Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Down Memory Lane: A bridge too far for even Puskas

Ferenc Puskas, the Galloping Major, was one of the post Second World War football greats, inspiring Hungary, the Olympic champions, to a new conception of the game. They were simply awesome.

On a November day in 1953 I sat mesmerised in the Wembley media box as they outclassed England 6-2 and then repeated the act — this time |7-1 — at the giant People’s Stadium, Budapest, five months later.

As one newspaper described the Wembley crash, England “found themselves strangers in a strange world, a world of fleeting red spirits for such did the Hungarians seem as they moved with devastating skill in cherry bright shirts”.

English fans learned, as they did after the South Africa 2010 shambles, their players were simply not good enough on the world stage.

The Hungarians were from another planet; the dominating side of that era so when they qualified for World Cup, Switzerland 1954, the first I covered for this newspaper, they were odds on to beat West Germany in the final, especially as they had earlier overcome them 8-3 in a pool fixture at Basle.

Doubts existed for a week over the fitness of Puskas, under treatment for an ankle injury, but eventually he himself opted to play — such was his influence in the squad.

Still, it seemed the gamble had paid off when the Hungarians were two goals ahead within six minutes, Puskas getting the first and Zoltan Czibor the second after taking advantage of a dreadful back-pass from defender Werner Kohlmeyer.

Enter Helmut Rahn, the powerfully-built winger, whose presence hit the Hungarians with seismic force. He provided the pass for Max Morlock to cut one back and then Rahn snatched the equaliser. This was not the Hungary of the rich free flowing and entertaining football. The reason — Puskas just didn’t function.

Rahn struck the killer blow 12 minutes from the finish when he picked up a Hans Schaefer lay-off and hammered a shot past Hungarian keeper Guyla Grosics.

Consternation gripped the Hungarians, who were no longer The Invincibles. Puskas, struggling and in pain, appeared to have retrieved the situation with a late goal which was ruled offside by Welsh referee Mervyn Griffiths. He couldn’t believe it.

Neither could coach Gustav Sebes who slumped into a dressing room chair. Germany had proved the masters technically, physically more focused and resilient in the rain.

Hungary, one of the most accomplished squads in the history of the sport, had failed to collect the ultimate prize. Alas it has eluded them since.

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