Bread and circuses for the people: Hungary’s stadium project

ONE OF the most fascinating weekends I’ve spent in recent years was a couple of days walking around Budapest in search of traces of the famous Hungarian “golden team” of the 1950s. You have to look hard and you won’t find much evidence, especially as there’s a big stadium rebuilding programme going on, but any visit to Budapest is always worthwhile.

Budapest is a real football city, the tragedy is that very few people watch domestic action but the country has a rich sporting heritage and its clubs, ranging from noisy Ferencvaros to MTK and Vasas, are names from the history books. And of course, the Nep Stadion was where England got mauled by Ferenc Puskas and his pals.

The Nep was where I headed first and although it was supposedly locked up, I managed to get in and have a walk around. It was a sorry sight compared to its heyday and now it’s apparently no more, have been replaced by the new Puskas stadium that will host one of the Euro 2020 games. I’m glad I got to see this legendary home of football, which stands alongside old names like the Prater, the San Siro, Bernabeu and the old Wembley as genuine monuments to football’s development across the continent.

New stadiums are springing-up all over Hungary, thanks to the current Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, and his passion for football. It is wise to check, if you’re heading to Budapest, that the club you’re visiting hasn’t temporarily relocated. It’s about to happen to Honved, who will take up residence with MTK in the new year as the Josef Boszik is rebuilt. Ferencvaros have already got their gleaming green stadium and MTK’s refurbished home is now open.

But what’s this all about? New stadiums form part of the controversial Orban’s strategy for Hungarian football. It is a strategy built on a programme called “A decade of revival – 2010 to 2020”, that has not been without its critics.

The autocratic Orban is a massive football fan who has a child-like belief in the country’s footballing past and the mythical power of the Magyars. In his home town of Felcsut (population 1,800), his pet project, the Puskas Akademia team, plays at a 3,800 seater stadium. Orban’s country house is just 20 feet from the stadium. ”We will return among the great nations of football,” he has promised.

Orban’s stadium project involves the renovation or construction of 38 new grounds. Needless to say, there is discontent over just how much money is being spent on football in a country that struggles to remember when it was last truly successful at the sport. More cash is being spent on sport than education and in a recent survey, 80% of people over the age of 18 felt that much less should be assigned to football and that other sports deserved more financial support.

The Hungarian premier was born in 1963, so he cannot remember Puskas as a player, but the legend lives on. Older Hungarians might look wistfully into space and shake their heads about the World Cup final defeat of 1954, but they will also quickly recall Wembley 1953, a defining moment in their social history. There’s a 1,000 square metre mural in a Pest back-street which underlines that Hungary’s glory is buried deep in the past. It’s a big ask to recapture such a wonderful time for Hungarian football and very few people – other than the most myopic Orbanista – believe that this dream is nothing more than fancy.

With the demolition men very active these days, I was glad I got to see the old Illovszky Rudolf Stadion, home of Vasas, before it was demolished to make way for a new ground. They’re currently sharing with MTK, whose Hidegkuti Nándor Stadion was part of the programme. An evening at Vasas, with its giant electronic scoreboard, was a reminder that central and eastern teams used to have enormous cache – this club once reached the last four of the European Cup!

Is Orban’s stadium project just the modern equivalent of the Roman “Bread and circuses” approach, aimed at distracting the masses from their daily problems? If it is, it’s not working too well – crowds at Hungarian top flight games are still pitifully low, so the impact of a new stadium is limited.

Worth a visit? Absolutely – this is the home of Puskas, Hidegkuti, Florian Albert and Ferenc Bene, after all. If nothing else, it’s a pointer to where modern football probably started, with the “Galloping Major”, the “deep-lying centre forward” and 4-4-2. And there’s no shortage of new grounds to visit – just make sure your club is not in residence somewhere else while the builders are in…

This article appeared in September edition of Football Weekends magazine

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