In April 1958, Vasas Budapest beat Real Madrid 2-0 in the second leg of the European Cup semi-final in front of 100,000 people in the Nep Stadium. They had already lost the first leg 4-0 in Spain, so a run that saw them beat CSKA Sofia, Young Boys of Berne and Ajax Amsterdam came to an end.
This past week, Vasas played in front of a handful of people in the Hungarian League Cup, beating Ajka from the hills of Bakony by 2-1. There was a generous crowd of 200 at the Rudolf Illovszky stadium for a very low key game.
Vasas and Ajka, both members of the Hungarian second division, are in the same group as Ujpest and Videoton, so they have their work cut out if they are to get through. On the same night (October 15), Ujpest beat Videoton 1-0.
If Budapest football is the Beatles, then Vasas would be the fifth member. They have always been the poorer relation among the city’s senior clubs, but they have enjoyed good times, witness the European Cup run of 1957-58 when, as the first post-revolution champions of Hungary, they emerged from the shadows of the state-favoured Honved and MTK.
League cup games aside, which the world over never attract the better crowds, Vasas have been getting higher attendances than in the past couple of years. The last two seasons have seen them dip to below 1,000, averaging 927 in 2013-14. So far, with Vasas making another bid to reclaim their top flight place, crowds in their Fay Utca ground are averaging 1,800-plus.
Vasas have always been a “workers club”, founded in 1911 by members of the Hungarian Union of Iron Workers – Vase-es-Femmunkasok Sport Clubja, “the sport club of iron and steel workers”.
I was intrigued to read that Vasas was the favourite club of Janos Kadar, the Hungarian communist leader who formed the first post-revolution government. Kadar loved Vasas and even in his political hey-day, could be seen in the crowd. He played for Vasas when he was young and became president in the 1950s. Kadar was responsible for what became known as “goulash communism” and Hungary was widely acknowledged to be the best place to live in the Eastern bloc. “The happiest barrack”, as it was known in Warsaw Pact circles.
Vasas have won the Hungarian league six times, the last being in 1977. They have also picked up four Hungarian Cups, the most recent being in 1986 when they beat Ferencvaros on penalties in the Nep Stadium.
That all seems a long time ago now and the Illovszky stadium has clearly seen better days. But there’s no mistaking which part of Europe you’re in when you catch a glimpse of the giant floodlights. If Communism was all about illuminating people’s lives, then they got a lot of help from their stadium lighting.
All roads certainly didn’t lead to Vasas, however. My taxi driver was a little surprised when I told him I wanted to go to see Vasas play football. The internet said that kick-off was 6.30pm, but when I arrived, desperately trying to communicate with hand signals and phonetics, I heard the referee’s whistle blow. A stern militaristic policeman told me I would need to go to the ticket booth – insisting that I make it clear if I am home or visitor. I told him I was from England and he smirked, “And you have come to see Vasas?” The locals were not selling it to me.
It was 6pm and I couldn’t just walk in – I had to get a ticket outside the ground before entering it. In a small white booth on the main street, a large, shaven-headed man with a heavy metal t-shirt was selling tickets for the game. “Do you speak English,” I asked. “No”. “Oh shit,” I replied in frustration, as I hate missing the start of a game. I would love to say that I responded: “Szeretnék venni egy jegyet a labdarúgó-mérkőzés,” but I merely attempted a combination of Boxing Day charades and the sort of hand movements that Pat Keysell used to employ on BBC TV’s Vision On in the 1960s. I’m not sure the friendly giant in the cabin appreciated my demonstration of wanting a seat – he may have interpreted it as a question about the whereabouts of the toilet!
After handing over my 600 Hungarian forints (about £ 1.56) I noticed two youngsters selling what I was later told is the traditional matchday snack in Hungary: sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Holland & Barratt would be proud of Budapest’s football lovers. Naturally, being Budapest, paprika had to come into it somewhere, thinly coating the pumpkin seeds.
The next stage was actually getting into the ground. Bag search. The hi-vis jacketed woman pored over my iPad, smart phone, fountain pen and Dictaphone, but realised I was harmless and ushered me on to the seating area which was opposite the “big lamp”, in other words, that sci-fi floodlight. Up some stairs, waving my ticket like Neville Chamberlain at Croydon Aerodrome, and I was in….staring at a near-empty ground.
Around 200 people were dotted around, most looking disinterested in the game between Vasas and Ajka. At the far end of the ground, a gaggle of policemen were perched by the scoreboard, another classic Eastern European edifice. There was no requirement to sort out “home” and “visitor”, but if there were any Ajka fans present, they were segregated. The game was not up to much, although for Vasas, Csaba Preklet looked useful, displaying energy and a little bit of skill. It was goalless at half-time, but in the 52nd minute, Milan Kalasz gave the visitors the lead. On the hour, Janos Lazok, an experienced striker who has been capped by Hungary, levelled the scores. And with 16 minutes remaining, substitute Istvan Ferenczi, who is 37 years old and has also represented Hungary, scored the winner.
It was an interesting exercise. Light on quality and another sad reminder that Hungarian football is one of the sick-men of the world’s favourite game. One Vasas supporter sat with a Liverpool shirt on. I felt a little resentment that the English game, popular though it may be, helped to create the situation we find across large parts of Europe. That lad should be wearing a Vasas shirt, or at least another Hungarian club shirt. I doubt he would be able to put a pin the map to tell you where Liverpool is. “Hajra Vasas!” (Vasas Go!), as they say in the streets surrounding the Illsovszky stadium……