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.