Watching a state of apathy descend over the nation on Wednesday evening, it seems almost difficult to believe that there was a time when the international friendly match was important. As England Reserves and Holland ‘B’ played out a mind-numbing 1-1 draw in Amsterdam (I turned over with about fifteen minutes to play – the first time I’ve ever done that during a live match on the television), my mind began to wander towards a time when friendly matches did mean a lot. I was struggling to think much past England’s 2-0 win in the Maracana against Brazil in 1984 (back in the days when Brazil actually played matches in their home country – they’ll be switching their World Cup qualifiers to Europe next), but I was sadly reminded this morning, with reports coming in from Budapest regarding the death of Ferenc Puskas, who led the line in possibly the most famous friendly match of all-time – England’s 6-3 defeat by Hungary at Wembley in 1953. Sadly, the story culminates with a reminder of the greed and opportunism that blights the modern game.
England were aware of the strength of the Hungarians prior to the match at Wembley, but confidence was still (inexplicably, considering the way that they had crashed out of the 1950 World Cup with a whimper) high. England had never been beaten at Wembley by a non-British team. They were, however, given a harsh lesson in how the game had moved on whilst England and the FA had stood still. Puskas was the star of the show. You can see what happened that day here. Watching the video back, one can scarcely imagine how alien the way that he dumped Billy Wright (who was England’s best defender at the time – the nearest English football had to a celebrity in the 1950s) on his back-side. It would be nice to report, at this point, that the FA learned their lesson and overhauled the way that the game was played, coached and organised in this country, but it didn’t happen. They wrote the defeat off as a fluke, and hastily arranged a return match in Budapest. Hungary won 7-1. England’s team continued to be picked by a committee until after the 1962 World Cup, when Alf Ramsey (who had played in the 1953 match) took charge.
Important though these matches may have been in the history in English football, they were mere bylines in Puskas’ career. At the 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland, Puskas led a Hungarian team that played breathtaking football, putting eight goals past the West Germans in one of their group matches. However, he got injured in the semi-final, but the strength of his abilities were sufficient for him to be selected for the final (again West Germany) anyway. The story of the final was largely the story of his condition. He scored in six minutes to give them the lead, and the lead was doubled a couple of minutes later, but as he faded, so did the rest of his team, and the Germans fought back to win 3-2. Even so, Puskas still had a goal disallowed with two minutes to play that would have taken the match into extra-time.
Two years later, his club, Honved, were involved in the inaugural European Cup when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. They had lost their first leg European Cup match against Atletico Bilbao 3-2, but didn’t return home, and were knocked out after drawing the second leg 3-3 in Brussels. That great team dispersed, and a number of them never played for Hungary again either. He was banned from playing by UEFA for two years for refusing to return home, but eventually signed for Real Madrid, and by 1960 was playing for them in the European Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in Glasgow. Puskas scored four times as Frankfurt won 7-3 – possibly the greatest European Cup win ever. His career is a mountain of incredible statistics, not least of which are his 83 goals in 84 matches for Hungary, and his 512 goals in 528 matches for Real Madrid. After retiring from playing, Puskas went into management, and achieved the not inconsiderable achievement of taking Greek side Panathinaikos to the 1971 European Cup final (beating the English champions Everton on the way).
Dogged by ill-health in recent years, Real Madrid, featuring Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham, travelled to Hungary in August to play a fund-raising match towards his hospital care in front of a crowd of 40,000 people in Budapest. Real’s fee for this “charity” match was a reported £892,000, including an £68,500 hotel bill for their two night stay. It is reported that Madrid took one hotel room just to store their training balls and kit. When the costs had been subtracted, Puskas’ wife received just £7,000 towards his medical bills. It’s important to point out that a considerable amount of blame for this lays with a small promotions company that organised the match (the story has is that Madrid were lured to Budapest by judicious use of Puskas’ name), but the next time any major club starts bleating about lack of loyalty from anybody, be it players or supporters, I would ask you to bear this in mind.