Nep. It was a name that once struck fear into the hearts of Englishmen. 1954, 7-1. Enough said, really. It was a stadium that provided a fitting home for the Hungarian golden team. And it was widely regarded as one of Europe’s great football venues. But like Hungarian football, the Nep Stadion has seen better days. Much better days. It’s also not known as the Nep anymore, as it was renamed the Puskas Ferenc Stadion in honour of the great man. But it’s no longer a fitting tribute to Puskas, but a crumbling edifice. A venue with a limited future.
Simon Inglis, that fine chronicler of football grounds, and the man that inspired a generation of football lovers in cultivating a broader appreciation of the game’s cathedrals and churches, described the Nep as having “heroic scale”. It is certainly massive and can be seen high on the Buda hills, its 1950s stylings and iconic floodlights easily picked out on the horizon. It still looks heroic and typical of Eastern European grand designs of the era. Ask anyone who has the slightest interest in the history of the game in Europe to name some of the great venues and the Nep would feature alongside the Prater (now Ernst Happel), the Nou Camp, the Bernebeu and the San Siro.
The Nep was built between 1948 and 1953 and was quite literally, put together by the “people”. Puskas, himself, laid slabs of concrete. The stadium has often been the topic of discussion, but the government and Hungarian FA have struggled to make progress. I was recently told that the plan was to demolish the Nep and replace it with a new stadium almost alongside it.
Today, the Nep is an accessible location, as Game of the People found out, despite the presence of TopCop Security guards dotted around the park. Walking round the stadium, the decay is obvious. Underneath the stadium’s huge banks, concrete is falling from the structure, as evidenced by the netting designed to catch the rubble. Foliage – ivy and moss – is growing on the entrance steps, giving the post-apocalyptic impression that people once lived here but no longer do. Other steps are dangerous – in fact as I walked up towards the bowl of the stadium itself, shards of concrete fell away under my feet. Wherever possible, rubbish and discarded equipment seems to be piled up in the bowels of the arena. It is a truly sad sight. Little wonder that the capacity of the ground is now around a third (38,000) of what it once was.
Inside the ground itself, you can appreciate just how grand and intimidating the Nep might have been in its heyday, especially with 70,000 communist football fans cheering on the heroes of the nation. As with so many “socialist bowls”, there is little cover. You sense that a game at the Nep was designed to be a truly utilitarian experience.
The entrance to the stadium still retains a slightly regal air about it and is accompanied by a monument that seems to list every player who has ever won a cap for Hungary. I hoped it was still being updated, but somehow felt it might not be.
Whatever happens, the Nep deserves to be commemorated. It would be nice to think that when a new stadium does emerge, something of this landmark of sporting history will be retained. Given that Hungary failed to win the World Cup in 1954, it is the nearest thing to a giant tombstone they’ve got for the Mighty Magyars. The Nep is dying, though, and it’s time to create new stadiums that reflect the energy and vitality of youth and modern football. Perhaps then Hungary can finally move on. In the meantime, we’ll mourn the decline of a once proud home of football.