Calling in on….Ferencvaros, where the world is green and white Reply

P1050277 (800x490)

One of my earliest football memories is seeing Leeds United’s Mick Jones bundling the ball over the line for what proved to be his club’s winning goal in the 1968 Inter Cities Fairs Cup final. Leeds won 1-0 on aggregate against Ferencvaros of Hungary.

Since then, whenever I have pondered on the romance of European football, Ferencvaros – however mediocre they may have been down the years – is a name that I recall. So it was something of a thrill to visit Hungary’s best supported club as it leapt off the pages of the record books and into reality.

It’s a good time to visit Fradi, as they are known. The new stadium, the Groupama Arena, was opened in August and is looked upon as a springboard for better things. Fradi have not won the Hungarian League since 2004, the same year they last won the Cup. It’s been a lean time for Budapest’s most notorious and, at the same time, most loved football club.

The new stadium looks grand, ultra-modern, sleek and positively “European”. City centre-bound traffic is obliged to pass it as it literally sits alongside the main artery, Ulloi Ut. With a capacity of around 25,000 and high-tech facilities, the Groupama is said to be the most advanced in central Europe.

P1050299 (800x451)

It’s good to see that as well as a statue of Florian Albert, the European Footballer of the Year for 1967, the old statue of Dr Springer, a lawyer who became the club’s first chairman in 1899. I’m sure Springer was far more erudite and conservative than the Romanesque, and dare I say, homoerotic depiction that carries his name, but it does add a classical, olympian tone to the ground.

Far more 21st century is the giant steel eagle that welcomes you to the Groupama Arena. This definitely gives off the message, “don’t mess with me”.

Inside the ground, you’re in a world of green and white, the famous Fradi colours. Thanks to an excellent tour, conducted by an enthusiastic member of the club’s communications team, it was access all areas. The dressing room, like all changing areas, gave off the odour of combat and well-used jockstraps. On the wall, the tactics for the recent home game with Pecsi (2-0 win in front of 6,023 people) were scribbled. There was a time when progressive English coaches like Ron Greenwood and Dave Sexton would have killed for such an insight into Hungarian football, but today, the domestic game is at a low ebb.

Gaining the insights from people like manager Thomas Doll and his counterparts is a very comfortable experience judging by the well-equipped press room. It was good to sit in the press conference space normally occupied by luminaries such as Jose Mourinho, who brought his Chelsea side to open the new ground.

Onto the pitch and a chance to sample the players-eye view. The Hungarians in our small party were clearly enthused, lining up one-by-one to be photographed in the dugout. Interestingly, one end of the ground has terracing. “It’s for the ultras,” said our guide. “But we can only have it for league games. When we play in Europe, we have to adapt the terrace. It takes three days to convert the standing areas to meet UEFA requirements.”

Not that Fradi need to worry about that this season anymore. They crashed out of the Europa League in the very early stages, losing to Rijeka of Croatia after beating Malta’s Sliema.

Fradi’s league form has yet to attain title-chasing consistency this season. “Last year, we won the bronze medal, but it is clear that the team will need strengthening later in the season,” shrugged our guide.

Doll’s side are sitting in sixth place after 12 games, having won six and lost four. They are already 13 points behind leaders Videoton. A long-awaited title already looks unlikely. The weekend we visited, they drew 2-2 away at Debrecen. Our guide explained that crowds at the new stadium have been disappointing. “Some of the ultras are boycotting games because of the proposals of the Hungarian FA. It is something that’s happening across Hungarian football, so crowds are not as high as we expected.”

P1050313 (800x428)They are certainly not up to the level that Fradi enjoyed back in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1964, for example, Fradi averaged 43,000 per game. By 1984, that figure had dropped to 14,000 and by 2014, it was under 8,500. This season, the average is 9,000.

Fradi’s past glories are celebrated in the museum that ended our tour. Ironically, when Hungarian football was at its zenith, Ferencvaros suffered its bleakest time. They were not in favour with the government in the 1950s and were forced to temporarily change their name to Kinizsi.

But in 1965, with their rightful name, Fradi won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, beating Juventus 1-0 in the final in Turin. The trophy is in the museum, along with the Mitropa Cup that was won in 1937. Florian Albert’s Ballon d’Or is also there, gleaming in its showcase. Fradi have their fanatics and their ultras are well known, but back in the sepia days, they had a hat-wearing, basket-carrying character called “Kalap” whose effigy stands in the museum. Every club has a “Kalap”.

The tour, the museum and the hospitality of the club left a good impression of a club desperate to regain former glories. Hungary needs a club on the international stage. Fradi have the support, the ground and the history to be that club. But they cannot do it alone – Hungarian football has to find both itself and hard currency again to become more competitive in Europe. It’s a tough task.

Game of the People visits the Nep, the stadium of the people Reply

P1050368 (800x464)

Nep. It was a name that once struck fear into the hearts of Englishmen. 1954, 7-1. Enough said, really. It was a stadium that provided a fitting home for the Hungarian golden team. And it was widely regarded as one of Europe’s great football venues. But like Hungarian football, the Nep Stadion has seen better days. Much better days. It’s also not known as the Nep anymore, as it was renamed the Puskas Ferenc Stadion in honour of the great man. But it’s no longer a fitting tribute to Puskas, but a crumbling edifice. A venue with a limited future.

Simon Inglis, that fine chronicler of football grounds, and the man that inspired a generation of football lovers in cultivating a broader appreciation of the game’s cathedrals and churches, described the Nep as having “heroic scale”. It is certainly massive and can be seen high on the Buda hills, its 1950s stylings and iconic floodlights easily picked out on the horizon. It still looks heroic and typical of Eastern European grand designs of the era. Ask anyone who has the slightest interest in the history of the game in Europe to name some of the great venues and the Nep would feature alongside the Prater (now Ernst Happel), the Nou Camp, the Bernebeu and the San Siro.

P1050364 (250x142)The Nep was built between 1948 and 1953 and was quite literally, put together by the “people”. Puskas, himself, laid slabs of concrete. The stadium has often been the topic of discussion, but the government and Hungarian FA have struggled to make progress. I was recently told that the plan was to demolish the Nep and replace it with a new stadium almost alongside it.

Today, the Nep is an accessible location, as Game of the People found out, despite the presence of TopCop Security guards dotted around the park. Walking round the stadium, the decay is obvious. Underneath the stadium’s huge banks, concrete is falling from the structure, as evidenced by the netting designed to catch the rubble. Foliage – ivy and moss – is growing on the entrance steps, giving the post-apocalyptic impression that people once lived here but no longer do. Other steps are dangerous – in fact as I walked up towards the bowl of the stadium itself, shards of concrete fell away under my feet. Wherever possible, rubbish and discarded equipment seems to be piled up in the bowels of the arena. It is a truly sad sight. Little wonder that the capacity of the ground is now around a third (38,000) of what it once was.

P1050375 (250x205)Inside the ground itself, you can appreciate just how grand and intimidating the Nep might have been in its heyday, especially with 70,000 communist football fans cheering on the heroes of the nation. As with so many “socialist bowls”, there is little cover. You sense that a game at the Nep was designed to be a truly utilitarian experience.

The entrance to the stadium still retains a slightly regal air about it and is accompanied by a monument that seems to list every player who has ever won a cap for Hungary. I hoped it was still being updated, but somehow felt it might not be.

Whatever happens, the Nep deserves to be commemorated. It would be nice to think that when a new stadium does emerge, something of this landmark of sporting history will be retained. Given that Hungary failed to win the World Cup in 1954, it is the nearest thing to a giant tombstone they’ve got for the Mighty Magyars. The Nep is dying, though, and it’s time to create new stadiums that reflect the energy and vitality of youth and modern football. Perhaps then Hungary can finally move on. In the meantime, we’ll mourn the decline of a once proud home of football.