Hungary's Galloping Major Turns 70

LONDON -- The reactions are a little slower and the paunch somewhat fuller but Ferenc Puskas, who turned 70 yesterday, remains the most mesmerizing of the Magical Magyars.

Puskas, whose lethal left foot was the scourge of rival defenses in the 20 years immediately after the World Wa r II, now just has a walk-on role as one of soccer's most welcome guests of honor.

But there is still a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he recalls a life of football fantasy interwoven with drinking sprees, rebellions and off-field antics that would make present-day coaches cringe.

The Hungarian, whose birthday bash was marked by awards and a gala evening of songs and tributes, has a unique place in soccer folklore as the only man to play in what were probably the two most famous games in history -- Hungary's stunning 6-3 victory over England at Wembley in 1953 and Real Madrid's 7-3 slaughter of Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.

The "galloping major," as he was always known, scored six of the 19 goals in those two epics and brought the house down in both.

His rise from Budapest street urchin to become captain, chief scorer and leader both on and off the pitch of his country, perhaps the greatest national team the world has seen, was remarkable enough.

Short and stocky, ,with an ever-present tendency for his stomach to flow above and beyond the confines of his shorts, Puskas hardly looked like a player.

But he used his low center of gravity to devastating effect, scoring 83 goals in 84 games for Hungary -- an international soccer record.

Most of them were with his ferocious left foot. The right, it was always suggested, did little more than guarantee he did not have to hop around the pitch.

Hungary, Olympic champions in 1952, became the first continental team to beat England at Wembley in 1953, bewildering the sport's inventors with tactical and technical brilliance.

Hungary was hot favorites to lift the World Cup in Switzerland that summer.

Injured in an earlier round 8-3 win over Germany, Puskas returned for the final, again with Germany and scored as Hungary took an early 2-0 lead.

But Germany came back to take a 3-2 lead and a Puskas equalizer in the dying minutes was belatedly ruled out for offside.

Following the Hungarian uprising in 1956 Puskas defected to the West and signed for the legendary Real Madrid side led by Alfredo Di Stefano.

Most people thought he was fat and finished, but Puskas with Di Stefano came close to perfection in the 1960 European Cup final victory over Eintracht when Puskas scored four and Di Stefano three.

Though Puskas was already 33 then, he went on to score 35 goals in 37 European Cup games for Real, including a hat-trick in the 5-3 loss to Benfica in the 1962 final.