To the surprise of many the former giants of the European game came close to hosting Euro 2008, but Ray Dexter believes a football revival is a long way off
As 19-year-old Bela Koplarovics of Zalaegerszeg bundled the ball past Manchester United’s rather ponderous defence in the crumbling Nep Stadium in August, Hungarian football found itself in the world football spotlight for the first time in a generation. The result, greeted as some kind of sporting miracle in the bars of Budapest, allowed the people to forget the twin scandals of why over half the seats in their beloved national stadium were empty for such a big game (the entire upper tier was deemed too unsafe to be used) and why Vodafone, Manchester United’s sponsor, were allowed to buy 15,000 of the remaining 28,000 tickets for their corporate clients and users.
Optimism continued to grow as this astonishing result was followed by two relatively good performances in friendlies by the national team (1-1 against Spain and a 2-0 victory in Iceland). A minority of Hungarians, who would freely admit to being the most pessimistic people in the world, have started to believe that finally the wheel is turning and the great days are on their way back. The rest have been cheated too many times to even contemplate the thought.
Most Hungarian men claim to be football mad, but very few make the effort to go to games. The biggest game in Hungarian football, Ferencvaros v Ujpest, attracted only 5,018 spectators recently. The six matches in the first division on a Saturday can often attract as few as 20,000 in total. No team has made any progress in European competition recently.
The domestic league has been devalued by the current format, with the 12 teams playing each other twice in the first half of the season, then splitting into two groups to decide the championship and relegation in the spring. In Budapest there is a sports channel that shows an English Premiership match “as live” at 5pm on Saturdays, when domestic matches are kicking off. Many will stay in to watch this in preference to paying the equivalent of £2.50 or so to see their local team.
The biggest problems are indifference, incompetence – a member of the national team couldn’t play in the Iceland match because he left his kit behind – lack of money and a lack of new ideas. Teams are desperate to find sponsors each year, but usually they have spent the money before they are halfway through the season, so good coaches are fired, and nobody is prepared to build over years for success. Wages are not paid. Vasas, the old club from the ironworks area of Budapest, were in Europe three seasons ago but nearly went under this year. Kispest-Honved, Puskas’s old team, 13 times champions of Hungary, found their sponsors had collapsed on the eve of this season. They are still playing, but for how long? The sponsors who put in the money often insist that clubs change their names. So Vasas became Vasas Danubius Hotels, Sopron’s team became MATAV Sopron.
The continued lack of success and resultant financial crises are a perpetual handicap. Even if a team has a good season and qualifies for Europe, they almost always have to sell their good players off to balance the books. Shorn of talent, they begin European competition qualifying in mid-summer and the untried, unfit new players fail miserably.
Zalaegerszeg, from a small town in the south west, were an exception. They won the league in 2002 for the first time in their history, with the help of big sponsors (including the local meat factory) and a shrewd coach in Peter Bozsik, whose father Jozsef played in Hungary’s “golden team” of the 1950s. They managed to keep all their players over the summer and there was great hope after their first leg success against Manchester United, until they were clattered 6-0 by Dinamo Zagreb in the UEFA Cup.
In mid-December, Hungary surprisingly came second in the voting to host Euro 2008. But the stadiums included in their bid existed only as little models. It was far from clear where they would have found the money to build them. As the Manchester United v Zalaegerszeg game showed, even the finest stadium in the land is falling apart.
From the start of next season, nobody will be allowed to see a game without a football fan ID card. The government has already spent some billions of forints to build the new access-gate control system. The spin has it that the grounds will be full again because everybody will be safe, but supporters and sponsors are unlikely to be tempted back. Zalaegerszeg was a freak. Things can only get worse.
From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month