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Hungarian soccer great Ferenc Puskas dies at 79

Puskas led the team to an Olympic gold medal in 1952 and to the final of the 1954 World Cup.

india Updated: Nov 17, 2006 17:53 IST

Hungarian soccer great Ferenc Puskas has died in a Budapest hospital. He was 79.

Puskas died at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Friday at the Kutvolgyi hospital due to respiratory and circulatory failure, family spokesman Gyorgy Szollosy said.

Puskas had been hospitalised for six years with Alzheimer's disease and was being treated for a fever and pneumonia for a couple of days. The captain of Hungary's "Golden Team" of the 1950s had been in intensive care since September.

Puskas scored 84 goals in 85 matches for Hungary between 1945 and 1956, leading the team to an Olympic gold medal in 1952 and to the final of the 1954 World Cup, where it lost to West Germany. To millions of fans in Hungary, Puskas was known simply as "Ocsi" ("little brother"), and it made him "family." Puskas captained what England football great Billy Wright once called "the best team in the world" in those years. "Of all of us, he was the best," the late Nandor Hidegkuti, also a member of the Golden Team, said at Puskas' 70th birthday party in 1997. "He had a seventh sense for soccer, if there were 1,000 solutions, he'd pick the 1001st."

In 1999, Puskas was voted the sixth-best player of the 20th century, behind Pele, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Alfredo Di Stefano and Diego Maradona.

According to the German-based International Federation of Football History and Statistics, Puskas was the world's third-most successful national championship player.

Studying records going back to 1888, the Federation listed the top goal scorers in national championships and Puskas scored 511 goals in 533 games between 1943 and 1966, behind only Pele and Josef Bican.

Puskas was born at Ferenc Purczeld on April 2, 1927, in Kispest, a working class district in Budapest.

He was 10 when his father, himself a center-half for Kispest, changed the family name to Puskas.

"When I was a kid I liked to kick rocks in the street, always making sure I'd hit a tree or another rock. It was murder on my shoes, but great training," Puskas wrote in an article for London's Daily Mirror after Hungary's memorable victory over England. Although the Hungary won the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, its greatest moment came on Nov. 23, 1953 when the Golden Team beat England 6-3 at Wembley, the host nation's first-ever home defeat by a non-British opponent.

"We should have won by more," Puskas said, "but we had never played against the Brits before."

Given the Golden Team's string of victories, Hungary was heavily favored to win the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. But the Germans, led by Fritz Walter, won 3-2, despite trailing Hungary 0-2 at halftime.

"We had an off day," Puskas, never known for using too many words, remarked years later.

Torino Juventus tried luring Puskas to Italy in 1947, but the offer was turned down.

"I wouldn't leave my parents, my friends, or Kispest for anything," he said at the time.

Under communism, Puskas was given the rank of major when the Kispest team was renamed Honved (Soldier) and, formally, attached to the Hungarian army.

But Puskas was never in the army as such and when given a gun to shoot, "I managed to hit the air."

The Golden Team was on tour at the time of Hungary's l956 revolution and Puskas chose not to return when the uprising was crushed by the Soviets.

He ended up playing for Real Madrid between l958 and l966, where he soon endeared himself to fans who called him "Pancho." "His playing style revolutionised Spanish sport," wrote Spanish sports writer Andres Merce Varela and fellow soccer great Alfredo di Stefano simply called him a "super talent."

Back in Hungary, Puskas was charged with treason in absentia and stripped of his military rank, which was restored after the collapse of communism, and he was even promoted to colonel in l992, a year after he resettled in Hungary.

Puskas' soccer career was punctuated by a long list of successes, first as a player and later as a coach.

He made his professional debut with Kispest on December 6, 1943, at the age of 16 and played his last match on May 8, 1966, with Real Madrid.

Puskas won five club championships and earned the scoring title four times in Hungary, and won five club championships with Real Madrid and four Spanish scoring titles. While at Real Madrid, he also won three European Cups out of five finals appearances. As coach, Puskas won two Greek championships with Panathanaikos, which also he led to the final of the 1971 European Cup. The Budapest stadium, where the Golden Team achieved so many victories, was renamed Ferenc Puskas Stadion in 2002. Puskas is survived by his wife, Erzsebet, and a daughter, Aniko. Funeral arrangements were not immediate.

First Published: Nov 17, 2006 17:53 IST