Mention Hungarian football and inevitably the name Ferenc Puskas will be the first on anyone’s lips. Then ask about the modern game in Hungary and people will be hard-pressed to come up with the name of a player or even a club, such has been the fall from grace for a once mighty footballing nation.
There was a time when Magyar teams such as Ujpest Dosza, MTK, Vasas, Honved and Ferencvaros were highly respected, and indeed difficult, opponents.
The end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Eastern Bloc created a different dynamic in European football. Prior to those seismic events, Hungarian football, thanks to state and military investment, still had a place at the table – as recent as 1978, they had an acceptable national team that included talent like Tibor Nyilasi and Andras Torocsik, and in European competitions, not many teams relished a trip behind the curtain to Budapest, despite its obvious charms.
In March 2013, Ferencvaros, once among the most feared clubs in Europe, played their last game at the 40 year-old Florian Albert Stadium. Visitors to Budapest will be familiar with the stadium as the motorway into the city centre flies past the ground. “Fradi”, as they are affectionately known, met local rivals Ujpest in front of 16,000 people – a very good crowd by today’s standards. The Fradi stadium, renamed after a cultured player who was European Footballer of the Year in 1967, is to be bulldozed to make way for a new home (on the same site) for a club that has an impressive history.
That history includes three European finals, two in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and one in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. In 1964-65, Fradi, led by Albert, won the Fairs Cup with a 1-0 victory in the one-legged final away to Juventus. That win, along with the games that preceded it, including victories against Roma, Bilbao and Manchester United, underlined how good Ferencvaros were in the mid to late-1960s.
Three years later, they were runners-up to Leeds United in the same competition, giving Don Revie’s side a tough time over two games. During the 1960s, Ferencvaros won the Hungarian title four times but since their golden era, they’ve been champions seven times, the last occasion coming in 2004.
Fradi’s recent history has not been so good, however. The club is notorious for having some pretty unpleasant fans and a hint of anti-semitism among their number. There’s often crowd violence when Fradi play Ujpest in the “Budapest derby”, but there’s also scuffles when they confront any of the capital’s clubs.
Crowd violence and an inhospitable atmosphere at the crumbling Florian Albert made the need for redevelopment even more necessary. Some say the threat of trouble has deterred people from attending Fradi home games – the average attendance these days is just over 6,000. Furthermore, financial problems – Fradi were actually the first Hungarian club to float on the stock market – saw them relegated from the top division and it took three years to get back.
The new stadium, which is being backed by the Hungarian government’s plan to revitalize sport in a country that suffered more than most from the effects of the great European recession, has been a controversial issue. Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a big football fan (he supports Videoton) and wants to pump millions of euros into a bid to raise Hungary’s standing in the football world. It’s the first time since Budapest’s communist days that sport has been so high on the agenda.
Orban’s rationale is almost classic communist-era, however. “The future of every country is shaped by its youth, which reinforces the government prioritizing sport.” Not everyone is happy with this, notably students who claim it’s a sheer waste of money – so much for embracing the youth of today!
The new stadium may just inspire Ferencvaros to better things, though. This season, they are currently in fourth place, 13 points behind Gyori ETO at the top. Since moving from their old home, they now play their games in the giant Ferenc Puskas Stadium, formerly known as the Nep and the ground where England were once humiliated by the Galloping Major and his gang. Interestingly, Ferencvaros players were not involved in Hungary’s team of that era as the club was then linked with the opposition party. With Fradi in residence, it must seem strange, as just 5,000 people have rattled around the stadium for their games.
Key man this season has been Daniel Bode (right), a central midfielder who knows how to score goals, netting a hat-trick in the recent 4-2 win against bottom-of-the-table Siofek. Surprisingly, Bode is the only Ferencvaros player to be among the national squad, but Gabor Gyomber is also on the fringe. Serbian Milan Peric is also useful in front of goal, but he’s not guaranteed a regular place these days. The squad also includes the inevitable Brazilian, well two, actually.
Home form has kept Fradi in the top section of the table, they’ve lost just once in the league, against Honved. Away from home, they’re less impressive, have won just twice, against the Prime Minister’s team and Papa. It’s respectable, but it’s not 1965.
Hungarian football will never reach the heady heights it once enjoyed, but if the government gets its way, it may just improve on its current FIFA ranking of 33. As for Ferencvaros, it’s an uphill battle to gain UEFA progress. The aim is to make the famous green and white shirts feared once more, and I don’t mean for the wrong reasons….