Photo: Peter Miles

HONVED is a name that belongs to the golden age of Hungarian football. The team that Ferenc Puskas played for, a club that spread the word about the mighty Magyars, and before last season, 13 times champions. It is now 14 after a somewhat unlikely title victory in 2016-17.
Based in Kispest, south-east of the centre of Budapest, Honved won the championship on the final day of the season in what was effectively the deciding match against fellow challengers Videoton. A crowd of over 8,000 at the Bozsik József Stadion saw them edge home by 1-0, thanks to a goal from  leading scorer Marton Eppel.

It was Honved’s first title win since 1993. “A lot of people were hungry for success at this club,” says owner George Hemingway. “24 years had passed since we last won the league, so we are naturally delighted. Personally, I hoped for Europa League football, but we are now in the Champions League which is very interesting.”

Honved will travel to Israel to face Happel Be’er in the second qualifying round of the Champions League. Hemingway expects a warm welcome as Honved’s name still has some cachet from the Puskas era.

Obviously the Champions League will bring financial rewards for a club that devotes a lot of its revenues to the development of young talent. Hemingway says with some pride that the title-winning team had six home-grown players in its line-up. “Half of our budget goes towards the football academy, which means our first team wage bill is among the lowest in the league. Other clubs devote 75% of their income to their players’ wages. We cannot do that because we are committed to the development of youngsters,” says Hemingway.

Which makes the Honved championship success all the more credible. In 2015-16, they finished eighth in the league, so nobody really anticipated they would end up as champions, especially as Ferencvaros seemed to be resurgent and Videoton looked to have strengthened their squad.

But Marco Rossi’s young side – at least half were 25 or under – confounded the pundits and maintained their title challenge, coming good in the run-in. It wasn’t until the end of February that they hit top spot, in fact if a surprise champion was going to emerge, it looked like fellow Budapest club Vasas. Five straight wins to the last game were enough to clinch top spot.

Rossi has since left to become manager at Slovakian club DAC Dunajska Streda and Honved have replaced him with Dutch coach Erik van der Meer. “Marco received a fantastic offer and he decided to go, but Erik is a good fellow and he’s got plenty of experience,” says Hemingway.
Van der Meer’s first competitive game will be in Israel. Honved were last in the Champions League in 1993-94 when they faced Manchester United in front of 9,000 people at home. The crowd against Hapoel is likely to be more modest. Attendances in Hungary have nosedived since the halcyon days of Puskas and his team-mates, and even more recently, the average gate in the top flight has fallen from 9,000 in 1977 to 2,700 in 2017. Honved used to get 11,000 for home games 50 years ago, but now average 2,700. Although at a low level, that figure was some 47% up on 2015-16. Honved will soon have the chance to relaunch the club and market a new stadium that will include greater community facilities. Work starts in early 2018 at which point Honved will move in with MTK.

Photo: Peter Miles

Hemingway believes Hungarian football is gradually making progress, but it is a long game. “While the big five leagues across Europe, and others, are paying such large sums of money, it is an uphill task for Hungary, but I think in 10-15 years’ time, the investment that is being made in academies and stadiums will pay off with good young players that can move Hungary up the rankings. I think we have a good opportunity to take football forward in Hungary,” he insists.

Certainly Honved showed in 2016-17 that young players being nurtured and brought through to senior football can win prizes. The gleaming trophy sitting at the Bozsik József Stadion is firm evidence of that.