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Jonathan Wilson © 1999


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Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich , eds., Puskas on Puskas: The Life and Times of a Footballing Legend (London: Robson, 1998).

No foreign player, perhaps, has ever had as much impact on English football as has Ferenc Puskas. Pele may well have been the greatest of all time, but the only memorable things he did against England were to have a header saved by Gordon Banks, get tackled by Bobby Moore, and then swap shirts with him at the final whistle. Maradona's performance in the World Cup quarter-final in Mexico in 1986 made a deep impression, but that only confirmed what we already knew: these Malvinas-thieving grease-haired Juan Foreigñeros might be very skilful, but you can't trust them as far as you can kick them. Actually, the metaphor may not be entirely apt: I doubt Terry Fenwick trusts anybody as far as he kicked Maradona on that scorching Sunday in the Azteca.

But Puskas. Puskas brought his Hungarian national side to Wembley in November 1953. After the Festival of Britain, the coronation, and the Empire's conquest of Everest, English national confidence was at a high it has never again attained. Footballwise, England had still never lost at home to continental opposition. True enough, the embarrassment of losing to the USA in Belo Horizonte was only three years in the past, but funny results could happen abroad - just look at the American War of Independence. Wembley itself was a reminder of imperial magnificence, the Twin Towers a nod to Lutyens's white elephants in New Delhi. Hungary may have been reigning Olympic champions, but nobody thought that England would lose. As Billy Wright pointed out to Stan Mortenson as they took the field that day, the Hungarians didn't even have the proper kit. Yet England were not merely beaten, but absolutely outclassed. Modern, communist Hungary had taught aging imperial England a footballing lesson, a lesson that resonated far beyond the bounds of mere sport.

Hungary's victory at Wembley was simply one of the brighter jewels in the glorious crown of success that stretched from the late forties through until the 1956 Uprising. As Puskas on Puskas makes clear, that success was very much to do with socialism and with the government. Politics and football, as so often, were inextricably entwined in post-War Hungary.

The coach of the so-called Golden Squad was Gusztav Sebes, a man with impeccable socialist credentials. He had organised industrial action among Renault workers in Paris in the 1930s, and played a major role in the immediate post-War trade union movement in Hungary. As Gyula Grosics, the goalkeeper of the Golden Squad, makes clear, he saw football as far more than a game:

Gusztav Sebes was deeply committed to socialist ideology and you could feel it in everything he said. He made a political issue of every important match or competition. He often said that the fierce struggle between capitalism and socialism took place as much on the football field as anywhere else.

When the National Physical Education and Sports Committee was set up in 1951 as part of a general tightening of state control that included the forced collectivisation of land, mass deportations and the persecution of churches, Sebes was made second in command. That the national team coach should be effectively a high-ranking politician is indicative of the place of football in the thinking of the Hungarian government: they were desperate to use football as a weapon of propaganda.

Sebes used his position to help construct his dream of a squad of the nation's best players, all playing together for the same club side, who could be trained over a period of time as a unit. He had seen that the phenomenal Italian side of the 1930s had drawn virtually their entire squad from just two teams - Juventus and Torino - and he wanted to repeat that formula in Hungary. In this, he was aided immensely by the nationalisation of football clubs that took place in 1949. As happened in much of the eastern bloc, the clubs were taken on by various organisations and trade unions, and, again in a pattern repeated throughout eastern Europe, it was the clubs run by the army and the secret police that prospered. The biggest club in Hungary before the War had, without doubt, been Ferencvaros, but they had a history of nationalism, and dissidents had begun to use their vast crowds as cover for anti-government demonstrations. They then were run down, and became EDOSZ, run by a food-workers' union, while the army took over another Budapest club, the comparatively tiny Kispest, whom they renamed Honved - "Defenders of the Motherland." They were fortunate in finding there Puskas and Kocsis, who were to grow into two of Europe's greatest ever players. Other good players were conscripted into the army, thus becoming Honved players, and the basis for Sebes's dream was in place.

The relationship between football and government, of course, worked both ways, and Puskas on Puskas is fascinating on the government's hamfisted interventions into Sebes's footballing world. The night before the Olympic football final in 1952, for instance, Sebes was telephoned by Matyas Rakosi, the prime minister and general secretary of the Communist Party, warning him that "failure would not be tolerated". The Hungarians, fortunately, beat Yugoslavia 2-0. Similarly, Sebes had met Sir Stanley Rous, head of the English F.A., at the Olympic semi-final and Rous had proposed a friendly at Wembley. Sebes could not agree until the government had sanctioned the game, something they were reluctant to do, fearing defeat. Sebes eventually persuaded them that the potential gains far outweighed the risk, but he knew that defeat could have had serious consequences for him.

Empire v Communism is an easy way of billing that clash in November 1953, but for once such a statement is justified. Even the very way the two sides played emphasised their difference, and in detailing this, the history and ideology of their tactics, Puskas on Puskas is superb. Football began in the English public schools where prefects would do the attacking, and their fags the defending. As a consequence, defending was looked down upon, and formations from the birth of the Football Association in 1863 show teams lining up with a goalkeeper, a defender, and nine forwards. The early offside rule stipulated that players were offside if they were in front of the ball, irrespective of defenders, and as a result passing was virtually unheard of: the entire game was centred on individuals dribbling at their opponent's goal. Scotland revolutionised the game when they observed that passing the ball moved it far more quickly and far more effectively than dribbling, and so they were able to concentrate more on defending, lining up in the first ever international against England with a 2-2-6 formation. Already the emphasis on individuality in the English game was being eroded.

The English, chastened by ten defeats and only two victories in their first sixteen games against the Scots, took heed, and gradually one of the two centre-forwards began to drop back, until, by the end of the century, most teams were playing a 2-3-5, or "pyramid", formation. With the introduction of the modern offside law in 1925, this system became defensively inadequate, and Herbert Chapman, the legendary Huddersfield and Arsenal manager, invented the "W-M" formation, in which the central midfielder dropped in to a centre-back position,causing the two inside-forwards to operate in a more withdrawn role, so that his teams effectively lined up 3-2-2-3. Chapman was a great innovator (among his other ideas were adding Arsenal's now-familiar white sleeves to their previously red shirts to enable players to pick each other out better), but, although his W-M was widely practised in England by the time of the War, conservatism still reigned, and newspapers and match programmes continued to print teams as if they lined up 2-3-5. In Hungary, there was no such reverence for tradition.

Marton Bukovi, coach with MTK, began to experiment with formations, and soon realised that dropping the centre-forward deeper allowed the inside forwards to push on. By then dropping one of the centre-halves back into defence, Bukovi's teams, against teams operating a traditional 2-3-5 or W-M, found that their midfield and forward lines had far greater fluidity and licence to attack - he had created the 4-2-4 that served the Brazilians so well in the 60s and 70s (they, in fact, were taught the system by the Hungarian coach Bela Guttman who went to South America after the 1956 Uprising). Bukovi further encouraged players to swap roles, and thus was born what the Dutch would later christen "total football."

Sebes employed the fluid 4-2-4 with the national side. It was, he said, "socialist football," based upon the concept of a team. When it lined up against the English W-M, a system evolved from Victorian public schools that saw the team more as a collection of individuals than as one single unit, in November 1953, the ideological conflict was obvious. England, either arrogant or naïve, did nothing to combat the Hungarian tactics, and were swept away 6-3. In May 1954, the teams met again in Budapest. Again England refused to change their system, and this time the Hungarians won 7-1. A million Hungarians applied for the 100,000 ticket available for that game, and Puskas recalls spectators smuggling pigeons into the ground with them, in order to fix their tickets onto the birds and send them back to friends' lofts to enable them to get in as well.

In Hungary Puskas and his team were heroes, so popular as to be virtually untouchable. They smuggled, made fun of politicians, and, in a world of show-trials and disappearances, seemed immune. Sebes even managed to persuade the authorities to release Gyula Lorant from an internment camp in order to play in central defence for the national side. There was no doubt in anybody's minds that they were going to win the 1954 World Cup and score a great victory for socialism. They cruised to the final, stuttering only in "the battle of Berne," a vicious encounter with Brazil in which several players were injured and three sent off. Puskas himself had been injured in an early round in a comfortable 8-3 victory over West Germany, but when he returned to play in the final, against the Germans, everybody expected a Hungarian victory. Hungary were two-up in eight minutes, but then a combination of their collective knocks and a muddy pitch began to take their toll and the Germans came back to win 3-2. Puskas had a goal disallowed - he claims wrongly - in the last minute. After almost four years unbeaten, the Golden Squad had lost the one that really counted.

They returned to Hungary to vilification. The Golden Squad gradually fell apart, and Puskas, the target of much of the abuse, saw his star wane as his waistline waxed. Grosics, the Hungarian goalkeeper, was arrested on a treason charge in 1954, and after a defeat in Belgium in 1956 Sebes was replaced as coach by a committee lead by Bukovi. A lot of the magic had gone, and although Bukovi presided over some success - most notably a maiden victory away in Moscow - Hungary's golden years were over. The reformist prime minister Imre Nagy was removed from office in 1955, and Hungary returned to the hard-line Stalinism it had endured under Rakosi until Stalin's death in 1953, Rakosi continuing to pull the strings although the prime minister in name was Andras Hegedus.

With Krushchev delivering anti-Stalinist speeches, Rakosi's days were numbered, and the Uprising came in October 1956. Puskas and most of the Golden Squad were on international duty at the time, returning from a tour that had involved games in Belgrade, Moscow, Paris and Vienna, and, by the time they returned from a training camp at Tata, having been informed that a proposed game against Sweden was off, the first phase of the troubles was all but over. Honved then received a letter from UEFA informing them that failure to play their home leg of a UEFA Cup tie against Athletic Bilbao would result in a two year suspension from competition. Honved arranged to play their away leg first, and so set off for Bilbao. Fighting broke out again, and Honved decided to continue on a tour of Europe, which included playing their home leg against Bilbao in Brussels. A tour was then arranged in Brazil, something the Hungarian FA opposed and slapped a 12 month ban on any player involved. By the time they returned to Europe, Soviet tanks had rolled in to Hungary. Many determined never to go back to their homeland.

FIFA extended Puskas's ban to 18 months, after which he was signed by Real Madrid. Nearing 30, fat and unfit, many thought he wouldn't make it. The second half of Puskas on Puskas details his struggle to regain fitness, and then the glorious partnership he formed with Alfredo di Stefano as he helped Real to their fifth European Cup and five Spanish championships. In a sense this second section is far more of a footballing autobiography -- a very good one, admittedly; none of your ghost-written journo-pot-boilers here -- whereas the earlier part is far more about politics and the ideological function of football in Hungary. The title, Puskas on Puskas, is misleading: though there are several interviews with Puskas, and while he is the central figure, there are interviews with several others and extracts from many other sources. It is this that makes the early part of the book so compelling. Puskas states that he "was not an ideologicaly committed person," and, as such, we see him intent on simply getting by, making the best of life for himself, his family and his team-mates. Sebes is far more complex -- a firm socialist who ends up confused by his rejection by the Communist Party; and more complex still is Grosics, the goalkeeper arrested for treason. It is he who brings out the paradox of the Golden Squad: in a country in which patriotic works of art, almost patriotism itself, were frowned upon and in some cases suppressed, the Golden Squad provided a national focus, something to be patriotic about. The government supported them as propaganda for an ideology, but for many people they became propaganda for the nation.

Puskas on Puskas is excellent, a blend of interviews and articles that give a history of immediate post-War Hungary from an unusual perspective. If I have a gripe, it's that some of the sub-editing could have been better: there are a few spelling/punctuation mistakes, and the blurb on the back contains an obvious factual howler. But these are peripheral: Puskas is a fascinating figure whose footballing career coincided with a time of great upheaval in which he, almost unwittingly, was involved and implicated: Puskas on Puskas is a truly stimulating testimony to his impact on the world.




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