Ferencvaros 4 Honved 0 (03/08/2002)
My tip for the week would be that if you ever arrive in Budapest when temperatures are in the 90s, and you are rushing around trying to find a working telephone to get in touch with someone you were supposed to meet 15 minutes ago, don’t do it wearing a heavy coat. Yes, it had kept out the night chills from the first class train compartment that I’d had to myself on the overnight trip from Prague, and wearing it did allow my travel bag not to weigh in at a level that’d stretch my arms like plasticine. Now though, as I rushed about in the baking Central European sun, it was merely acting as a portable sauna.
Finding a phone, let alone a working one, it not helped by the Hungarian flair for ambiguity. Hungary can be a confusing country. Its language has a syntax unlike almost any other in the western world, where there are apparently around 15 different words for yes & no, yet unlike the Knights who say “Ni”, they can go through life without having a word for “is”. It defies efforts to make even a rudimentary stab at learning a few phrases, but does, on the other hand, distinguish itself by been the only language I’ve noticed to have its own spelling of sex shop. Sz is required to get an anglicised “s” sound, with “s” being “sh” in Hungarian, meaning such an establishment (merely noticed while walking along a street I hasten to add) spelled in English would be pronounced like someone doing a very poor Sean Connery impression.
At Budapest’s Nyugati Station (which incidentally houses surely the grandest branch of McDonalds in the world, complete with chandeliers) I faced the age old traveller’s question of “where do you go to find out where the information kiosk is?” A small noticeboard brought out that ambiguous flair with the message that “information can be found on the other side”. The other side of what? The board? The wall? The station? Perhaps the afterlife. After several wasted phone calls, and several trips to a kiosk to buy water for the change money from a vendor who probably though me insane, or at least very thirsty, I eventually discovered that mobile phones numbers in Hungary only work if you dial the country code for Hungary first. There, naturally, it makes perfect sense.
Budapest is also a city of contrasts. The Pest side is as flat as a pancake, while the Buda side is bumpier than the dressing rooms at a Pamela Anderson lookalike contest. The neon lights that greet you opposite as you exit Nyugati station imply a booming economy – the fact that it’s possible to find a Trabant that’s felt in need of a steering lock suggests otherwise. And for a country with such a storied national team, arguably once thought to be the best in the world, football doesn’t give the impression of ever being that healthy, and certainly not now. True, Ujpest do have a small but very smart new stadium, but it’s hardly brought the fans flocking in, in a league were post-cold-war freedom has given fans the freedom to do other things on a Saturday afternoon, with crowds down by around two-thirds since then. A shame, because the place deserves good crowds, for at least looking like they’ve made an effort, which is more than anyone else in the country appears to have done. Curious triangular floodlights, like giant lacrosse racquets, watch over their stadium, which is more than the local population seem to do.
The giant Nep stadium has also been updated with new seats and a new main stand. Sadly the main stand is hideously ugly and designed so badly that the roof doesn’t even join properly in the middle, and it only contains about a third of the number of seats that something of its bulk should. Apparently the giant upper tier, which curved round one side and added nearly half of the capacity, has been temporarily shut for safety reasons. Other than that, the place is impressive, and provides ample proof that Hungarians can support their team in numbers now and then.
Less convincing on that front, just down the road from the Nep, is the stadium of MTK Hungaria. Some of the great names of world football have played here – Pele, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, Sylvester Stalone – yes, this was the setting for some of the film “Escape to Victory”. Sadly the final scene of the players escaping with the crowds would be hard to recreate with the 1500 that bother to watch MTK these days and it had the look of the kind of place that has developers thinking that with a little imagination it’d make a really nice supermarket. If Tesco do look to expand the ever growing East European empire with a new store in Budapest’s north east then they can do a two for one offer of their own, as right next door, just the width of a narrow road away, sits the ground of lower division club BKV Elöre, whose tall main stand, completely out of character with the effectively non-existent remainder of their ground, almost offers about the best view of happenings at MTK.
Another kilometre or so past MTK, down the rather dreary road from the Nep, brings you to the stadium of Ferencvaros. That Hungary’s biggest and best supported club dropped into the second division, unable to climb back until recently due to their debts, seems somewhat symbolic of the shambles that appears to have befallen Hungarian football.
When I saw them play in 2002, they were at least still one of Hungary’s better sides, but there were few signs of the new affluence evident elsewhere in the capital around the stadium. Outside, tall girder-like floodlight towers leaned imposingly over the pitch like soviet-era monuments to the success of communism, with flaking paint barely covering the reality. The metro station just outside reeked of austere concrete functionality, and given the less than favourable reputation of Ferencvaros’ supporters, it also looked the ideal spot for finding out what it’s like to be ambushed by a group of hooligans.
If I was glad to have not been wearing any red, the colours of today’s opponents Honved, at the metro station, I was even more glad when I walked round one corner at the stadium. Milling around were dozens, perhaps hundreds of individualistic youths decked out in the hooligan uniform. It was like stepping into a timewarp and going back to 1981 – a world of skinheads, green bomber jackets and Doc Marten boots. I made a mental note to perhaps find a different section of the ground and carried on walking. Seeing a young American boy of about 12 discussing where to go in with his grandmother, I kind of hoped they’d go somewhere else too.
Ferencvaros’ stadium looked like the grandfather of the average new MLS stadium, being predominantly one tier, with a flat end behind one goal. This was not for a stage, however (and having heard modern Hungarian music in a café earlier on that day I would suggest more modest venues, such as a traffic island, would suffice) and was for a collection of things that would be more at home at a garden centre. At the back was a clubhouse of sorts. Two long roofs at either side gave the appearance of wings to a large aircraft that’d had its nose chopped off, and then been cheaply double-glazed in the 1970s. There was about 20 yards of a flat area between here and the goal, artfully filled with some hedges and conifers, a statue, a large inflatable beer can, and a very cheap looking construction reminiscent of a plastic gazebo. You really felt that if you were to have a closer inspection, each of these items would have a price tag on them, slashed down to half price.
This end ought to have been to my left according to my ticket, but having taken my seat and realised it had been heated in the glorious afternoon sun to a temperature which made frying eggs upon it a possibility, I decide to dash round to the other side of the stadium, where the first ham-fisted impressions of a shadow were making an appearance. All three sides of the ground were something of a contrast. While the stand I was originally in was very talkative, mainly in my opinion with people saying the Hungarian for “help me! My skin is melting” and “I think my retinas have shrivelled and died”, this other stand opposite was much more laid back. People here were typically older, and many of whom didn’t seem to have put too much effort into choosing their day’s clothing – an old vest seeming to be the look for the in crowd here. Just as well really, as most seemed to be eating sunflower seeds. Eating them is possibly the slowest way of consuming food known to man, due to having to shell each individual seed, so time spent looking for a clean vest would be time wasted.
To my left now was were the main contingent of “bovver boys” had taken their positions, all still defiantly wearing their thick padded green bomber jackets as the sun baked them. As kick off approached they went through a repertoire of volatile songs, which didn’t exactly sound too complimentary to the opposition. To my right, just next to the giant inflatable beer can, was the away end. Despite Honved’s stomping ground of Kispest being just two stops south on the metro, only about 300 fans in red were inside. Maybe more were outside as a roar went up from behind the stand. Half of the 300 ran out the back of the end, and about half in the skinhead end did the same. Whether they could meet up somewhere round the back, perhaps for nice chat and a chance to exchange phone numbers, is unclear, but the police seemed hardly interested, just rolling their eyes before walking off in a “I suppose if we must…” kind of manner towards them.
Whatever kind of beating Honved’s fans took outside, it can’t have been all that worse than the one their team took on the pitch. A goal down after only 10 minutes, things didn’t get any better. Only poor finishing by a Ferenvcaros side, who wasted more opportunities than a pop star with a vow of chastity, prevented it being a more hopelessly one-sided game than the 4-0 final score suggested. Honved looked about as interested as a 14 year old in a Friday afternoon algebra class.
The skinhead end lit flares and sang away, probably about how great it is to have a haircut you can wash with a damp cloth and there’s no point in footwear that lets your legs bend at the ankles, perhaps with a few verses of “we’re so hot and sweaty in these jackets that some Finns will come along and beat us with birch twigs soon” thrown in for good measure no doubt.
With the game over and the Honved fans going home to lick their wounds, perhaps literally in some cases, I set off for an evening of refreshment, preferably in venues that didn’t regard sunflower seeds as a meal that’d help me digest the sad state of Hungarian football. Later that night, in the spacious apartment I’d hired, I found the satellite channel-filled TV showed that although the Hungarians might not be exporting too many footballers these days, there are indeed some Magnificent Magyars in an entirely different realm of the entertainment industry. The footballers these days can only dream of being as impressive.