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Soccer legend Puskás buried in Budapest as fans pay homage

Ferenc Puskás, the most prolific international goal-scorer in soccer history, will fill his national stadium in Hungary one last time tomorrow when as many as 100,000 people pay their last respects.

The former captain in the 1950s, whose left foot helped make Hungary and Real Madrid the envy of world soccer, died at the age of 79 on November 17 after a long illness. Puskás is lying in St. Stephen's Basilica and tomorrow will be moved to the Budapest stadium named after him before a procession through the city. “Nobody can even come close to him,” said Imre Ujvári, a 68-year-old pensioner. “He gave us so much joy, so much hope. I can still remember how excited we got when the national team played. All the kids wanted to be like him.” Puskás captained the team that won second place in the 1954 World Cup, a year after becoming the first foreign side to beat England at London's Wembley stadium. He netted 84 goals in 85 games for Hungary, according to the nation's soccer association. Among those paying respects to Puskás are Joseph Blatter, head of soccer's international governing body, FIFA, along with Germany's Franz Beckenbauer and France's Michel Platini, two former national team captains and European players of the year. President László Sólyom was the first to place flowers for Puskás yesterday at St. Stephen's, where the formal funeral service will take place tomorrow. The casket was flanked by four soldiers in hussar uniforms and covered in a Hungarian red, white and green national flag.

The “Golden Team,” or “Aranycsapat” as it's known in Hungary, left its mark as one of the best sides in soccer history and the legacy has weighed on national teams since. Hungary has failed to qualify for a World Cup or European Championships for two decades. The national soccer arena in Budapest, built as a shrine to the 1950s team and renamed Ferenc Puskás Stadium in 2001, has fallen into disrepair. “Hungarian soccer will never be like it was in those days,” said Csaba Fazekas, a 24-year-old student draped in a red and black Kispest scarf, Puskás's former club. “I still go to games, but I'm not even sure why. It's just suffering.” Puskás, whose surname appropriately means “rifleman” in Hungarian, was born in a suburb of Budapest on April 2, 1927, as Ferenc Purczeld. His family hid their German ancestry as Hungarian nationalism grew more fervent in the 1930s by changing their name. He made his first appearance for Hungary aged 18, two years after joining local side Kispest, which was renamed Honvéd when the Budapest suburban club became the army team under communism and led to his nickname the “Galloping Major.”

Puskás wasn't always the hero. A year after the Wembley win, Hungary traveled to the World Cup in Switzerland as the favorite. The final, against West Germany, was a repeat of their pool game two weeks earlier that the Hungarians won 8-3. After going ahead 2-0 after eight minutes, the Germans hauled themselves back and Helmut Rahn fired his team into a 3-2 lead with extra time approaching. Puskás scored to make it 3-3 but the goal was ruled out for offside. It was Hungary's first defeat in four years and Puskás's status as a national hero waned. In 1956, the uprising against Soviet domination in Hungary was crushed, leading to the breakup of the Golden Team. Puskás never played for his country again.

Puskás eventually moved to Spain and focused on club soccer, winning three European Cups with Real Madrid after signing in 1958 and playing alongside Alfredo di Stefano, the Argentine star. He played his greatest European Cup game at Glasgow's Hampden Park, scoring four goals to di Stefano's three in front of a 130,000 crowd as Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. Former teammates Raymond Kopa, Francisco Gento, Jose Santamaria and Chairman Ramon Calderon will represent Real Madrid at the funeral. Fifteen of the Panathinaikos players Puskás coached to a European Cup final in 1971 will also be in Budapest tomorrow, along with fans from across Europe bridging rivalries. “We love soccer,” said Carlos Almeida, 51, stopping in the Budapest basilica during a four-day visit from Spain. “We are Barcelona fans, but you can't not like Puskás.” (Bloomberg)