Ferenc Puskas is number 14 in 90min's Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time series
It started, as all good football stories do, with a ball made of rolled up rags.
In the early 1930s, in the thistled fields of Kispest, Hungary, a young Ferenc Puskas learned his love for football with eight friends. They had no football boots (and, as he wrote in his 1955 autobiography, 'seldom boots of any kind') but played with anything faintly spherical they could get their hands on.
Once, they sold the local butcher's cat to pay for tickets to an important local match. The lesson is, presumably, to never trust children.
It's been 12 years since we lost Ferenc Puskás.— MUNDIAL (@MundialMag) November 17, 2018
Here he is in 1953, saying Seeeeee Yeeeeer to Billy Wright.pic.twitter.com/3hcSW3kB9n
When the young Puskas – an avid Arsenal fan – was ten, he and his friends were stopped in their field by a man named Nandor Szucs, a coach at local side Kispest Athletic Club; later Budapest Honved. He took them to the club's ground, handed them boots (far too big) and a real, leather ball, and brought them into the heart of the club.
Uncle Nandi, as the children called him, might be the man to whom Hungarian football owes its greatest debt. He nurtured the country's greatest ever player; telling him he was 'so slow that a cobbler could mend your boots in the time you take to move one step'. He didn't stay sluggish for long.
With his father coaching the side, the precocious inside-forward made his club debut at the age of just 16 in a 3-0 defeat to reigning champions Nagyvarad; and was 'initiated' into the first team on the train journey home with the traditional mixture of physical abuse and vile alcohol.
His international debut followed soon afterward, scoring in a crushing 5-2 win over Austria. From there, he scarcely slowed down – joined by a selection of the greatest players the country had ever produced, all along in one astonishing generation.
Kispest didn't win the league for years in Puskas' early years, not until they became a Hungarian army team under the new name Budapest Honved in 1949. That Honved team almost immediately became the defining force in Hungarian football – conscripting Sandor Kocsis into the forces (and, as such, the team) in 1950, Zoltan Czibor in 1953 and many more in between times.
With the country's very best at his side and a new army rank, which gave birth to his nickname 'the Galloping Major', Puskas earned five Hungarian titles and a number of seasons as the country's top scorer. That Honved side also ended up forming the basis of the Hungarian Golden Team; the
One of the greatest players to grace the #WorldCup, Ferenc Puskas would have turned 91 today. Here are some images from the 1954 edition, where Hungary finished runners-up. #RIP— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) April 2, 2018
: https://t.co/7Zz8DTrI0F pic.twitter.com/ruSPLkmaYG
Puskas never returned to the World Cup final with his home nation; the Hungarian Revolution erupting in 1956 when he and his Honved teammates were abroad for a European Cup match in Bilbao. Many of the players refused to return home due to the unrest, instead finding new clubs in Western Europe despite opposition from Hungary and worldwide footballing authorities – with UEFA eventually banning Puskas from football for two years for his refusal to go back to Hungary.
Having realised in '54 after the World Cup that questions were being asked of his future, a two-year ban from the game (running until 1958) could very well have been the end of his career – if the Galloping Major had not been so set on prolonging his career, pointing at 'England's famous Matthews' as an example.
'I cannot believe that I shall give up football in six or seven years' time', he wrote on the border of '54/'55. 'I would like to play for another twelve years, and not only play but to keep my place on the front rank as Matthews has done.'
True to his word, he kept playing in his self-imposed semi-exile with
90min's 'Top 50 Greatest Footballers of All Time' can be found here.
Number 50: Luka Modric
Number 49: John Charles
Number 48: Hugo Sanchez
Number 47: Jairzinho
Number 46: Omar Sivori
Number 45: Paolo Rossi
Number 44: Paul Breitner
Number 43: George Weah
Number 42: Kaka
Number 41: Lev Yashin
Number 40: Gunnar Nordahl
Number 39: Kevin Keegan
Number 38: Hristo Stoichkov
Number 37: Gianluigi Buffon
Number 36: Johan Neeskens
Number 35: Xavi Hernandez
Number 34: Luis Suarez
Number 33: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Number 32: Andres Iniesta
Number 31: Rivelino
Number 30: Bobby Moore
Number 29: Socrates
Number 28: Sandor Kocsis
Number 27: Lothar Matthaus
Number 26: Ronaldinho
Number 25: Ruud Gullit
Number 24: Bobby Charlton
Number 23: Giuseppe Meazza
Number 22: Raymond Kopa
Number 21: Romario
Number 20: Eusebio
Number 19: Marco van Basten
Number 18: George Best
Number 17: Zico
Number 16: Franco Baresi
Number 15: Cristiano Ronaldo