Before some dimwit in the Ministry of Tourism invented the image of “goulash and the Great Plains” to advertise Hungary abroad, the person who helped foreigners put Hungary on the map was Ferenc Puskás. Even in faraway places like Mombasa, when I explained “Hungary and not hungry” to waiters, they said “ah, Puskas”.
His name became known to the world after Hungary’s historic football victory of 6-3 in Wembley in 1953. The Magical Magyars – as the British sports press referred to them – were the first Continental team to defeat England on home ground. The mastermind behind the victory was Ferenc Puskás, or as he is known to all Hungarians ‘Puskás Öcsi’. This nickname, Öcsi (pronounced ‘urtchee’), reveals everything about his character, and explains how he become an icon for the nation. In Hungarian, “öcsi” is the name given to a younger brother and is reserved for family use. However, when a whole country calls someone by this nickname it implies that he is one of us, the beloved younger brother.
Born into a poor working class family in 1927, his football career began in empty urban plots between blocks which we call ‘grund’. Football has always been the sport of the poor, as no special equipment was needed (not even a proper leather ball, as any ball-like thing passed). If you were talented you could make a swift career. And Öcsi was talented, so much so that he played for the adult club of Kispest at the age of 16 (he falsified his real age). His real debut was in August 1945, just four months after the country was liberated from German occupation, when he received his first cap against Austria (5-2). He played 84 more times in Hungarian colours and scored 84 goals – just one of the innumerable records he set in football history.
The highlight of his career was of course the match at Wembley in which he scored two goals, the second the legendary drag back as he tricked Billy Wright and scored the fourth Hungarian goal with his left foot. The Hungarian “underdogs” made the Hungarian public euphoric and English football management self-critical. In Hungary victory was not just seen as a sports success, but a remedy for all the suffering meted out during the terrible dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi, Stalin’s best pupil. Puskás and the Golden Team became the national heroes, at least until the 1954 World Cup Final in Bern, when the stars of the event were defeated 3-2 by an underrated German (then West-German) team. Just like the earlier victory, the defeat was blown up out of all proportion by the Hungarian public. Even today people refer to it as a national tragedy comparable only to the disasters of Mohács and Trianon.
And then came the 1956 revolution. The Golden Team left for Spain and only a few players returned. Puskás himself chose “the free world” and thus became a pariah of the political regime that followed under Kádár János. After recuperating from the shock of exile from his homeland, he rebuilt his football career at Real Madrid and became known as “Pancho” to the Spanish. After finishing his career as a player he wandered from country to country as a trainer in Chile, Paraguay, Egypt, Canada, and Australia, but his most notable success was in Greece where he assisted Panathinaikos to a series of victories.
He returned to Hungary for good in 1991 only to live off the fruits of a long career and live out his days as the legend the Hungarians needed so much. Though his adulation might have gone a little too far (naming the national stadium after him during his lifetime) he coped with popularity in a jovial and no-nonsense manner. This answers the enigma of how a man whose only talent was to kick balls became a national icon. The secret is – and many modern overnight celebs should learn from him – that he remained the same anti-authoritarian, loveable, generous person that he was when playing on the grunds of Kispest. He died after a long struggle against Alzheimer’s disease in 2006, and received a grandiose funeral.