Soccer Legends: A Needed Overhaul in Soccer History

Christopher McCollumContributor IIJanuary 31, 2012

Unfortunately, pictures of one of the lesser known greatest players ever are hard to come by.
Unfortunately, pictures of one of the lesser known greatest players ever are hard to come by.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

There's a list of players that all soccer fans know. Whether they were taught about them from childhood or learned about them later as adults—names that reverberate through the hearts and minds of soccer fans around the world. Recognizable without thought, without delay and capable to bring to mind memories of exciting highlights and triumphs.

Names such as: Cruyff and Van Basten, Beckenbauer and Matthaus, Best and Charlton and of course Maradona and Pele.

The memories and emotions drawn by these and others, modern and vintage—such as: Zidane, Ronaldo, Schmeichel, Baggio, Bergkamp, Cantona and countless others are vivid and have been experienced around the world.

The names on this list are all valid. The players have gone down and will continue to go down as being not just some of the best of their generations, but some of the best who have ever played in any generation. Once in a lifetime players that could dominate a game with a single touch—a clever pass or shot, or just by simply being on the field. 

There are many omissions from that list of names—simply because to name all of the greatest players would be terribly subjective, time consuming and doomed to leave somebody off the list that deserves to be on it. 

A name that is known through the circles of students of the game's history, diehard fans, critics and masters of trivia. But is not, perhaps, as widely known as it should be—is also one that is often times left off of lists of great players.

He won 10-league titles, three-European Cups, an Olympic Gold Medal, eight scoring titles, was the top scorer in two-European Cups and finished his career with an astonishing 0.97 Goals Per Game in his 600-plus game career that spanned 23 years with club and country.

His name is Ferenc Puskas—"The Galloping Major"—the greatest Hungarian soccer player and one of the world's greatest players. 

His Goal Per Game average is the highest on record for league and national team competitions. Higher than Pele's 0.80 and Romario's 0.70, two of the very few other players that have reportedly scored over a thousand goals in their careers. These numbers are incredibly hard to confirm, as they involve exhibition games and others of which there are not many official records. 

Puskas' story is one that rivals the best of any player in any sport—in terms of interest. He played from 1943 to 1966 with two clubs (or three, depending on your point of view). His career began as a pre-teen in Kispest AC's youth team, before eventually making his first-team debut in 1943 at age 16. This would begin one of the most dominating careers the sport has ever seen. He proceeded to score 187 times over his next 177 games with Kispest.

His time playing under the Kispest AC banner came to an end in 1949 when the Hungarian military took over the team, and of all things—used conscription to fill roster spots and assigned military ranks to players. Puskas eventually was promoted up to the rank of Major, earning his nickname along the way.

The club was renamed Budapest Honved, and Puskas would go on to score 165 more goals over 164 games. During this time, he would steer Honved to five league titles—and would be the league's top scorer in three of those seasons. 

On the international level, the Hungarians known as the Mighty Magyars were beginning to come together—known as one of the great national teams of all time. First by winning the Gold Medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, in which Puskas scored four goals in five games, including the game winner against Yugoslavia in the Gold Medal game.

A year later, Hungary would travel to England to play in the indomitable Wembley Stadium—a place where England had never been defeated. 

To see the man of diminutive height and greater than usual girth, many fans and players on the England squad predicted an easy victory. They believed the legend of Puskas to be exaggerated. Without the aid of the Internet or cable television, it was an understandable mistake—but one that would prove costly as Puskas scored a pair of goals, leading Hungary to a 6-3 victory over England—handing them their first ever defeat at Wembley Stadium. 

England sought revenge, agreeing to a rematch in Budapest. Puskas scored another pair during a 7-1 thrashing of the Three Lions in front of 92,000 fans. This result stands today as the worst loss in England's history, according to a profile on their lone-goal scorer—Ivor Broadis. 

After this international success, including a surprise second-place finish in the 1954 World Cup, they lost 3-2 to underdog West Germany in the final after beating them 8-3 in the group stage. Political and social tension rose to violent levels in Hungary, as people began to grow angry with the Soviet-backed Communist government. This culminated in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution that led to Soviet Tanks rolling through the country, and almost 20,000 people were killed and injured over a two-week period. 

All of this happened while Honved was on a European tour of Friendly matches. The country was deemed too dangerous to return to for the players. Eventually, several of them would—however Puskas did not, and he was labeled a defector. He earned a two-year playing ban from Europe's soccer governing body. This terrible decision derailed The Galloping Major's career, robbing him of two of his prime years of playing. 

Puskas would not play again for Hungary, or in Hungary. After spending time in Italy, he tried to play for an Italian team— both AC Milan and Juventus had shown interest in him before his ban—however they became concerned with his age and lack of fitness, and refused to sign him.

Puskas travelled to Spain and joined up with legendary Real Madrid that had taken a gamble on the 31-year-old. It had paid off in immense ways, the Hungarian striker enjoyed a career spanning eight more years, scoring 157 goals in 182-league games to lead Madrid to five-league titles and three-European Cup titles. 

One of these games went down in history as being one of the most spectacular European Cup games ever. Real Madrid dismantled Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 final, in front of 130,000 fans. Puskas scored four goals in that game—on his way to collecting top honors for scoring in that tournament.

In one of the most fascinating moments of his career, he played in the 1962 World Cup for Spain. He had taken Spanish nationality in 1962 after entrenching himself at Real Madrid—finding his home away from Hungary.

Modern FIFA rules prevent any player from switching National team allegiances after playing an official game for a team, but Puskas is one of the few players to have represented two different nations in a World Cup. Unfortunately for Puskas, he was unable to score in his brief period as a Spanish National Team player. It was the only team he would ever play on, in which he didn't score. 

Puskas retired from playing at 39 years of age. He did not have his charges for defecting from Hungary dropped until 1993, finally allowing him to return home without fear of arrest. He had taken temporary reins of the Hungarian National Team—coaching them to a surprise victory over Ireland and coming back from a two-goal deficit. On his roster were five players from his former team—now known as Kispest Honved. 

He passed away in 2006 at age 79. It was testimony to the change that took place in Hungary, as well as the overwhelming respect for the player and the man. He had been buried with honors in a state funeral—with a procession that numbered in the tens of thousands. The national stadium has been renamed after him, as well as a street near his home club of Kispest.

Ferenc Puskas was the most prolific goal scorer to have ever played the game, scoring in every level of competition from the Hungarian League to La Liga to the Olympics to the World Cup—and winning almost every conceivable award, falling just tantalizingly short of being a World Cup Champion. 

His name is in the history books, and FIFA has done right by him by naming the Goal of the Year award after him in 2009. Although, the history of soccer legends will need a continuous fixing until Ferenc Puskas is a name that every soccer fan knows—along with Pele and Maradona. 


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