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.