A magnificent piece on a soccer legend who left his imprint all over the globe. In 1975-76, Puskas coached the Chilean team Colo-Colo. Even though his performance as a coach was lackluster (16-7-11), he still had that star-quality about him. When he took over as coach of Colo-Colo, people still remembered his earlier visit to Chile, for World Cup 1962, when he played for Spain.
Puskas came to Colo-Colo in one of the darkest years of Chilean recent history, when Pinochet’s regime began to systematically “disappear” opponents to his dictatorship. (In the previous 2 years the repressive machine was being designed and tested, and it was deployed in full force from 1975 on).
Some say that Puskas’ fervent anti-communism made him an ideal coach for Colo-Colo, the “popular”, working-class favorite. In 1975 Pinochet’s propaganda team set its sights on the club, hoping to vampirically absorb Colo-Colo’s mass appeal. The dictator made himself be named “Honorary President and Number One Fan” and in retribution financed the construction of Colo-Colo’s own stadium.
It’s unclear how Puskas ended up being named Colo-Colo’s coach. Regardless of the political context, Puskas was widely admired for his accomplishments as a footballer, and when he arrived some hoped that he might help Colo-Colo do what no Chilean team had done before: win the Libertadores. Colo-Colo had come close in 1973, shortly before the coup d’etat, when it lost to Argentina’s Independiente in a 3-match series. The star of that team was well-known Communist sympathizer Carlos Caszely.
I have my own recollection of seeing Puskas. It was on a grey August day in 1975: he was eating an enormous pork sandwich at the grim Santiago airport, all by himself. From time to time people would come by and say hello or ask for his autograph. He would set the sandwich down, sign with a smile and a word in his impeccable Peninsular Spanish, and continue eating and sipping his Pilsener. I was leaving Chile that day for a year as an exchange student in the U.S. I remember thinking that Puskas looked like a nice man and hoping at the same time that he would not succeed in Colo-Colo, not only because it had been turned into Pinochet’s team, but because I am a lifelong supporter of archirival Universidad de Chile. Thanks for the memories.