Hungary: Fradi make it five in a row

HUNGARIAN football continues to be dominated by Ferencváros; the famous green and white shirts clinched the title on May 8 after their nearest rivals, Kecskemét, slipped-up against struggling Honved. The top two actually met after Fradi had already been named champions and Kecskemét won 2-0, but it was too late to change anything. Hungary’s most decorated team had been top since the first league tables were compiled in 2022-23.

Although Ferencváros show no sign of loosening their grip on Magyar football, the league’s crowds are at their highest level since 2011-12. The average in 2022-23 for the top division is 3,360 with Ferencváros drawing over 10,000 at their home games. The other teams in Budapest, Ujpest, Honved and Vasas, cannot attract those sort of attendances, and with Fradi earning money from a decent European campaign, the financial differential between them and their rivals is difficult to close. 

In the transfer market, for example, they have spent almost € 5 million this season, more than the rest of the top division combined. In the winter transfer window, they signed Myenty Abena from Slovan Bratislava and Iwusu Kwabena from Qarabag and sold Aissa Laiudouni to Union Berlin.

Fradi hired Stanislav Cherchesov, the former Russia manager, in 2021 and his record has been impressive: two league titles and a Hungarian Cup win in 2022, as well as a run to the last 16 of the UEFA Europa League after topping a group that included Monaco, Real Betis and Trabzonspor. They were beaten by Bayer Leverkusen in the knockout phase.

Cherchesov, perhaps unsurprisingly, signed a petition of protest against the exclusion of Russian football teams due to the Ukrainian war. He took over from Peter Stoger, who had been in the job only a short time after the departure of former Tottenham and Ukraine striker Sergei Rebrov.

Cherchesov, who coached Russia in the 2018 World Cup, is something of a disciplinarian and has a very physical approach. It’s a slightly bizarre situation because Hungary has strong links with Ukraine and since the start of the war, Fradi have provided training opportunities for Ukrainian refugee children. They are not the only club to try and help victims of Russia’s aggression – Kisvarda, from a town of 15,000 in north east Hungary and 20 minutes from the Ukrainian border, provided financial support to footballers in Ukraine who were going without wages.

While Ferencvaros retained their NB I (Namzeti Bajnokság I) title, they missed out on the Magyar Kupa, getting knocked out in the round of 32 by third-tier club Iváncsa. The cup final involved NB II side Budafok and Zalaegerszegi, with the latter winning 2-0 thanks to two goals in the last three minutes of extra time.

As for Fradi, they have benefitted from the goals of Moroccan strike Ryan Mmaee and the Mali winger Adama Traoré, but the leading scorer in the league is Barnabás Varga of Paks, who has 26 NB I goals, which is double the total of the second highest marksman, Honved’s Nenad Lukić. Mmaee (25), is being eyed by Premier League Leeds United.

At the other end of the table, Vasas have been relegated to NB II and Honved, the club of Ferenc Puskás, are not yet out of trouble, while in the second division, MTK from the capital have won promotion, along with Diósgyóri VTK. There are two rounds remaining in NB I, Honved have to play almost safe Mezõkövesd and Puskás Akadémia, while Fehérvár, the other threatened club, play host to Zalaegerszegi and travel to Vasas. It will go to the final game on May 27.

League Focus: Hungary – a three-way fight for Fradi’s title

THIS weekend could be a pivotal round of fixtures in Hungary; leaders Ferencváros are hosting Kisvárda while Puskás Académia went down to a 2-1 defeat at Újpest after taking the lead. Puskás and Kisvárda have been putting pressure on Fradi in recent weeks, but the clash of two of the three challengers could put some clear blue water between Fradi and the two chasers.

Ferencváros won some friends in neighbouring Ukraine this past week by helping Shakhtar Donetsk’s coaching staff to flee the country by sending their coach and driver to the border. 

Given the geographic position of Hungary, it is no surprise there are 15 Ukrainian players in the Hungarian top flight. Fradi and Kisvárda have squads that comprise more than 70% foreign players, the former employing players from 17 different nations.

The conflict in Ukraine has inflamed emotions in Hungary and Fehérvar’s players, including three Ukrainians, protested about Russian’s invasion during a cup match. They displayed messages on their shirts, “Close the sky over Ukraine….no war, support Ukraine… stop the war in Ukraine”.

Hungarian clubs are mostly owned or part-owned by politicans or acolytes of prime minister Viktor Orbán, who is well known to have a strong affection for football. Orbán wants to restore Hungary’s football fortunes, but given the country has a population of under 10 million, it is a big ask. Under Orbán, a programme of new stadiums, costing € 2 billion, has delivered new homes for a number of Hungarian clubs, including Fradi, Honved and MTK. In addition, the new national stadium, the € 500 million Puskás Arena, opened in 2019. 


But despite improved facilities, crowds are still poor for league games, the average top division attendance in 2021-22 is only 2,500 but in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, the league had shown good progress with gates going close to 3,500.  The pandemic has certainly had a negative effect. But even with positive growth, it is still a far cry from the days when the top Budapest teams could call on 20,000-plus per game.

The problem facing leagues such as the Nemzeti Bajnokság I is the appeal of the elite competitions abroad and the lack of money. Total revenues were just € 160 million in 2020, a mere fraction of the money earned by the bigger leagues. The league’s TV deal is more democratically distributed than some leagues with 55% shared equally. Almost half of clubs’ income is derived from sponsors.

In terms of wages, Hungary is probably punching above its weight, € 82 million was spent on players salaries in 2020 and the overall wage-to-income ratio was a modest 51%. This makes Hungary the 19th best paid league with an average monthly wage of € 8,200. Encouragingly, the trajectory is upwards, with players also benefitting from tax changes for higher earners in Hungary.

The performance of Hungarian clubs in Europe this season highlighted that there is still substantial ground to make up. Ferencváros, champions in 2019, 2020 and 2021, were knocked out of the Champions League in the play-off round before dropping into the Europa League, but they finished bottom of a group that included Bayer Leverkusen, Real Betis and Celtic. The national team has also been knocked out of the World Cup in a qualifying group that included England and Poland.

Fradi currently lead the table, but they have been less consistent since the restart after the winter break, losing 3-0 at home to Paks, but winning both of their away games. They have also reached the semi-finals of the Magyar Kupa and will face local rivals Újpest for a place in the final. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov, who managed Russia in the 2018 World Cup, was appointed towards the end of 2021 and since he arrived, Fradi have won just two of six league matches.

Fradi lost their leading scorer Myrto Uzuni at the end of January to Spain’s Granada for € 3 million. The Albanian international had netted 21 goals in 31 games, including six in a cup game against Hatvan. Since joining Granada, he has been yellow-carded in almost every game, but there are high hopes for the 26 year-old, who is a versatile and speedy striker.

Puskás Académia, from Felcsút, are waiting for Fradi to slip up and have won four points off the reigning champions this season. This club is something of an obsession for PM Orbán, including the construction of the Pancho Arena, built as a tribute to Ferénc Puskás. The club has yet to win a major honour.

Kisvárda are from the northern great plain by the Slovakia/Ukraine border and they represent a town with a population of just 16,000. They started the season with a 2-1 win at Fradi, but they were beaten 4-0 at home by the green and whites from the capital. In all, they have lost just three times in the league in 2021-22.

If Fradi win against Kisvárda, they will open up a five-point lead at the top. There will be many twists and turns before the season is out and Hungary is uncomfortably close to Ukraine, reminding everyone that there are more important things than football.