Game of the People visits the Nep, the stadium of the people

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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.

P1050364 (250x142)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.

P1050375 (250x205)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.

Ankle-gate: Puskas and a plot against communism

The tackle of an ideology...
The tackle of an ideology…

If justice was done, Hungary would have won the 1954 World Cup held in Switzerland. Instead, it was the West Germans who lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy in one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history. It’s hard to equate the name “Germany” with “upset”, unless, of course, they are on the receiving end of it, but in 1954, Hungary were red hot favourites.

But was the 1954 final one of the early examples of “gaming” the system by the Germans? If Ferenc Puskas was fit, would Hungary have won at a canter? And did the Germans deliberately injure the “Galloping Major”? And was it all a conspiracy to ensure that, whatever happened, a communist nation would not win the World Cup?

The last theory is an interesting one. The Cold War had started, anything “red” was viewed upon with great suspicion and there was no small degree of tension in Europe. Hungary was not Russia, but it was behind Sir Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain”. Germany was rebuilding after the war and emerging from the rubble of its bombed-out cities. It was in Europe’s economic interest that Germany continued its recovery from the war.

Hungarians had endeared themselves to a lot of people over the previous two or three years. Even England supporters applauded the Mighty Magyars when they walloped the “home of football” in 1953 and 1954, running up 13 goals in the process. The whole of Europe applauded the Hungarians back to Budapest when they returned home, garlanded, by train from London.

Hungary went into the World Cup highly confident. In their group, they were drawn against South Korea and West Germany. They beat South Korea 9-0 in their first game, with Puskas and Sandor Kocsis scoring five between them. Then came the clash with West Germany, making their first appearance after the war. Nobody expected the Germans to win the World Cup in 1954, although they did possess some fine players, notably Fritz Walter of Kaiserslautern.

If there was a flaw in the Hungarian side, it was their gung-ho approach. They were supremely skilful, highly energetic and very individual. Were they too individual? There were rumours that Puskas, for example, didn’t get on with everyone in the team, especially his forward line colleagues.

Hungary thrashed West Germany 8-3 in Basel. They simply ran the Germans ragged. But Sep Herberger proved to be as canny as his successors in the dugout. He gambled on fielding a slightly weakened side to avoid showing his hand, although not as under-strength as people have subsequently made out. Given the peculiar structure to the competition – in four-team groups, only two games per team were played and Germany had won their other game by putting four past Turkey. They would qualify by beating Turkey again, this time by 7-2. Twenty years later, there was a theory that West lost to East Germany to avoid the favourites, Holland in the second stage of the 1974 World Cup.

But the key incident in Hungary’s dismantling of West Germany was a foul by Werner Liebrich on Puskas. It sidelined Puskas for an hour and was later revealed as a hairline fracture of the ankle. Puskas was adamant that it was deliberately designed to put him out of the competition. He later described it as, “a vicious kick in the back of my ankle when I was no longer playing the ball”. Fritz Walter when asked about the tackle, merely said, “he [Puskas] landed awkwardly”.

Liebrich, like Walter, played for Kaiserslautern. He was a member of the club’s title winning teams of 1951 and 1952 and was renowned for being a little “robust” in his approach to the game. In 1950, he turned down AC Milan to remain in Germany. The state of Puskas’ ankle would make national news in Hungary, it was monitored like no other ankle in history!

Puskas, whose ankle ligaments were almost severed, missed the quarter-final against Brazil – the so-called “Battle of Berne” which saw Hungary win 4-2. But he watched from the side and became embroiled when he struck Brazilian centre-half Pinheiro in the face with a bottle. Puskas also missed the semi-final win against Uruguay and so began a race against time to get the talismanic forward ready for the final against West Germany. There were just four days between the semi-final and final.

Puskas, somehow, was passed fit, but to accommodate him, the Hungarian side was reshaped. Laszlo Budai had played well in the previous rounds, but he was dropped to make way for Puskas. It didn’t seem to matter, as Hungary went into a 2-0 lead in Berne inside eight minutes. Puskas scored one of the goals. But the Germans arguably built their reputation in this game, coming back to win 3-2. Puskas thought he had levelled in the closing seconds, but his goal was ruled offside.

Puskas later accused the Germans of being doped and a recent study by the University of Leipzig claims their players may have been injected with methamphetamine, a drug that is often used today to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Rumours also abounded that Puskas insisted on playing, despite his lack of fitness. He was so confident Hungary would win that he felt that even a below-par Puskas would be enough. Some people laid the blame for defeat at Puskas’ door and abused the little man when he returned to Hungary. Two years later, he left the country as revolution raged. So endeth the golden age of Hungarian football and to many, the start of the country’s decline. Would it have been any different if Hungary had won the 1954 World Cup? Some people still think so…