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.

League Focus: Switzerland – Zurich back on top

SWITZERLAND doesn’t get too much exposure for its domestic football. The country has a reasonable record in recent years at national level and has qualified for Qatar 2022, but most of the publicity around football usually focuses on UEFA and FIFA, who both have their headquarters in Switzerland.

The Swiss Super League has a reputation for being a goal-happy competition, but in 2020-21, the goal-per-game rate went below three and was less than neighbouring leagues such as the Bundesliga, Austrian Bundesliga and Serie A.

This season, FC Zurich are leading the way in the Super League and already have a seven point margin over second-placed Basel. Champions for the last four years, Young Boys Bern, look in danger of losing their crown and are in third position. Zurich have not been champions since 2008-09, but they won the Swiss Cup in 2018, 2016 and 2014. In 2016, they were relegated from the Super League but came back iat the first attempt in 2017.  

Zurich may have only lost two games in the league, but tellingly, the defeats include a 4-0 humbling by Young Boys and a 3-1 loss in Basel. They have scored 43 goals in 18 games, with Gambia international Assan Ceesay the leading scorer with 10. Ceesay has played for his country in the Africa Cup of Nations that is currently in progress in Cameroon.

Basel may not be the driving force in Switzerland at present, but they have the league’s leading scorer in 23 year-old Arthur Cabral, who has netted an impressive 14 goals in 18 games. Basel had a good UEFA Conference League group stage, winning four of six games and qualifying for the last 16.

Young Boys, managed by David Wagner, crashed out of the UEFA Champions League in a group that included Manchester United, Villareal and Atalanta. They won just one game, a 2-1 victory against United. Unfortunately, they finished bottom and failed to gain a consolation place in the Europa League.

In economic terms, Young Boys and Basel are significantly stronger than the rest of the Super League, but like all clubs, they have suffered from losses during the covid-19 pandemic. In 2019-20, matchday revenues collapsed in Switzerland and the overall impact on earnings was quite marked – Young Boys suffered a 38% drop to CHF 36.2 million, while Basel’s income was down by 46% to CHF 27.2 million. Zurich’s situation was even worse, a decline of 65% to CHF 8.8 million.

Swiss football has a greater reliance on matchday earnings than many major leagues across Europe, so the pandemic has been especially harsh for the clubs. According to Deloitte, the Swiss Super League (in 2020) generated around € 229 million and matchday generally accounts for 35%, but in 2019-20, matchday dropped by 57%. Young Boys, for example, saw their matchday earnings fall by 41%. Deloitte also noted that in 2021 that only Basel (54%) and St. Gallen (41%) had healthy equity ratios.

The Swiss Super League’s peers include Austria, Scotland and, at a push, Denmark. Their revenues are comparable, although the Danish Superliga generates around € 70 million less than its Swiss counterpart. Austria pays less of its income on wages, 57% versus 70%, but the TV deal is substantially better than Switzerland’s.

The pandemic has obviously had a negative impact on the transfer market. Since 2019-20, Basel have been the biggest spenders, paying out € 22.5 million and recouping € 41.9 million. In 2021-22, Young Boys top the list so far at € 2.5 million of expenditure. Basel are among the top 10 clubs for providing talent to the big five leagues in Europe, notably the German Bundesliga.

Will Zurich hold on to their lead in the second half of the season? They have added to their squad in the form of Estonia international Karol Mets from CSKA Sofia, a deal that cost Zurich € 200,000. Basel, meanwhile, have signed Noah Katterback from Köln and Albian Hajdari of Juventus, both on loan. Young Boys have also been busy, securing the services of Anthony Racioppi from Dijon and Nicholas Ammeter from Arau (loan).

The Swiss Super League resumes after the winter break on January 29.