‘Puskas on Puskas: The Life and Times of a Footballing Legend’ edited by Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich (1997)

“Virtually his entire playing career – over twenty years – was spent not just at the top, but at the very top of his profession.  He never stepped down from that summit.  And whatever he touched in the footballing world turned to gold”. 

Ferenc Puskas sits alongside Alfredo di Stefano in being widely regarded as the best player in the pre-Pele football era.   His achievements were remarkable – as well as being a top player right up to his 40th birthday, he played in two of the most famous (non-World Cup) matches ever to take place on British soil, captained arguably the greatest international football team never to win a World Cup (Cruyff might have disagreed) and even coached Panathinaikos to the European Cup final. Add in 83 goals in 84 internationals, an Olympic gold medal and the fact that the FIFA Goal of the Season award is named after him, and you get some sense of his accomplishments. puskas 1

Puskas on Puskas is an oral history of Puskas’ career, told mainly in his own words.  Taylor and Jamrich supplement Puskas’ own memories with those of his contemporaries – players, coaches, administrators, and journalists.  These reflections are supplemented by the editors providing an overview of the times Puskas lived and played in.  It’s an interesting and informative approach to telling the story of Puskas, the Golden Squad and Hungary under Communist rule.

Puskas comes across as a lively, charming and determined figure. Away from football Puskas was a master smuggler, political rebel and not afraid to speak his mind. On the field he was not just a world-class player but also a charismatic leader, a committed team-mate and a tactical innovator.

Puskas starred in some of the most famous matches in history beginning with the England-Hungary 6-3 match of 1953 that is often (wrongly) portrayed as England’s first ever defeat on home soil (that honour goes to Ireland following a 2-0 win in 1949).  He also played in the controversial 1954 World Cup final (the so-called Miracle of Berne) where West Germany improbably inflicted the only defeat Hungary would suffer over a 6 year period with some help from the British ref and linesman.  If that wasn’t enough for one man, he scored 4 goals in the famous 1960 European Cup final in Glasgow, which saw Real Madrid beat Eintract Frankfurt 7-3 to win their 5th straight European Cup.

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The book, brings to life not only the achievements of the players but also the tactical innovations of the Hungarian team and the challenges of the totalitarian regime that controlled the country.  Puskas recognised and exploited the power he had, certainly before the 1954 World Cup, in a team which the Communist authorities were eager to use to demonstrate the superiority of the “Socialist Man”

There a few hints that we don’t see every side of the man – certainly some of the British players interviewed suggest he may have had a wandering eye.  But the book doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive biography – rather is an oral history told mostly in the great man’s own words.

What makes the book a real treasure is the lack of other English language comprehensive books on Puskas – Taylor and Jamrich did a superb job in capturing the great man’s memories and using them to pull together an entertaining, informative book that is a fantastic read.

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‘Football Against the Enemy’ by Simon Kuper (1994)

Simon Kuper once got me a job.  I’ve never met him and he doesn’t knew who I am.  His move from sports writing to general pontificating for the Financial Times, however, saved me when I lied in a job interview about reading the FT everyday and was challenged to name my favourite FT writer.  My knowledge of obscure new FT columnists, I was told afterwards, apparently proved my keen interest in financial news and pushed me over the competitors.

But before he was an esteemed columnist, Simon Kuper was a backpacking globe-trotter in his early twenties who managed to write a classic sports book along the way.  Football Against the Enemy is regularly cited on lists of greatest sports books of all time.  It fully deserves the praise.

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Kuper traveled around the world on a shoestring budget meeting football people of all stripes and sizes.  From players and managers, to club officials and ordinary fans, Kuper unearths a story in each country that says something profound about the way football influences that society and how that society influences its football.

Written in the early 90’s he book captures a very particular time, both in football and in politics.  I first read Football Against the Enemy a couple of years after it came out when I was 13 years old.  It blew my mind.  It introduced me to a wider football world I really barely new existed – Barcelona as a symbol for Catalonian independence, that clubs called Dynamo all had KGB connections, and so so much more.  The scope of the book is incredible, with 22 chapters covering countries across the globe.

Re-reading it this week, it shocks me just how much impact this book had on my sports reading over the years.  It opened my eyes to sport as sociology, politics and history.  It is probably impossible for me to give an objective review of this book, and I don’t want to do that.  I mainly want to express my love for it, the feeling of discovery it gave me and my joy at reading so many of the books it clearly inspired.

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Football wise, the book captured a time before the total and complete globalisation of the game/world.  Local attitudes and cultures could still impact the way the game was played more than today.  Society wise, he in particular captured the new era of independence among many Eastern European countries.

Simply put it is a remarkable book that captures the essence of what football means in many different parts of the world.  Its a book of its time and place that tantalisingly introduces scores of topics that deserve (and many now have) books in their own right.  Hard to believe that when Kuper was in Barcelona there hadn’t been a serious work published about the club in 20 years – now I plan to do a post on the 7 or 8 books on FC Barcelona I’ve read myself!

For those interested in more background, Kuper recounts the making of, and the initial reaction to, the book excellently in a podcast interview for “Between the Lines” podcast which is well worth checking out.

10 outta 10

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