Rogan Taylor explains the enduring appeal of a football genius and the era he came to represent
When Ferenc Puskas came to London recently to launch a new book about his life, there was a lunch organized at Wembley to celebrate his approaching 70th birthday. Sir Stanley Matthews turned out to honour the great Hungarian player, along with Jackie Sewell and George Robb. All three were members of that England team which was taught a footballing lesson back in 1953, when Puskas and his mates beat them 6-3.
It’s a lesson we have never really learned. On that foggy November day forty odd years ago, the Hungarian formation – a revolutionary 4-2-4 with a deep lying centre-forward – completely baffled the English defence, marshalled by one of our great players, Billy Wright. We were completely unable to adjust and respond to the tactical freedom and brilliant ball skills of the Hungarians. Even four months later, in the return match in Budapest, we didn’t change our approach and got battered 7-1 as a consequence.
Watching England fall to Italy at Wembley recently – with a static, unsophisticated defence – it felt like nothing had really changed. Why do we remain collectively so ignorant about European football? Admittedly, we have much greater opportunities to inform ourselves than ever, with Sky covering Spanish games, regular Serie A matches on Channel 4, Euro players arriving in droves to play in the Premiership and a range of footie mags like we’ve never seen before. The Champions League attracts enormous coverage too (especially as Man Utd progress) but it all seems rather superficial. What do we really know about the history of football on the continent and the great minds who helped construct it (and the modern game) in their lifetimes? There is very little in print in England which seriously deals with the story.
Take Puskas for example. Here is one of the greatest players of the century; the most prolific goalscorer of all time, at both international and ‘first division’ level, who captained a Hungarian team that virtually re-invented the modern game, yet until recently there was no book in English about his life, bar the semi-ghosted autobiography, Captain of Hungary (Cassell, 1955), published before even half of his playing career was over.
Over the past three years, I recorded extensive interviews (in Hungarian) with Puskas which were translated by co-author, Klara Jamrich, and edited into the new book by myself. The story of his life tracks almost exactly the development of football into its modern form, and Puskas played a hugely significant role.
He was born in Budapest in 1927, just a couple of years after the offside law had been radically altered (at the insistence of the British) to favour attackers. Nearly 1,700 more goals were scored in English League football the following year, an alarming circumstance which triggered the great British defensive revolution, led by Herbert Chapman, and styled the ‘WM’ formation.
This tactical shape featured a third full back – the ‘stopper’ – whose sole task was to shackle the opposing centre forward.
Though the formation was adopted generally in Europe (in deference to England’s presumed supremacy in footballing affairs), somehow the ‘continentals’ never really took to the idea of a simple ‘stopper’. They always wanted more football out of their defenders than the English did.
Football in Hungary owed a huge debt to the legendary British coach, Jimmy Hogan, who coached first in Austria then in Budapest during the First World War. He returned to Hungary in 1925 where he worked with probably the most significant club in the history of modern football’s tactical development: MTK of Budapest. Coming from the older British tradition which had its roots in the aristocratic footballers of the mid 19th century, Hogan taught MTK a highly-skilled, aggressively attacking version of the game, but combined it with a tactical discipline the old aristocrats had never achieved.
Hogan’s vision suited the Hungarians’ own conception of the way football should be played and by the late 1930s, Hungary was producing sufficient numbers of very good players to challenge the world’s best. (They narrowly lost the World Cup Final to Italy in 1938.) But it wasn’t only players they began to produce in abundance. Hungarian coaches became objects of desire for clubs right across mainland Europe. One of them, Lajos Czeizler, even became Italy’s national manager.
When Puskas and his colleagues came to form the Hungarian ‘golden squad’ of the 1950s, they were led by a series of coaches whose knowledge of the game put them at the cutting edge of its evolution. In the ultra-Stalinist society of Hungary in those days, the national coach, Gusztav Sebes, was of necessity a ‘good communist’. (He had organised the Renault car workers in Paris in the 1930s.) But the coach most directly responsible for developing the deep lying centre forward strategy – and the 4-2-4 shape – was Marton Bukovi at MTK. Sebes adopted Bukovi’s ideas into his national team and it blossomed to become one of the greatest of all time. The Hungarians lost only one match in six years of international competition; unfortunately for them it was the World Cup Final in 1954.
It was another Hungarian coach, Bela Guttmann, who took these footballing ideas to Brazil in 1956 (and the Brazilians won three of the next four World Cups). With the youthful Pelé and the great Didi in the team, they perfected the 4-2-4 system that had been inherited directly from the Hungarians. Even ‘total football’ owes its provenance to Puskas and his team whose tactical fluidity allowed enormous freedom for players to swap roles and positions.
Just as the Brazilians were winning the 1958 World Cup, Puskas was signing for Real Madrid, a voluntary exile from his homeland after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It was at Madrid that he developed a wonderful partnership with Di Stefano, driving the Real team to footballing heights rarely, if ever, bettered. After Puskas arrived, they won a further two European Cups (the greatest at Hampden Park in the game against Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960) and five consecutive Spanish championships.
Puskas retired in 1966, having played 23 years mostly at the very top of his profession and at the leading edge of the game’s development. This truly remarkable man only turned out for three teams (bar a few matches for Spain in the early 1960s) in his entire career: Kispest/Honved, Hungary and Real Madrid. He was never bought or sold in his life but his worth to any team was truly incalculable. Each one he played for just happened to become arguably the greatest football side in the world while he was with them.
From WSC 123 May 1997. What was happening this month