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. 

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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.

When you’re number one at home and see riches abroad: Ferencváros eye the Champions League

THE HUNGARIAN domestic season has ended with Ferencváros, the country’s most decorated club, winning their 32nd league title. It was won with relative ease, with 20 points separating “Fradi” and second-placed Puskás Académia. Ferencváros were champions for the third consecutive year, but at the end of the campaign, their coach, Sergei Rebrov, resigned and is now employed by Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates.

Rebrov’s departure may have surprised some fans, but he had an uneasy relationship with the club and disagreed with Fradi’s transfer policy. 

Rebrov was named coach of the year and was also recently named Fradi’s coach of the decade. There was surprising talk that his old club, Tottenham, may have been interested in talking to him over the vacant manager’s job.

It has been a memorable season for Fradi, though. They lost just one game in the league, a home defeat in January at the hands of Diósgyör and achieved some notable wins, including a 4-0 victory at fierce rivals’ Újpest.

Local bragging rights may have been satisfied, but the real high point for Ferencváros was qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time since 1996. They started their campaign in mid-August by beating Swedish club Djurgårdens and then Scottish champions Celtic. A tough clash with Dinamo Zagreb saw Fradi come out on top by 2-1 before a play-off round that ended with Norway’s Molde beaten on away goals. 

The draw for the group gave Fradi one of the toughest possible fixture lists – Juventus, Barcelona and Dynamo Kyiv. Under normal circumstances, the possibility of welcoming Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the same group would have been a wonderful opportunity for Hungarian football fans. As a challenge on the pitch, Fradi were likely to be on the end of some emphatic defeats and they did concede 17 goals in six games. They only won a single point from their matches, a 2-2 draw at home to Kyiv.

Unsurprisingly, Fradi finished bottom of the group, but the financial rewards for participating will be significant and provide a clear competitive advantage for the club at home. This should amount to around € 16 million but could go higher. This is roughly the size of the club’s total budget for the season.

As modest as it may seem, Fradi are the biggest spenders in the transfer market in Hungary. In 2020-21, their outlay was €6 million, some 4.5 times their nearest contender, MOL Fehérvár (the club previously known as Videoton). Furthermore, over the past five years, Fradi have spent € 12 million on a gross basis, double Fehérvár’s outgoing cash in the market.

One of the more high profile acquisitions was Myrto Uzuni, a 26 year-old Albanian striker who joined from Lokomotiva Zagreb in 2020 for € 1.8 million. Uzuni was the club’s top scorer with 12 goals in 2020-21, but he made headlines for his goal celebration when Fradi played Juventus. Uzuni copied the antics of his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, which didn’t go down too well with the Portuguese legend. 

Another of Fradi’s front-men, Tokmac Nguen, has been watched by a number of bigger clubs since arriving in Budapest in 2019 from Norwegian club Strømgodset. Nguen was born in a refugee camp in Kenya and moved to Norway when he was just five years old. Nguen was reprimanded by the Hungarian Football Federation for wearing an anti-racism t-shirt earlier this year. The 27 year-old was defiant, however, and told BBC World Service that he would do it again. “I don’t feel it’s right that just because I play football, I can’t say what I feel,” he said.

The club, who recently joined the government’s “Hungary Helps” humanitarian programme, has been combating racism for quite a few years and their fans, unfortunately, have gained a reputation for right-wing politics. The current Ferencváros squad is very cosmopolitan and  includes around a dozen different nationalities. 

Budapest is one of the Euro 2020 venues and Hungary are in arguably the toughest group of all alongside Portugal, France and Germany. Fradi will have seven players in the various squads, including five of the Hungary’s selection.

With another Champions League season approaching, Ferencváros will be eager to repeat the experience of 2020-21, both for the players and the club’s financial department. If they can become regular participants in the group stage, Hungarian football could be facing a period of Fradi domination.

@GameofthePeople
Photo: Marcell Katona CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 (via Flickr)