12. 29. 2006. 08:08

Ferenc Puskás: Hungarian football is dead

Péter Zilahy

Everybody who knows something about football (and that’s about two billion people) knows that Hungarian football is dead. It didn’t die just now—its condition gradually deteriorated, and in the end it didn’t even recognize itself in the hospital—but on this day it has been pronounced clinically dead. 

Those who saw him will never forget him. My mother—who was never a great fan of football—told me when I was a child that, after having been down the pub, Puskás and the others went over to the pitch where they put a beer bottle on the goal line: Puskás hit it ten times out of ten from the penalty spot in the thick darkness. It’s no big deal really, but as I said, my mother wasn’t a football fan, and all that isn’t so important just now. Perhaps something more important is that everyone from the past century has a story about Puskás. Even mums in Spain have a story about Puskás, as do German grandparents. Anyone who knows anything about football (and thus approximately ten million Hungarians) knows, for example, that the Federal Republic of Germany came into existence thanks to Puskás. Because, amongst other things—and this is the polite thing to say—football is a team game.

When I was ten years old, Puskás returned home, and everybody was happy for this fact, not just Kádár and his associates. Back then, he was 54 years old (I don’t know whether that number means anything to anybody...). He was forgiven amidst great hype and puffery, and he just asked for some lard on bread. The country forgave him for not being able to become world champion, even though he was the best in the world. It’s difficult today to establish exactly was it was they forgave him for, but still, they did. Many may feel grateful to Puskás “Öcsi”;(1) for example, the country of Spain, to where the army major and comrade took back three European trophies (whether he “transferred”, “deserted”, or “fled” there is a matter of opinion). In the cup final against Frankfurt he scored four goals, but he only scored three against Benfica (and so his team lost the match). 

He had a beer gut, and he waddled about funnily on the pitch, “I could do that”, said the person standing next to me mockingly, but he was booed down, and then Puskás did something with the ball, and the stadium gasped in amazement—that’s what they’d been waiting for, for a quarter of a century—Öcsi had returned from that black and white past, from 1956, when everyone was watching the same match. That one match that couldn’t be won. When we were the Golden Team.

When I travelled in England during the eighties I was given lots of free beer wherever I went, all I had to say was “Puskás”. That was the key word. That meant “I am Hungarian”. The heroic son of a distant, colonized country. The average Englishman knew two things about Hungary: Puskás and 1956, but on the second point they became unsure about whether Bucharest was the capital of Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. At the same time they rolled off all the members of the Golden Team by heart, and on such occasions I invited them for a beer. After all, football is a team game. 

Professionals believe that in football—as in many other things—winning is the most important thing. My friends who are football players think I’m an idiot when I say that the game itself is the most important thing. An amateur’s view. But sometimes they add that (amongst other things) it is professionalism that has destroyed the football of today, where players and matches are bought and sold for millions, and where it is compulsory for something to happen every second, otherwise the viewers will switch over.  But the game which everyone remembers is all about that one single moment. In 1954 we were the greatest power in the world, but still, we lost the match. Two years later we were the smallest power in the world, and yet we won. The whole thing can be put down to one key moment. In 1956 the whole world was watching, and the world did not want to believe its eyes—the whole stadium let out a gasp, so to speak. The linesmen called offside in vain; nobody can rob us of the glory. At that moment the whole country acted as one team, and this was something very rare in Hungarian history, just as the world cup final was. Of course, our opponents were necessary for this to happen, as was the amateur approach. Charging against the tanks wasn’t exactly in accordance with the rules. They didn’t count on that. At that moment in time the Hungarian team tricked its way around the Soviet Union. Many people are only familiar with the existence of our country because of this. Many people only know that Hungarians exist on this earth because of Puskás. But only a few people know that Hungary is Magyarország, and hardly anybody knows who Ferenc Purczeld was.(2) Still, who has never heard of the Golden Team?  People roll off the following list of names effortlessly, wherever you might be in the world: Puskás, Pelé, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Maradona… I can’t remember the other names off hand.  What I do remember is that Hungarian football was the greatest. 

But now it must be put to rest. 

Ferenc Puskás won his first cap when he was only 18, and he played into his forties. He captained the Hungarian team that became the Olympic Champions. He was left-footed, which, so to speak, fitted in with the political system. They called him Öcsi, “sonny boy”, and well, he wasn’t exactly tall like a steeple—I would have hit out had anyone called me sonny boy—but sonny boy was like a brother to the whole world, and that’s no trifling matter. A working class lad from Kispest became a Real Madrid striker, and the top scorer in Spain on four occasions. He played in over five hundred matches in the Hungarian and Spanish leagues, and scored over five hundred goals. 

On this day (and for many days to come) Hungary will wake to a day of mourning (because, amongst other reasons, football is…). People will remember many of his beautiful shimmies, his difficult nature, and the countless moments of happiness that he gave the world—live, in repeats, and in legend. It is said that in the early hours he became his old self again briefly, but for a moment so fleeting that even the machines didn’t notice, as Puskás started off out of the blocks quicker than anybody. He did something with his left foot—but the nurse had just turned away that second, and so she couldn’t see how the ball looped over some heads, flew through the hole cut from the centre of the flag, and tore the net in Berne asunder. In his last moment he laughed cheekily at those watching, “what do you mean this match can’t be won?” Immortality is at least a draw. 

Today there will be many different days of mourning, even in those English pubs that I once visited, I suppose. People will be remembering Ferenc Puskás and his legendary left foot, which takes a different era with it to the grave: an era when football was still a game and not just business, a game in which he was the greatest player.

Translator’s notes
(1) Puskás’ nickname may be translated as “little brother” or “sonny”
(2) Ferenc Puskás’ original name

Translated by Philip Barker

Article originally published in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (17 November, 2006) - click

Previously on HLO
An interview with Péter Zilahy; an excerpt from his novel The Last Window-Giraffe

Péter Zilahy's website

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