moves ahead and act accordingly, that made him special.
Three games in particular defined his career.
One was Hungary’s stunning 6-3 demolition of England at Wembley in 1953, the first time England had been beaten at home by a foreign team. The English team later went to Hungary in an effort to put matters straight and instead was humiliated, 7-1, by Puskas and friends.
Another was the 1954 World Cup final, which Hungary somehow lost, 3-2, in the pouring rain in Bern, Switzerland, after leading 2-0. Puskas, hobbled by an ankle injury, scored the opening goal, one of the 83 that he netted for his country in 84 games.
In 1956, Puskas moved to Spain after the Soviet Union quashed the Hungarian uprising. He sat out a two-year FIFA-imposed suspension for leaving his Hungarian club, Honved, then signed with Real Madrid.
He was 31 by then, but teaming with Di Stefano and others, he helped Real Madrid become the dominant club team in the world. One particular highlight came in the 1960 European Cup final, when Puskas scored four goals in Real Madrid’s 7-3 rout of Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt.
On Friday, tributes arrived in Budapest from around the world.
“Everyone knows he was a great player and an even better person,” Di Stefano said Friday. “He was a phenomenon, a very generous man.”
“It’s very hard to accept the fact he’s no longer here,” said Gyula Grosics, who is now one of only two surviving members of the “Magical Magyars” of a half-century ago, along with Jeno Buzanszky.
Puskas is survived by his wife, Erzsebet, and daughter, Aniko.