Hungary for success

In the build up to the 1998 World Cup Simon Harris assesses whether Hungary's fortunes may be changing for the better – and explains how they came to sink so low in the first place

Poor old Ferenc Puskas. It doesn’t matter which Hungarian team is playing in Europe, his old club Honved, Ferencvaros, Ujpest or lesser names like Videoton or MTK, the foreign press are there waiting for their Puskas quote.

The star Ferencvaros player walks past the press corps unnoticed, the opposition manager gets his name misspelt if he is lucky. But Puskas, in his Seventies, wanting to enjoy a quiet life of beer and beef stew, who pops along to the odd game for a few pints with his old mates, is still the official voice of Hungarian football.

While, like people of all small countries they love any attention, Hungarians find the Puskas obsession a little painful. It reminds them that 40-years on from that 6–3 game at Wembley they have done little since which has registered in the collective conscience of European football.

Two years after finishing runners-up to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup the aranycsapat (golden team) fell to pieces. The Soviet invasion happened while the team were abroad on tour and three of the key players – Puskas, Kocsis and Czibor – decided not to return to Hungary. Even more damaging the youth team was on tour as well, and the next generation of stars scattered across the continent. Things would never be the same again. When the remains of the Mighty Magyars returned to action on June 12th, 1957 in Oslo, they lost 2–1 to Norway. There have been great players, teams and nights since but in the last ten years there has been almost nothing at all.

Ask the fans what’s gone wrong and they will tell you that the players are lazy, arrogant, over-paid and under trained. There is not a football country in the world where the supporters have less respect for the people they pay to watch than in Hungary. When players salaries are revealed in the press the angry reaction of supporters is not based on some moral concern about social inequality or fear that the game is overspending beyond its resources, but simply that they don’t believe the players deserve it. It is not only the players that enrages the Hungarian fan. Directors, journalists, sponsors, TV commentators are all held guilty too. There are a hardcore at every ground who will cheer on their side and who worship their star players, but for most Hungarian fans football is a painful sufferance.

The problem is expectations are just too high. Hungarian football today is well below the standard it should be at, but in the fifties it was way above what anyone could have imagined. Life was hard under the reign of one of Eastern Europe's most brutal dictators, Matyas Rakosi. But like most dictators Rakosi understood the power of football. Internally that meant changing the name and colours of the most popular (and therefore most dangerous) club team Ferencvaros and ensuring that all the big teams were linked in some way to a ministry. Politically this was ludicrous, (as if supporting Ujpesti Dozsa was going to make anyone more attracted to the Interior Ministry), but by allowing the army team Honved to literally conscript any young player they wanted Rakosi created an early forerunner of the Lilleshall Centre of Excellence.

At a lower-level, sport, football in particular, was promoted with revolutionary zeal. The wonderfully kitsch propaganda film Civil a palyan (Civilian on the field) tells the highly instructional tale of a young factory worker who finds that the blonde beauty he desires refuses to go out with him because he is not “active in the sport movement”. Finally, the worker decides to go for it and forms his own team Voros Traktor (Red Tractor), which storms to the Budapest Cup Final. In front of a packed crowd at the People’s Stadium, our hero bags the winner and leaves the stadium arm in arm with the blonde. You can’t get a blunter message than that. Following ’56, Hungarian society set off on the long road of cautious reform and what was called ‘normalisation’. Football, too, became more ‘normal’. Honved could no longer steal any promising Ferencvaros player who caught their eye and Ferencvaros could wear green and white again. As society became more and more affluent so there were many other ways to live well, get the occasional trip abroad and impress the girls. In the 1980s the second economy took off and instead of going to train with FC Red Tractor in the afternoon, the young worker was rushing to a second job. In its strive to become an ordinary country, Hungary lost what made its football extraordinary.

By the mid Eighties when decline had truly set in, Hungarian football became the domain of the petty bourgeoisie. Lajos Detari, touting his trade across Germany, Italy and Greece grabbing as many signing on fees as he could manage, was the role model of the eighties. The clubs’ leadership became the territory of the reform-communist era bizniszman and their murky dealings.

Since the change of system Hungarian football has been pre-occupied with basic survival. Attendances have slumped to Nationwide Division Three levels, almost all the top players move abroad at the first chance. The state has said its final farewell to football leaving it to compete for sponsors’ cash. But the money just isn’t there and so the clubs collect together whatever they can get through personal contacts. The players of Ferencvaros, the only club anywhere near approaching ‘big time’, have their backsides emblazoned with a taxi telephone number.

The odd local entrepreneur has broken through, such as Jozsef Stadler, whose decidedly dodgy money financed his village team through to the First Division. He built a ridiculous, modern, all-seater stadium in a tiny village, to which a thousand or so locals wander out to on a Saturday. He is now under investigation for tax evasion and the stadium is up for sale. But the big multinationals show no sign of interest. It is hardly surprising – a market profile of the average Hungarian crowd would show 3,000 men, 60 percent of them over the age of fifty, with little disposable income. The youth who attend games have adopted the English yob of the early eighties as their role model, with a touch of the Italian ultra in more sophisticated quarters. Hardly the kind of people Saatchi are trying to target in the ‘emerging markets’.

Unable to keep hold of their best players, club sides are struggling in European competition. This season, BVSC, in their first appearance in the UEFA Cup, were knocked out in the first round by Barry Town from the League of Wales. And the once-mighty Honved were hammered over two legs in the Cup Winners’ Cup by a French third division side, Nîmes.

But there are small signs of progress. The Under-21 side qualified for the Atlanta Olympics (the first time a Hungarian side had made the final stages of a major tournament for a decade) and it contained some genuine talent, such as Ferencvaros midfielder Krisztian Lisztes, Vasas keeper Szabolcs Safar and Ujpest defender Vilmos Sebok. At club level, Zoltan Varga, who defected from Hungary in the late sixties, has returned to coach Ferencvaros, where he is setting an example of professionalism. Another Budapest club, MTK, have become the first club to truly abandon the communist multi –sports club model, have become a limited company and with the help of a millionaire businessmen and astute coach Jozsef Garami have this season gone on an impressive 15-match unbeaten run.

The national team are also, at last, showing some signs of progress. New coach Janos Csank is a pragmatic man who has no time for the nostalgia that  infects so much of Hungarian football. He committed blasphemy by describing the 6–3 Wembley game as “A friendly match over 40 years ago” and is slowly building a steady side, including several of the Olympic squad, which should at least make the  play-offs for France ’98. Despite a 3–0 away defeat to Norway, Hungary lie second in their group with  a home win over Finland and a win in Azerbaijan.  In April they will take on Switzerland. A win against the Swiss and Puskas  might have to start taking French lessons.

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month