Melbourne’s connection to the world game will receive a unique tribute in the form of a bronze statue of football icon Ferenc Puskas, to be unveiled today at the Olympic Park precinct along the Yarra River.
The bronze statue, a gift from the Hungarian government depicting one of its greatest sporting heroes, will join a statue of Australian sporting heroes, athletes Ron Clarke and John Landy.
Although Puskas may not be a household name among Australian sports fans, he remains one of the giants of the sport due to his extraordinary goal scoring feats in the 1950s and ’60s, when he scored 598 goals in 614 games for two dominant teams of that era, the Hungarian national team (The Magical Magyars) and Real Madrid.
But it was as a coach that Puskas forged a special connection with the Greeks of Melbourne and Athens, where he found success in his coaching career after retiring in 1966.
At the age of 62, he came to Melbourne, where he lived and coached South Melbourne FC for three years when the club was playing in the NSL. The coach (known as The Boss or Mr Puskas) hit it off with his players and fans, forging a winning team which captured the 1991 NSL title with a grand final win over Melbourne Croatia at Olympic Park, as well as Australia Cup and Dockerty Cup trophy wins.
Players who were part of Puskas’ South Melbourne team recall their time playing under Puskas with great affection. Current Oakleigh Cannons coach Peter Tsolakis remembers “his persona, the aura about him”.
“You’d walk into the room and, no disrespect, but there was this chubby guy and he’s probably one of the greatest players to have ever played the game … He was a loveable guy and you just wanted to play for him … I don’t think there’ll ever be a soccer personality of that stature to come to Australia to coach and become involved in football. I know Del Piero came, but you can’t compare him to Puskas.”
Tsolakis recalls a great character. He remembers during matches, the Boss’ voice screaming out his name from a distance when there was a free kick to be taken … “Pee Tar”, for me to take it. He was a very, very funny man. He’d swear a lot in Greek. He was one of the boys, great in the dressing room.”
Tsolakis recalls a story he heard about the coach. “When he first arrived, a couple of South’s committee men picked him up from the airport. At that time, South was looking to sign Michael Peterson from Brunswick Juventus, and so the committeemen were discussing it in the car among themselves. And Puskas was listening in. And the committeemen were saying, we’re going to have problems with the Juventus president, he wants money, etc. And Puskas says to them, ‘don’t worry, I know the president, I know the president. I’ll ring him up. We’ll get him here no problem’. He thought they meant Juventus of Turin. And they had to explain, ‘No, no Boss. Here, Brunswick Juventus’.”
Another member of that 1991 South Melbourne team and current FFV president, Kimon Taliadoros, remembers a person of great humility and modesty who was multilingual and attracted endless streams of people, “meeting us at the airport, hotels, matches to see him, to speak to him, to shake his hand. It was quite incredible consistently, regardless of where we went in the country. I haven’t seen too many coaches in the history of our game be able to do that.”
Both Tsolakis and Taliadoros remember Puskas as a coach who loved attacking football.
“His philosophy was to win games by scoring more goals and not by conceding less, in an era of Catenaccio and defensive football − he was quite the opposite,” Taliadoros says.
“He wanted us to play without fear, with ambition, boldness and confidence. At that point he inherited a talented squad of players and in many ways he brought out the best in the group and our style, which I think gave South fans at the time a lot of pleasure, entertainment and really consolidated South Melbourne as an attractive, flowing football-playing club.”
Taliadoros recalls the Boss participating on the training track where he would sometimes demonstrate free kicks. “His left foot was still impeccable. He would still leave the goal keeper stranded from 18-20 yards. And this was a man in his 60s and over 120kg. He could barely walk. But he had these incredible legs, huge calves and powerful legs that must have been the secret to match his obvious intelligence and craft. Relatively diminutive, he would have been about five foot six inches, but powerful legs that would have supported that football prowess.
“I’m so pleased to hear of the statue being erected,” he adds. “It’s a wonderful tribute to him and also to South Melbourne, I think. It’s quite remarkable in many ways. It captures the global nature of our game right here in Melbourne. I’d love to see some of our outstanding players, men and women, also feature. But to have had one of the greatest of all time, living in Melbourne and coaching, I think it’s a wonderful tribute to the international nature of our game and also of South Melbourne, as the Oceania team of the century. In many ways it captures what’s unique about our game relative to other sports.”
The unveiling of the statue follows a first-time visit to Australia of the annual FIFA Puskas Award, which is given to the player judged to have scored the best or most beautiful goal in world football.