03/25/14

Ferenc Puskas: The Football Star That Awoke a Nation.

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(Ferenc Puskas 1927 – 2006. Photo from www.theguardian.com )

Cristiano Ronaldo is set to leave yet another indelible mark on the history of Real Madrid. With 240 competitive goals to his name, he sits just two behind ex-Galactico, Ferenc Puskas, who is fourth in the Los Blancos all time scoring charts. This puts the Portuguese phenomenon on the brink of surpassing yet another landmark in his decorated career.

However while the 2013 Ballon d’or winner will exceed Puskas’s achievements within the realms of football, the Hungarian’s exploits beyond the field of play transcend any goal scoring honours. In light of events in Ukraine the story of this revolutionary footballer is worth re-visiting.

Born in 1927, Puskas is Hungarian footballs greatest exponent. Short and stocky of build, the striker was prolific at both club and international level. For Hungary, he scored 83 goals in 84 appearances and in 1954 he led his nation to a World Cup final, narrowly losing 3-2 to the might of West Germany. Puskas was in footballing terms, light years ahead, capable of producing brilliance others could barely fathom let alone replicate. However while many marvelled at his bewitching left-foot, the powers in his own country saw his ingenuity as a problem.

Having been occupied by Germany and then Russia, Hungary had endured times of significant hardship during World War Two. Under the ‘iron fist’ of the Soviet Union the country’s new hard-line apparatchik, Matyas Rakosi, had implemented a state dictatorship rivalling that of his comrade Joseph Stalin. Freedom of speech was non-existent. Thousands of Hungarians were sent to camps and prisons. Like so many other Communist states, sport was used as an ideological battleground. Football became both a vehicle of solidarity and one with which to challenge the West.

But in a political system which espoused collectivism, Puskas was a free spirit. He played for a team that was the antithesis of the martinet regime they represented. The ‘Marvellous Magyars’, an epithet you would hardly associate with a Communist dictatorship.

In 1953, on the 25th of November – led by their virtuoso captain – the Magyars travelled to Wembley unbeaten in three years. However facing England was a different proposition. The English were indomitable at their prestigious home and football remained a proud bulwark of a diminishing British Empire. This was a clash of two footballing greats with contrasting ideologies. England’s Capitalist Imperialism vs. Hungary’s Communism. Gusztav Sebes the Hungarian coach (and member of the Communist government) re-affirmed this:

“The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch.

Captains Ferenc Puskas and Billy Wright lead their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Left Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas, right England captain Billy Wright, leading their teams out at Wembley Stadium back in 1953.

Hungary triumphed sweeping England aside 6-3. Puskas scored two, including his famous – drag back goal – which screamed individuality.

A year later the two sides met again, this time at the newly built Nepstadion in Budapest. Hungary eviscerated England 7-1, Puskas again scoring two. The Hungarian government attempted to bill these successes as a triumph of the Communist system. Yet the performances had been down to the sprezzatura of players like Puskas who defied convention. Football allowed Puskas to do things exactly the way he wanted.

That same year the man nicknamed the “Booming Cannon” led his team to a World Cup final. However the disappointment of losing to their ideological rivals West Germany was too much to bear, both for the Hungarian public and Rakosi. The disbelieving mob poured onto the streets venting their anger at the draconian regime. The protests became a prelude for the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

Rakosi on the other hand took matters into his own hands and found his scapegoat in the shape of Hungarian goalkeeper, Gyula Grosics. Grosics was detained and charged with spying however the case fell through due to a lack of evidence.

Puskas would experience similar treatment. After Hungary lost to Czechoslovakia the national football association banned him for “laziness on the pitch.” However the regime needed its sporting heroes and he was pardoned just a couple of months later.

Hungary’s triumphs on the field and the exploits of their captain created a new sense of national identity. The team’s success helped the country open their eyes to the possibility of independence from their Soviet occupiers. According to Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, the success of the Magyars can be seen as a symbol of the 1956 rebellion. In a BBC article about Hungary’s triumph at Wembley, the writer claims Puskas became “the hero of a fairy-tale, who triumphs where ordinary men cannot.”

In 1956 there was a nationwide insurrection. At the time Puskas’s club side –  Budapest Honved – were in Spain for a European Cup game. The Hungarian football federation attempted to prevent the match going ahead however Puskas was defiant, announcing the team no longer recognised the federation’s authority. Furthermore he openly voiced support for the revolution and defected to Spain.

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Puskas at Real Madrid

A Communist athlete had taken a stand against a government that had tried to stymie his individuality. The Soviets sent in the tanks and the uprising was brutally crushed. Puskas became a pariah but he began a new chapter at Real Madrid. Fearing for his life, he did not return to Hungary until the fall of Communism in Europe. In 2006 he passed away in Budapest.

But what significance does this story hold today? The 1956 Revolution was during the height of the Cold War era. The Hungarian insurgents had hoped that the West would intervene but help was not forthcoming. Recently Ukraine was plunged into turmoil after a rebellion against their Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Russian troops have since flooded into Crimea in an attempt to annex the Ukrainian territory. The majority of Crimean’s have voted in favour of re-joining Russia but the European Union, the U.S. and Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have denounced the referendum. Some have warned we are teetering on the edge of a new Cold War.

At the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Paralympic’s, Ukraine pointedly sent out just one athlete as their flag-bearer to protest against Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Two other Ukrainian athletes covered their medals on the podium in a silent protest. The situation resonates with historic events in Hungary. Then as now, athletes used sport as a medium to express themselves. Thus the story of the Marvellous Magyars and Ferenc Puskas could not be more relevant.

Regarded as one of the greatest European footballers of all time, Puskas was also a revolutionary. In a country torn apart by a deep political schism, he was a figure whose footballing achievements helped people forge a new identity. Puskas awoke a nation to the possibility of change.

Ferenc Puskas – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJYXvqenhVs

12/14/13

An Anglo-Italian Perspective

 England v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Quarter Final

It has been a week since the World Cup draw and the dust has settled on what was a fascinating event. Last week I discussed the social and political implications of the World Cup in Brazil however the prospect of Italy – England has forced my hand to write something a little more light hearted and certainly closer to home.

When Sir Geoff Hurst picked up that little plastic ball on Friday the 6th of December at Costa do Sauipe a wry smile came to my face. It just had to be, Italy versus England.

It is a tie which should provide me with the ultimate internal conflict, something akin to your alter egos, sitting on each shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. “Italia, tifa Italia – Italy support Italy, no its got to be England you should support England” (the conversation would go something like that). Hailing from England with an Italian father who like many on the peninsula has a vehement passion for football I should be experiencing an International schism. Not the case. For reasons little known to my self, apart from the fact my mother isn’t the biggest of football fans, I have always had a stalwart attachment to the Azzurri. Call me unpatriotic, question my ‘love for my country’, apparently something politicians do these days to besmirch a journalists reputation, however it does not make an iota of difference to me.

That said the point of this article is not to discuss the mundane topic of my own allegiances but to compare and contrast two nations whose footballing history makes them behemoths of the World Cup arena.

Whether its Forza Italia or Come on England I will be juxtaposing the media reaction surrounding these two European heavyweights of Brazil’s World Cup Group D.

Press Reaction 

England

It is safe to say the English media quaked at what was undoubtedly a cruel draw. Not only were England condemned to face  Italy and Uruguay (two nations in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings) but they would also have to play their opener in the sweltering heat of the Brazilian Jungle.

Greg Dyke's reaction to the bad news (Photo from The Guardian)

Greg Dyke’s – Chairman of the FA reacts to the draw (Photo from The Guardian)

For much of the press, Greg Dyke’s reaction to the draw said it all. He was caught on Camera pulling his finger across his throat. In typically English fashion this already signaled doom. For Matt Dickinson of The Times the gesture “perfectly captured the story of England’s anguish” while The Guardian described the group as “probably as treacherous as anything Hodgson could have dared imagined”.

It was not just the quality of the group, which also included a potential banana skin in Costa Rica, but also the location of England’s first game – Manaus. The stadium lies in the heart of the Amazon Jungle where temperatures can soar above 30c and humidity can be as high as 80%. The Sun duly published a double spread headed “Amazon Pain Forrest”. The only consolation if you can call it that is that England will be playing Italy, another side who will be unaccustomed to the perilous conditions.

Generally the media reaction in England epitomised the country’s tendency to veer towards cynicism and pessimism regarding their prospects in major events. Events which are frequently anticipated with a catalogue of woe and a sheepish expectation of failure.  It is in stark contrast to the jingoistic, conquer all attitude of the English during the height of the British Empire, although that said there were some who tried their best to rally this type of sentiment. Steve McManaman appeared positively buoyant after the draw speaking on ESPN “I think we’ll be very happy with that. We know how the Italians play. I don’t think there is any problem there”.

No doubt as the World Cup draws closer and closer, whether it be the fans or the press, there will be some sort of wave of enthusiasm that sweeps England and suddenly you may start hearing “well why not, why can’t England go all the way, at least the Semi’s”.

Italy

In Italy the press reaction to the draw was at times just as sceptical but manifested in a totally different manner. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the head line “Italy Pays the Price” with the overview reading “After Blatter, Zidane gave us another ‘headbutt’ by picking us Uruguay, England and Costa Rica”.

Apart from the fact that the analogy in this headline could be construed as slightly inappropriate and disrespectful to one of the games biggest names, its real agenda lies in one of the Italian media’s favourite tough luck stories. Corruption and scandal. Anyone who knows Italy well will be familiar with the peninsula’s love for a conspiracy theory. So when it was announced that one of the European teams from pot 4 was going to be moved into pot 2 and face the possibility of being drawn with another of the strong European sides, everybody in Italy ‘knew’ the Azzurri were going to be that team.

Among the Italian media there was a continuation of this theme. The Corriere dello Sport  went with the headline “Scandolo”  – “Shameful World Cup draw gives us England and Uruguay, while France get an extremely easy group despite being a long way back in the FIFA rankings”. The headline tells you all you need to know. While it reveals a similar candid level of uncertainty among the press surrounding Italy’s chances of success, it is above all because the world and its wife are ‘against’ them.

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Totti given his second yellow vs South Korea by referee Byron Moreno in controversial circumstances (Photo from espnfc.com

This however should not come as shock. In 2002 after Italy were dumped out of the World Cup by hosts South Korea (in what must be said were controversial circumstances) Pietro Calabrese editor of La Gazzetta and a doyen of the Calcio journalist world wrote “We were knocked out in order to level out some problems between us and the bosses of FIFA and UEFA…Italy has no weight…Shame on them…Shame on the World Cup”. Having read this episode in John Foot’s book: Calcio the author goes onto describe other incidents in which the press became embroiled with such stories. So while the media focused on the cruel draw dealt to Italy, much of the comment was centred around conspiracy.

Tutto Sport opened with a rather less controversial headline – “Italy scare Cavani and Rooney”. This was one of the more positive press reactions to the draw yet the paper were quick to highlight Prandelli’s comments regarding Costa Rica. “Prandelli surprised everyone ‘I fear Costa Rica and the climate'”. This is the last team you might expect the Italian coach to highlight but given Italy’s past failure to get out of a group full of minnows (1966 & 2010 immediately spring to mind) the media were picking up on what  is sometimes Italy’s Achilles heel – complacency against the ‘smaller’ teams.

There is a saying the country gets the press it deserves and in this case the media speaks volumes for Italy and England. While the English press wallowed in the nation’s misfortune the Italian press were quick to apportion some of the blame on FIFA and the system. In one case its bad luck and in the other– its wilful conspiracy.

11/19/13

‘They Work Football and We Play Football’: England’s Conundrum

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There is a certain omnipotence which surrounds this German national side, even when facing their second string. This is what England will be up against on Tuesday night, the fringe players, the rearguard of Joachim Löw’s side. But this counts for nothing when you consider the abundance of talent at Löw’s disposal. Roman Weidenfeller, Marcel Schmelzer, Marco Reus and Sven Bender are four of the expected changes, players who were part of a spellbinding and dazzling Dortmund side who lost in last years Champions League final. Then there is Julian Draxler,  another of Germany’s bright young stars in their golden generation. And it was Mr. Draxler who was speaking to the BBC ahead of Tuesday’s clash at Wembley.

What is the difference between the styles of Germany and England he was asked. After a brief description of Germany’s playing style his conclusion was succinct:

“…they work football and we play football”.

He may have hit the nail on the head. England’s style can be workman like, at times arduous on the eye and joyless. The best teams in the world always look like they are having fun. Draxler’s analogy reminds me of comments made by one of England’s young talents – Jack Wilshere.

It was around the time of the Adnan Januzaj saga, “Only English people should play for England”, should we naturalise players who have come here solely for footballing purposes? Who qualifies as ‘English’? Et cetera et cetera. Perhaps without realising the Arsenal young gun had conflated a number of contemporary issues in society. But it was one comment in particular which instantly grabbed my attention.

“We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard”.  

My immediate thoughts were why on earth are you endorsing such archaic attitudes . Then I reassessed. In a week where England had two crucial World Cup qualifiers they were being attacked left, right and centre. Gregg Dyke had announced the new FA commission tasked with improving the fortunes of the England team. His comments regarding England’s chances at the world cup (or lack of) and the failure of young English players in domestic football were necessary yet untimely. Wilshere’s comments were a valiant defence of both the current national side and English traditions. It was a statement with jingoistic sentiments.

Being brave, having character and tackling hard are all useful traits for a footballer, however these traits alone aren’t going to win you European and World Cup medals. Lest we forget it is the Xavi’s and Iniesta’s of this world that have been picking up the International honours of late – two players certainly not renowned for their hard tackling and tough demeanor. And this is where England’s quandary lies. But what is the solution? I am neither talking about a whole sale importation of a foreign style nor a whole sale rejection of existing traditions but a fusion of anglo-continental styles.

Wayne Rooney is a case in point; he has combined English grit and ruggedness with ingenuity and class. A balance needs to be struck and this doesn’t just come down to harping on about improving technique (as important as it is). In an article by Didi Hamann for The Independent, he spoke of the desire in England to find the new Gascoigne, the new Rooney, the new hero that can reignite England’s dream of success. It is a culture that hinders the overall cohesion of the team.

Hamann recently mocked the English hysteria surrounding Andros Townsend and he makes a valid point. Indeed his sudden rise to prominence has seen him become England’s next hero ‘pulling the sword out the stone’.  If the hopes of a team are projected onto one or two individuals then the team will struggle to take collective responsibility and will inevitably suffer as a consequence. The individual is perpetually the hero or villain of the piece. Thus the future not only lies in  ‘technique’ but also in the sculpting of attitudes. But this is a job for the future and Wilshere was talking about the here and now.

The team won’t change over night and Brazil is edging ever closer. England will play a German team at Wembley who have combined talent, passion and intensity with a technically entertaining brand of football. It is a model to which the English aspire. England have characters on the pitch who tackle hard and work hard, they always have done. This is the root of Draxler’s comment. As we all know England have a number of talented individuals and collectively they still have the potential to perform. It is the first time in a while England will approach a world cup with scant expectation of success. I say embrace this. In the words of Julian Draxler England need to go to Brazil and “play football”.