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.

Kisvárda, Hungarian football’s mystery contenders

OVER the past six years, Budapest-based clubs have won the Hungarian league title, with the country’s biggest name, Ferencváros, crowned champions in the past three seasons. After a period in which the likes of Videoton and Debrecen sat at the top, the capital city has regained its power in the Hungarian game.

This season, there is a new challenger in the form of Kisvárda, a provincial club from a small town in the Northern Great Plain region of the country that sits on the Budapest to Ukraine railway line. Kisvárda has a population of 16,500 and was once a strong Jewish town until the second world war. Tragically, many were sent to Auschwitz and as a result, there are very few Jews in Kisvárda today.

Kisvárda, which was originally founded in 1911 and now carries the full name Kisvárda Master Good FC, are top of the Hungarian OTP Bank Liga after 10 games, a point ahead of Ferencváros and Puskás Akadémia. The 2021-22 campaign is their fourth in the top flight, but they started superbly back in July, winning 2-1 at Ferencváros’ Groupama Arena thanks to goals from the Brazilian full back Mattheus Leoni and Czech winger Jaroslav Navrátil.

They’ve lost twice this season, at Honved and Fehérvár and their only draws have been in their last two games against Újpest and Paks. Their next big game is on November 6 at home to Ferencváros at their tiny Várketi Stadion, which has a capacity of under 3,000. In a year in which Hungarian fans have come in for fierce criticism, it is worth noting that Kisvárda’s fans recently showed their better side when a young fan died, displaying banners with her name emblazoned across them at the ground.

Kisvárda have a very multi-national squad, in fact 85% of all first team places have been filled by expatriate players according to CIES Football Observatory, the highest in the Hungarian league. They have players from no less than 10 different nations, including Ukraine, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Albania. They also have one of the most experienced squads, with an average age of 28 and one of the lowest number of players produced by their own system.

Their leading scorer this season is Bosnian international Jasmin Mešanović, who was signed from Sarajevo in the summer on a free transfer. The 29 year-old has netted four times in the league in 2021-22. Kisvárda remain one of the lowest spenders in the Hungarian league this season, their gross spend of € 150,000 just a mere fraction of the € 6 million spent by Ferencváros.

Interestingly, the owner and driving force behind the club is Miklos Sesztak, the former minister of development in Hungary. He’s an acolyte of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, a big football fan who has encouraged the development of new stadiums across the country. Sesztak and Orbán are not the only politicians with links to football clubs, there are others among the government ministers.

Kisvárda’s success has largely been well received in Hungarian football, primarily because Ferencváros have threatened to completely overrun the domestic scene and a new name at the top is a welcome change. 

While Fradi may have been distracted by their Europa League programme, Kisvárda have been playing entertaining football and their coach, the Portuguese João Janeiro, has become a popular figure in the media. They’ve made an impressive start to 2021-22, but even the most staunch fan of the club knows that to stay ahead of the Budapest giant considered to be the best Hungarian side since the 1980s is a big ask over the course of the season. 

The Grey Neutral: Knees, Qatar and jobs

THERE’S no doubt the scenes witnessed in Budapest at the Hungary v England game were unacceptable and the outrage was warranted. But let’s think about this, can England look itself in the eye and claim racism isn’t a problem in the UK? No, absolutely not, which is why English footballers are taking the knee at every available opportunity – notably week-by-week in the domestic football. Not everyone agrees with the action, though. Rod Liddle, writing in the Times, said if England want to take an anti-racist stand, they should not go to the World Cup in Qatar. Liddle refers to the knee gesture as corporate virtue gesturing, and adds:  “The notion – advanced by some – that if you don’t take the knee, you’re a racist, is as obnoxious as it is inaccurate”. Interestingly, it is noticeable the TV and media seems to play down the amount of jeering that takes place at some grounds. Liddle goes further by claiming that if “England players really do mean something by that gesture, then how on earth are they going to take part in the World Cup finals?.” He points out there is perhaps no country on earth where people of colour get a rougher deal than in Qatar. The proper response is to refuse to attend, he says. We know that will not happen as football has a habit of shelving its morals when it is convenient to do so.

The sportswashing World Cup

They say that the world has enough oil for 50 years, so the future of oil rich states will be under threat at some point. The World Cup is part of a project that aims to reduce Qatar’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. The cynics might suggest that Qatar are merely “sportswashing”, which effectively cleanses the country’s reputation and covers-up a whole catalogue of sins, such as human and LGBTG rights. This practice has been going on for decades – you can go back to the 1936 Olympics for an early example of how a regime uses sport to try and improve its image. Although lots of undesirable things were covered up in the Berlin games, nobody was completely fooled. And then there was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which was going to be played against a very bleak background. Moscow 2018 was supposed to be similar but somehow, Russia pulled it off. We know too much about Qatar, and we don’t know enough, but the fact remains, this is an unsuitable venue.

Ban them – it’s simple

Returning to the subject of racism and those Hungarian fans. While punishments from UEFA and FIFA seem to be quite toothless, perhaps it is time for countries to boycott or introduce sanctions against countries that are unwelcoming to their teams and fans. Banning countries from the World Cup and European Championship, as well as club competitions, would surely be far more effective. It is time to get tough rather than showing disapproval through very benign gestures. Conversely, Refusing to play an opponent that harbours racists, bigots and right-wing thugs would send a very strong message.

Jobs for the boys

Being a Premier League manager is a perilous job. Expectations are high and mostly unrealistic. How many Premier League managers have won silverware of any kind when managing an English club? The answer is just six: Mikel Arteta, Rafa Benitez, Thomas Tuchel, Brendan Rodgers, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Who has the best win rate among Premier managers? Guardiola with 73.13% before the season started. The longest serving manager in the top flight is Sean Dyche (36.8% win rate), who took over Burnley in 2012. On the subject of win rates, Mikel Arteta, the current holder of the “one defeat and he’s out” trophy, has won 51.1% of games since he took on the Arsenal job. The Gunners face Norwich at home next, the latest vital game in Arteta’s short managerial career.

Other games to watch this week: Leipzig v Bayern; Napoli v Juve; Sporting v Porto, Leeds v Liverpool; Hearts v Hibs, Marseille v Saint-Etienne.

Photo: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, via Flickr CC-BY-2.0