A unique person, that is how Anderlecht-icon Gilles Van Binst described Wilfried Puis in his eulogy.
Someone who had died too soon and who did not have an easy childhood.
He was raised for a long time by his grandparents; he never knew his father and his stepfather only showed interest when it turned out that Wilfried could play football well enough to become a source of income.
It made the “Puzze” a person who was difficult to read.
Puis was introverted.
He felt at home in the shadow of larger characters: with Van Himst on the field and with Laurent Verbiest next to the field. Verbiest had moved the season before Puis to Anderlecht from AS Oostende and had taken care of the frail and shy teenager. A beautiful couple: the tall, strong Verbiest and the skinny Puis. A couple that was torn apart way too early when Verbiest died in a car crash in Ostend at the age of 26.
“I don’t know how I would have made it without Verbiest” Puis later wrote down.
Puis was a joker.
Besides the Puzze, he was also known as Chang among his teammates, a nickname that highlighted another facet of his personality. When Puis was laughing his eyes closed down to just small cracks and that was the signal for his teammates to be on their guard because Puis liked to laugh a lot. If mischief happened , Chang was usually not too far away: typical football shenanigans like greased door handles, clothing disappearing and handing out photos of body parts that usually remained better covered. Puis was a master of them all.
Puis was loyal but could also be stubborn.
When his stepfather vetoed his marriage, Puis and his bride-to-be went to Gretna Green in Scotland and married there. A story that even made it to the international tabloid press.
And when Paul Van Himst was buried under criticism after the 1970 World Cup and didn’t want to turn out for the Red Devils afterwards, Puis also withdrew.
But above all, Puis was a brilliant football player. Keeping close to the sideline, feinting in and then going lightning fast outside before whipping in a tight cross with uncanny precision to Van Himst or Mulder became a weekly occurence at the Astridpark. A deadly 1-2 combination that was admired far beyond the country’s borders.
Better than Coen Moulijn and the counterpart of “Paco” Gento: that was the opinion of the international football connoisseur.
A losing coach once summed it up as follows: Puis has a hand for a left foot.
Puis often braggedd that he was already technically perfect when he was twelve years old. Whether that’s true is doubtful, but at just 18 Anderlecht had already picked him up at VG Oostende and at 21 he had already won the Belgian Golden Boot.
With his Anderlecht, Puis won 6 championships and one cup before moving to Club Brugge in 1971: Bruges received Puis and Velkeneers, Anderlecht received Rensenbrink.
With the Blue and Blacks, Puis became vice-champion but due to an attack of jaundice he never reached his usual level and Club let him leave for Second division club Sporting Lokeren after just one season.
It could have been the end of an impressive career, but under coach and former teammate Jef Jurion, the winger was reborn. With him, Lokeren won the Second Division championship and he played so well that at the age of 32 he was called up once more for the national team and was able to win his 49th cap.
Barely 6 years later the Puzze would not be there anymore. After a chronic illness, one he had kept secret from the outside world, he died on October 21, 1981.
De Goden van Anderlecht, Frank Buyse & Henry Guldemont, Roularta Books.
Top 100 van het Belgisch voetbal, Walter Pauli & Jan Wouters, De Sportboekerij
50 jaar de gouden schoen, Rudi Nuyens, Uitgeverij Van Halewijck
100 jaar Anderlecht, Stefan Van Loock, Uitgeverij Van Halewijck
Foto: Wilfried Puis at 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.03, bestanddeelnummer 917-0014, gebruikt onder CC BY-SA 3.0