BOOK OF THE WEEK : Golden boy of the Golden Squad

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The Independent Online
Puskas on Puskas Edited by Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich (Robson Books, pounds 17.95)

It was 1952, and Stanley Rous had just watched Hungary produce one of their finest performances to beat Sweden 6-0 in the semi-final of the Olympic Games in Helsinki. He walked up to Gusztav Sebes, the Hungarian coach, and said, "Mr Sebes, I think it's time we arranged a match between England and Hungary." The rest, as they say...

The central figure in England's historic humiliation the following year was Ferenc Puskas, who reaches a rotund and venerable 70 years of age on Wednesday, and in celebration of his birthday, Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich have produced the hugely entertaining Puskas on Puskas. The title is something of a misnomer, as although the great man is quoted extensively, the book uses the oral history techniques pioneered by Thomas Hauser in his monumental biography of Muhammad Ali (and employed by Taylor in his Three Sides of the Mersey a few years ago) to construct a multi-faceted account of the life and times of a man who, with Honved, Hungary and Real Madrid, was three times part of what the then best team in the world.

As a result, the book is as much about the times as about the life, and the first part presents a fascinating portrait of the rigours of Communist Hungary. Puskas was his own man though, using the frequent games abroad to smuggle luxuries into the country and treat Party officials how he pleased, protected by his status as the people's hero. Ironically, it was rigid state control that enabled Puskas and his colleagues to flourish - Sebes was able to co-opt any player or coach he wanted as he constructed the glorious "Golden Squad".

As the Golden Squad full-back Jeno Buzanszky puts it in the book, "Football, like everything else, is propelled forward by new discoveries," and it was the advent of the deep-lying centre-forward in a 4-2-4 formation that was the catalyst for a six-year sequence of only one defeat (sadly, to Germany in the 1954 World Cup final). The aftermath of '53 is equally fascinating - the break-up of the Golden Squad, the 1956 uprising and Puskas's flight to Madrid. The book picks up pace after '56, and the Spanish years perhaps flash by too quickly, and while we are listing minor cavils, the lack of an index is a mild inconvenience. But these matter little in a biography that succeeds brilliantly.

There is a plethora of anecdotes that give the measure of a lovable rogue. For this reviewer, the most enduring image is a 1971 account by Rob Hughes of seeing Puskas when he was coach at Panathinaikos: "Suddenly he is on the pitch galloping 40 yards to where an opposing player has collapsed. He pats the fallen player on the head ... and turns to acknowledge the chants of 'Puskas! Puskas!' He walks back to his chair the long way round, pausing to sell a couple of Chelsea v Real Madrid replay tickets from a huge wad concealed in his tracksuit." Great days, great man, and a fine book.

Chris Maume