Friday, May 18, 2007
Remembering a Soccer Legend: Ferenc Puskás, 1927-2006
News of Ferenc
Puskás’s death on—of all days—November 17 last year
brought back memories of the first time I saw him, and nearly kicked a ball
to him. It was on a hot August afternoon at Panathênaikos’s
home ground at Leôforos Alexandras
in Athens, during a team training session. A little incongruous perhaps, given
that Puskás acquired his legendary status as a player
with star performances in the greatest stadiums of the world while competing
in major tournaments. But for a 15-year old Athenian born when Puskás
was already famous, it was good enough.
After scoring on three straight
shots, all with his lethal left foot, Puskás’s fourth
effort crashed against the cross bar, spinning high over the barrier behind
the goal and bouncing up the concrete stands. I rushed up the steps and caught
the ball. I looked over at him as I readied myself to kick it back on the
field, but he had turned away to talk to the admiring players. It was after
all, a training session, the fun was over, and the real task at hand for Puskás was coaching his players on how to kick the ball into
Still, for me, it had been a cherished
moment of close contact with a legend of European soccer. And it was a rich
reward, back in 1970, for being part of a small crowd watching the pre-season
training of Panathênaikos on a very hot August afternoon
at the team’s home field. We were there to witness with our own eyes what
the notoriously unreliable Athenian daily sports papers had reported, that
Panathênaikos had managed to secure as its coach
the great Puskás. For two decades, he had starred
as a player, first, for the Hungarian national team in the early 1950s and
then, following the 1956 Hungarian uprising, for Real Madrid, the greatest
team in Europe.
No one seemed to worry that this
was Puskás’s first coaching job. (No wonder he was
out there shooting the ball himself that afternoon). That Puskás had deigned to come and work in what was, let’s face
it, one of Europe’s soccer backwaters was an honor
for Greece. It was proof, moreover, that Panathênaikos,
the perennial champions in the 1960s, had earned some international respect
despite a string of unimpressive performances in the annual European Champion
Clubs Cup (now the UEFA Champions League), the major, European-wide knockout
competition that included the winners of the domestic leagues in each country.
Yet none of us could imagine that
Puskás would not only grace Greek soccer with his
presence at Panathênaikos’s helm, but that he would
lead the team farther than any other Greek team in the history of the European
Cup. Those were the days, of course, when Europe had just over 30 nations,
so the tournament of all the national champions involved only 32 unseeded
teams. Nonetheless, for a Greek team to make it through to the round of 16—a
rare occurrence—their first-round opponents had to be weaklings. Luckily,
that year, Panathênaikos drew the champions of Luxembourg,
Jeunesse Esch, whom they
disposed of easily by winning both on the road and in Athens.
The draw for the next round pitted
Panathênaikos against the Czechoslovak champions.
That year it was Slovan Bratislava, a team that
had won the championship for the first time since 1955 by overcoming the two
powerhouses, Slavia and Sparta, both of Prague.
But while they may have been provincial upstarts, Bratislava were, nonetheless
(in those days), Czechoslovaks, and their country a respected soccer power.
In the first of the two games between them, in Athens, Panathênaikos
scored a quick goal and went on to win 3-0. So, while they lost the return
game in Bratislava 2-1 on a cold November evening, the Greek champions went
through to the next round thanks to the rule in such cases that favors the
team with the wider winning margin. It was the first time a Greek team had
made it to the quarterfinals. The coach was the toast of the town.
Puskás must have found Greek elation
at this minor success very amusing. He himself had won the European Cup three
times as a player with Real Madrid, and he had scored a hat-trick in the memorable
1960 final in which Real beat Eintracht
Frankfurt 7-3. His prolific scoring rate of 512 goals in 528 matches helped Real win five
successive Spanish league titles and Spain’s annual Copa
del Rey tournament once (which, when Puskás’s team won it, was actually called the Copa del Generalísimo—as in Franco),
along with their three European titles.
Known as the “Galloping Major”
because he had played for the Hungarian army team Honvéd,
the great Puskás had always been as interested in food as he had been
in football. Indeed, his short, barrel-chested, and stocky frame deceived
many opponents, who underestimated his skills before they saw him perform.
On that August afternoon I first saw him, there was ample evidence that his
girth had expanded considerably after retiring as a player a few years earlier.
His celebrity status augmented by Panathênaikos’s
success in Europe, Puskás would eat out almost every
night. His favorite taverna was Ta Souvlakia
tês Kyra Marias in Chalandri, a suburb
just north of Athens, and his favorite dishes were grilled pork sausages,
souvlakia, and suckling pig on the spit.
a low-key approach to his coaching job in contrast to his visits to tavernas. Personally unassuming, he used warmth and
humor rather than fear to assert his authority. He fostered team spirit, and
good relations among players and himself, by organizing team outings to movie theaters and,
of course, restaurants. This was unique for Greece, but it was welcomed by
sportswriters as yet another sign of the Greek sport’s “Europeanization” thanks
to Puskás’s coaching style.
But “coaching style” may be putting
it a little too strongly in Puskás’s case. He himself
was the product of an innovative coaching philosophy that the Hungarian national
team honed in the early 1950s. It entailed nothing less than revolutionizing
the static way the game had been played until then: players limited to their
regular positions. The Hungarians replaced this static style by teaching their
players to move around the entire field interchangeably—what is known in basketball
as “moving without the ball”—a system that required them to acquire a variety
There was no chance, however,
that Puskás would experiment with the good but mostly
workman-like players he had at his disposal in Athens. In his ghostwritten
memoir, Puskás on Puskás,
published in English in 1997, he had this to say about how Panathênaikos
went on to eliminate Everton, their opponents in the next round of the European
Cup: “I honestly did not think we’d stand much of a chance against the English
champions. I told the players to just relax and play; try to help one another
all the time. I didn’t give them any fancy tactical instructions; you can
draw a lot of pictures on the board, but have you got the players to do it
with?” (p. 218). Nonetheless, he got the most out of them—just as he did with
the modest but satisfying offerings of Greek tavernas—and the Greeks went on to defeat
their English opponent.
team played Red Star Belgrade next, in the first of the home-and-away games
of the semifinals, the lack of star quality of most of his players was exposed
by a heavy defeat in Belgrade. With Panathênaikos
losing 4-1, a 3-0 or a 5-1 margin victory was needed in the return game in
Athens to progress to the final. Puskás worked his
magic yet again. His players won 3-0, which meant they were going through
to the final game. (The rules state that, in the case of a tie in number of
goals scored after the two games, the team that scored the most “away” goals
in the series wins.) Crowds poured into the streets to celebrate.
In 2001, Greek TV broadcast a
special to commemorate Panathênaikos’s participation
in the European Cup final. The players were asked what it had been about Puskás that made it possible for him to make them the first-ever
Greek club to reach the final. All of them answered that it was neither strategic
nor tactical training, but, rather, just the sheer self-confidence they gained
from the fact that this legend of world soccer was quietly reassuring them
that they could do it. The fact that they had Puskás on their side instilled in the players a confidence
in their abilities that helped them overcome Greek soccer’s perennial inferiority
complex when faced with the challenge to do well in Europe.
The 1971 European Cup final took
placed at hallowed Wembley Stadium in London on
Wednesday, June 2. Panathênaikos faced the mighty
Ajax Amsterdam, who were something of the Real Madrid
of the 1970s. The Dutchmen won 2-0, but playing in that final represented—and
still represents—the highest achievement of a Greek team in a European club
it also meant a return to the scene of one of his greatest triumphs. It was
at Wembley in 1953 that the Hungarian national team, having won
the Olympic gold medal the previous year, became the first foreign team ever
to defeat England on home soil with a stunning 6-3 victory. Puskás unwittingly contributed to stoking the complacency
of the English players before the game by his telltale appearance. “Look at
that little fat chap; we’ll murder this lot,” one of the England players remarked
as the teams took the field. But the murderer turned out to be the Galloping
Major, with his left foot just inside the eighteen-yard box. The portly Puskás bamboozled the English defenders all afternoon and
scored two goals.
Puskás’s state funeral took place on December
9, 2006, in Budapest with a Panathênaikos delegation in attendance. It began with a ceremony
national stadium, which had been renamed Ferenc Puskás Stadium in his honor
a few years ago. His casket—draped
in Hungary’s red, white, and green flag—was placed on a black catafalque in
the center of the field, while a sea of candles lit up the stands. The casket
was taken by horse-drawn caisson to Hero’s Square for a military
salute, on its way to the funeral service in Budapest’s Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Puskás was laid to rest under the dome, bringing a day of national mourning to an
Meanwhile, on the same day back
in Athens, Panathênaikos was eking out a hard-fought
victory against Larisa in a Greek league game at
the Olympic Stadium. Puskás would surely not have
been very impressed with the level of play. But he would have seen a silver
lining. Just across Kêfisias Avenue that runs next
to the stadium lies Chalandri, and its taverna
offerings of grilled meats.
Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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