I turned the corner and there it was, unexpectedly, the epitaph of Hungarian football. A giant mural, the size of a house, portraying the game that is ingrained in the sporting history of two nations: November 25, 1953 – England 3 Hungary 6.
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that as far as Hungary is concerned, this football match belongs very much in its social history. They are still celebrating that win in London against the country that self-proclaimed itself as the world champions of football. There’s even a bar in deepest Budapest called 6-3 and whenever a tour guide takes you past the stadium formerly known as the Nep (People’s Stadium), the two games between Hungary and England get a mention (Hungary repeated the torture a few months later in 1954 by thrashing England 7-1 in the Nep).
It says something about the state of the footballing nation when a game that’s over 60 years old is still the high point, but 1954 and 1966 are only 12 years apart and England have still not lived up to their own finest moment.
Today, Hungarian football is at a very low ebb. That “golden team” was never going to be easy to live up to, but two significant historic happenings contrived to really derail Hungary: the uprising of 1956 and the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Both of these events, however necessary they may or may not have been, in a broader context, can go some way to explaining why Hungarian football could never be the same as it was in the 1950s.
Not that the 1950s was the only golden age of the sport in Hungary. It has to be remembered that the Magyars were beaten World Cup finalists in 1938. Moreover, in the inter-war years, they had become very adept at exporting coaches to neighbouring countries such as Italy.
But when the Hungarian revolution took place, the golden team of Puskas and Hidgekuti broke up and scattered across Europe. Before too long Puskas had been adopted by Spain. The mighty Honved side, which might have gone on to become the first European Cup winners instead of Real Madrid, was also decimated.
Hungary were never able to field such an outstanding side again, although in 1966, with players like Ferenc Bene and Florian Albert, they proved too much for Pele’s Brazil.
Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and a dismantling of the old Eastern bloc. Up until then, football had been a state commodity and countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the former Yugoslavia were able to produce technical, physically strong and well-drilled teams. With the collapse of state support and the free market economy of European football, the domestic game in all of these countries suffered. In some ways, that and the advent of pan-European broadcasting delivered the final hammer blow to Hungarian football.
Most recently, Hungary struggled to beat the Faroe Islands 1-0 in the European Championship qualifiers. “This is what we have come to,” said Gal Tamas, a native of Budapest’s XIII district. “Struggling to beat a bunch of fishermen.”
Such a description, albeit an exercise in stereotyping, is about as accurate as describing Hungarians as “salami eaters”, but it underlines the frustration in Hungary.
“Hungarians love football, but they don’t like Hungarian football. Why would they? it’s absolute rubbish,” said Gal. A lot of people share that opinion, for the average Nemzeti Bajnoksag I crowd this season is just 2,802. That almost puts Hungary alongside minnows like Albania (2,700), Cyprus (2,500) and Azerbaijan (2,100).
“A lot of people watch English or German football instead of local football. At least there is skill and commitment. Hungarian players don’t look terribly interested.”
Attendances have been declining for years. For example, in 1961, the average in the top division was 13,000-plus. Ferencvaros would get something like 24,000, while teams like MTK (9,000), Ujpest (21,000). Honved (6,000) and Vasas (14,000) would all get healthy crowds. Not so today, for in 2013-14, these were the average crowds: Fradi (8,000), Ujpest (2,400), MTK (1,400) and Honved (1,300). Vasas, in league two, averaged 900.
Perhaps Hungarian football fans in the capital have too much choice. Hungary’s population numbers almost 10 million, Budapest has 1.7 million people. Can the city support so many teams? Clearly not. Certainly in recent times, Budapest has seen very little success – the last team to win the Hungarian title from the capital was MTK in 2008. The power in Hungarian football has shifted to teams like Debrecen and Videoton.
Grounds for optimism?
This does beg the question whether a couple of mergers might be in order. The only Hungarian team with critical mass in terms of support is Ferencvaros and now that they have a brand new stadium, they may have the springboard for success. Hungary desperately needs a “European” team once more.
The GroupamaArena, which replaced the old Florian Albert stadium, is visible to anyone driving into the centre of town from the airport. It’s a stadium that Hungarian football folk hope will help shape a rebirth of the game. Not everyone agrees, however. Elene Pinter, a tour guide whose family have been Ferencvaros supporters for dozens of years, is sceptical: “I think the stadium is nice, and you hear that there will be some more coming in other places. But who will fill them? Until the clubs, the coaches and the government gets behind developing young players, our football will remain poor and unattractive. I don’t think we will see a time when we can hold our heads high again in football.”
There are some people who feel that there is still too much money in football, although clubs claim there is not enough liquidity. Explains Elene: “We are fantastic at water polo and handball, but there’s not enough emphasis on these sports. We need to celebrate these things more. We are hopeless at football now but people are still earning too much in relative terms.” The average monthly wage in Hungary is around €800.
Can Hungary rise again? You sense that, deep down, the people don’t really believe it, despite some concerted efforts to change popular opinion. But they do still love the sport. It’s not too difficult to find football souvenirs of the Budapest clubs around town and there is a range of official Puskas merchandise on the market – they still love the little man. “The greatest of all Hungarians,” says the advertising. Try living up to that one if you’re playing up front for Honved in 2014 …..you’ve got no chance!