Sports

Friday, May 18, 2007

 

Remembering a Soccer Legend: Ferenc Puskás, 1927-2006

By Alexander Kitroeff

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 the net.

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.

Puskás took 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 of skills.

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.

When Puskás’s 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 tournament.

For Puskás, 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 at the 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 end.

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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