It is a tribute to the impact that Ferenc Puskás had in his career that any football fan should know at least one thing about him.
Maybe his role in the great Hungary team of the early 1950s that won Olympic gold, twice crushed England and reached the FIFA World Cup final, the man himself scoring a record 84 international goals; or his performances for the peerless Real Madrid CF team later that decade; or even the much-publicised auction of some of his personal archive.
However, those are only small parts of the incredible tale of the 'Galloping Major', and one that local journalist György Szöllősi was determined to tell. In his recently published book "Puskás", Szöllősi not only recounts his on-pitch successes, but also something of the man himself, not least his heart-breaking 25-year exile after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956.
"Puskás would speak about his homeland almost with tears in his eyes, so it was very hard for the public to understand why he only came back in 1981," Szöllősi said. "Puskás was afraid of the life sentence that was the 'reward' for deserting soldiers."
Honoured by Hungary
Now requiring 24-hour medical attention for Alzheimer's disease, Puskás is finally receiving requisite recognition in Hungary. He is one of ten 'Sportsmen of the Nation', entitling him to a pension of around €2,200 a month. His family also receive contributions from Real Madrid, who played in a recent testimonial in Budapest.
"Wherever I went during the preparation of the book, everyone who knew him told me that Puskás was one of the nicest men they had ever met," Szöllősi said. "Hardly anyone saluted him as a player initially. It quite surprised me.
As his former Real Madrid strike partner Alfredo Di Stéfano said 'he deserved ten out of ten as a player, and a man'."
The author, born a full 50 years after Puskás in 1977, has been delving into the hidden side of Hungary's greatest football era for more than a decade. For this book he has conducted more than 100 interviews, speaking to the Madrid president, many of Puskás's former team-mates and even his translator during his spell as Panathinaikos FC coach, when they reached the 1971 European Champion Clubs' Cup final, a unique achievement for Greece.
Puskás, Szöllősi states, is the model for all Hungarian footballers. "Every youngster who starts to play football wants to be the most skilful player," Szöllősi said. "However, at the same time they want to be the boss on the pitch with the best sense of humour. The reason for this is Puskás's character which sets an example and lives in the minds of Hungarians."
Sense of humour
There are many light-hearted anecdotes in the book, from his early fame at Kispest Honvéd FC, where at the age of 13 fans built a small step over the training ground fence near his home so Puskás did not have to walk round to the main gate, to his first postcard home from the Bernabéu that read: "Greetings from the new workshop."
But another side of Puskás's life has remained hidden in Hungary. He was in Spain with Honvéd when the Soviet Union cracked down on the liberalising Hungarian leadership. Puskás, along with several team-mates, defected and drifted for two years before a 1958 move to Madrid, where he was to win three European Cups and even be capped for Spain.
At home, though, the government-controlled media portrayed the former hero as a fat, drunken smuggler, and many in Hungary were indeed angry at the 'deserter'. However, he did not counter the propaganda. Szöllősi said: "
He did not want to react from abroad, as he was afraid of the punishment that could have awaited his relatives who had stayed in Hungary."
Oddly, his exile did invigorate his career. "Before 1956 in Hungary, he was the boss on and off the pitch, playing cards, drinking alcohol quite a lot and playing jokes. After emigration, he had to become a real professional. In a way, the bloody 1956 revolution, which is a very sad issue in Hungarian history, was good fortune for Puskás the player."
But only with the fall of Communism could his name be fully cleared. Szöllősi said: "After the political changes, we could feel a renaissance of the Magical Magyars. The reason why we came out with this book is to give the country back a real hero that was torn away by the political storms." This is doubtless why Erzsébet [his wife] told the press: "My husband wanted György to write this book about Puskás's real life."
Puskás by György Szöllősi is published by Ringier Publishing Ltd. in association with Nemzeti Sport. Price 7900 Florins (around €32). For more information contact Ella Bús, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. tel.: +36 1 460 4815. Currently in Hungarian only.
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