James Lawton: The guts and the glory of the refugee from Hungary who reinvented his sport

'He had genius that sometimes seemed like a fantasy. He was a gift to football'
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Ferenc Puskas' death in his home town of Budapest came 46 years after the apex of his glory. That's a long time to live in the heart of the world's most popular game, especially when you consider the scale of the intrusions by the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and George Best, but when the news came in yesterday it was just as if someone had turned off the lights.

Puskas was not the greatest player of his day. The hardest judges award that honour to his Real Madrid team-mate Alfredo Di Stefano, a maker and a scorer of goals, a man whose strength, competitive will and fabulous technique still bring a gasp of awe from, among so many of his opponents, Sir Bobby Charlton. But Puskas was special in a way that mocked all boundaries of logic and professional discipline.

He drank too much red wine and he ate too many spicy sausages. After the ravages of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, he became a football refugee, rejected by the Italians the moment they glimpsed his sagging gut and the deep sense of dislocation they thought they saw in his eyes. Then he resurfaced in Madrid and when Real beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in 1960 in the European Cup final before 135,000 fans at Hampden, Puskas, who scored four, and Di Stefano, three, were said to have shaped possibly the greatest football match ever played.

Back in the 1970s, when he was coach of Valencia, Di Stefano was reticent about rekindling the old glory but when asked about Puskas his strongly sculpted face softened, he sighed and said, "Ah, Ferenc Puskas ... there were times when he made me mad and I shouted at him because I thought he could be more professional but then he said something, or did something, which made you fall in love with him all over again. He had genius that sometimes seemed like a fantasy. He scored impossible goals. He was a gift to football."

A young English professional, who would go on to be one of only two of his nation to win both the World Cup and the European Cup was taking his first steps in the game when he saw one of those ferocious disputes between Di Stefano, the Blond Arrow, and Puskas, the Galloping Major, who was given his rank when the Hungarian army took over the club his father trained, Kispest AC.

Nobby Stiles recalls, "It was at a friendly match at Old Trafford in 1961, one of a series of games Real had agreed to play as United recovered from the effects of the Munich aircrash. In the last game we had lost 6-0 at the Bernabeu but this time we were leading 2-0 at half-time. I was 19 and had run myself silly. As I came off the field I noticed that Di Stefano was giving Puskas one of the biggest public bollockings I had ever seen.

"He pointed his finger at the Hungarian, then jabbed into his chest. He gesticulated, he raged. This went on all the way off the pitch and into the tunnel. I was fascinated. Di Stefano was so intense and Puskas was shrugging his shoulders, as if to say, 'Hold on, Alfredo, this isn't the European Cup, this is a bloody friendly.'

"It was clear to me that Di Stefano was saying that every time you went on the field you had to give your best. When it was time for the second half I was first out of our dressing-room and hid behind the half-open door of a store room in a corridor leading to the tunnel. I wanted to watch Real Madrid come down to the field and see if anything had been resolved between two of the greatest players I knew I would ever see.

"Nothing had been settled, at least not to the satisfaction of Di Stefano. He and Puskas came out of the dressing-room side by side and the bollocking was still going on. I didn't need to know Spanish to understand what Di Stefano was saying. He was telling Puskas he wasn't putting enough in. He did in the second half. He came alive. The game finished 2-2. It was a lesson I would never forget."

There is irony in this story of Di Stefano's seminar because in the early 1950s it was Puskas and his Hungarians who were showing the world how they had reinvented the game. They won, as a sham-amateur army team, Olympic gold in Helsinki in 1952, stringing together an astonishing 32 games without defeat, a run that ended with their shocking loss to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final.

Earlier they had beaten Germany 8-3 in a group game but the formality of final victory was consumed by the hard-running Germans - and Puskas' critical injury. In 1953 they came to Wembley and delivered a shattering lesson to a nation which still believed it owned the game, a misapprehension which sometimes still seems to linger bizarrely in some quarters. Puskas was the rotund star of stars in the 6-3 win, and then the 7-1 evisceration of England in the return game at the Nep Stadium in Budapest which many years later would carry his name.

Malcolm Allison, still considered by many to be the most brilliantly perceptive coach in the history of English football, was in the stunned crowd at Wembley. He remembered vividly the impact of the Hungarians, whose withdrawn No 9, Nandor Hidegkuti, drew defenders like a siren, creating space for devastating strikes, especially from Puskas.

Before the game, Allison and Jimmy Andrews, who would later manage Cardiff City, watched Puskas working out with his team-mates on a patch of grass where the greyhounds were normally exercised. Allison said the technique was startlingly good, but Andrews pointed to Puskas' belly, saying, "They can't win with a guy like that."

"I disagreed as soon as I saw Puskas shooting in during the warm-up," Allison recalled. "I told Jimmy, you know this could be interesting."

What Allison saw that day in 1953 coloured all his work and when nearly 20 years later, he took his Manchester City, winners of the League title, FA Cup, Cup-Winners' Cup and League Cup, to a tie in Budapest he delved into his hero's past.

He was taken to the little restaurant where Puskas laid the basis for his "pot" and the house with the red chimney where he had lived and which would become a shrine to Hungarian football. He was told how Sandor Kocsis, another star of the great side, and Puskas - as 16-year-olds - scraped together a few coins to send Puskas Snr, the trainer, to his favourite wine shop. Meanwhile, Puskas and Kocsis practised endlessly on a scrubby little field beside a railway track.

The roll-call of Puskas' glory is staggering. In 84 games for Hungary he scored 83 goals. Four times he was top scorer in the Spanish league; long after the Italians had considered him a sad relic of another epoch, he won five Spanish titles with Real. But if statistics are not always lies, sometimes they fail to convey the most compelling aspect of a story.

Puskas didn't compile goals. He conjured them with mesmerising speed and skill. The goal he hooked in against England at Wembley was not so much a score as a revelation. He was pugnacious and scrappy, involving himself in the notorious Battle of Berne with the Brazilians in the 1954 World Cup even though he was forced to sit on the touchline because of injury.

The Brazilians, beaten 4-2 in the quarter-finals, claimed that Puskas had attacked and wounded their central defender Pinheiro. Puskas played injured in the final against West Germany. His extraordinary capacity to swivel and shoot in the tightest of situations was absent but he still scored a goal. He scored 50 championship goals when he led Honved to a Hungarian title and in 528 matches for Real he scored 512 goals.

His death from pneumonia at the age of 79 was something of a deliverance in that his last six years were spent in hospital and the shadowland of Alzheimer's disease. However, no footballer alive had less need to be the guardian and chronicler of his best days. When Hungary finally forgave his defection, they were merely stepping into line with the rest of the world. There, he had long been pronounced unforgettable.