From Bournemouth to Bekescsaba to Bordeaux – An Adopted Magyar Speaks on Her New Love for Hungary post-Euro 2016

Gayle Hope speaks on her new obsession with Hungarian football which all stemmed from her love for refereeing, and her love of the strangely halcyon days in League Two with her club side AFC Bournemouth

You don’t have to be Hungarian to have grown up hearing stories about the mighty Magyars; Ferenc Puskás, the galloping major wowed many a football fan of several nationalities. The famous team of the 50’s went on an unbeaten run of 31 games spanning some 4 years, which included the match of the century – 25th November 1953 when Hungary beat England 6-3 at Wembley. That game led to a revolution in English football, out went the antiquated training methods and in came the adoption of a more continental style of play.

After the successes and triumphs of the team in the 50’s a decline started and although Hungary enjoyed some successes, by the 80’s they were a shadow of the team who once wowed the world, and 1986 saw their last appearance at a major footballing tournament, although they did qualify for the summer Olympics in 1996.

A real crisis began in 1986 following a 6-0 defeat by the Soviet Union at the first game in the 1986 World cup. At the time the country itself was in turmoil, the revolution in 1956 had failed to free Hungary from it’s soviet masters but they never gave up their hope for freedom, for independence. The fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 finally saw the freedom they so desired but the focus was on helping the country learn to stand on it’s own 2 feet, football was an unnecessary luxury in many ways, the small amount of money available went on food and clothing; the domestic league was virtually ignored and until now has remained that way. It is time for that to change.

An entire generation of Hungarians have grown up on just memories, and not even their own memories; the memories of their parents and Grandparents, listening fascinated to the stories of the mighty team of the 50’s, not quite believing that for a short time at least many years ago, Hungary led the way. Fast-forward to 2014 and the start of the qualifying campaign for the 2016 Euros, the natural Hungarian pessimism was all of a sudden put on hold, sometimes at least, and a hope began to creep in, could they really qualify? After 30 years of nothing would Hungarians flags fly proudly once again at a major football tournament?

The hugely unpopular Attila Pintér was appointed as manager, the qualifying campaign did not start well – a 2-1 defeat to Northern Ireland – hope gone and pessimism back in spades! After that game out went Pintér and in came the hugely popular Pál Dárdai – temporarily at least! He brought back pride to the team – his style of play was a hit with the fans – he brought back hope to a nation of natural pessimists. Dárdai didn’t want the gig fulltime and who could blame him really – his successor Bernd Storck was greeted with scepticism – he was no Dárdai, pessimism once more ruled the day.

A third place finish in the qualifying group and the hope was all but gone. Hungary were to meet Norway in the play-offs, the Norwegians were already packed for France before the games even commenced – a real lesson in do not count your chickens if ever one was needed.

Storck went about his business quietly and efficiently, knowing that he at that point had still not really been accepted by a nation who now believed their chance of seeing the big stage again had left with the departure of Dárdai. He believed in himself, in his players and in his now adopted nation. A 1-0 win followed by a 2-1 win and it was bye bye Norway, hello France – oh yes, the Magyars were finally back! Pessimism joyfully replaced with the phrase “Csak egyutt” meaning only together. Well I say replaced, the one consistency with Hungarians is their pessimism and emotions yoyo’d between the sheer and utter joy of qualifying for a major football tournament and a steadfast belief that they would lose every game 27-0 and be absolutely humiliated! I love Hungarians, they are such wonderful people!

The best part of the tournament, for me, wasn’t the 2-0 win over Austria, the draw with Iceland or even the thrilling 3-3 draw with the mighty Portugal. Don’t get me wrong they were absolutely ace, my heart is still pounding from the Portugal game, and I have probably cried enough tears to fill Lake Balaton 10 times over; tears I hasten to add of pride and just complete and utter joy. No, the best part was seeing a decline in the Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts on the backs of Hungarian kids and an increase in the National teams kit. No disrespect to Messi or Ronaldo, yep you’re both great players, maybe even on a par with Puskás, but you’re not ours and to see a young Hungarian running about kicking a football in a Hungary shirt, no longer wanting to be the next Messi, but wanting to be the next Balázs Dzsudzsák, Nemanja Nikolić, Ádám Nagy, Zoltán Gera, Gábor Király or any of the 23 hero’s who have done us so proud in France this summer has brought tears to this old cynics eyes. 30 years of memories have now been replaced with a new generation of hero’s. The older generation have seen the beginning of a new magical era starting, the young finally have their own Hungarian hero’s.

We are back. This is the beginning. We may not have survived the group stage but we achieved so much more, as a nation we have won something far bigger than just a tournament. We’ve won the hearts of Europe; Europeans do love a plucky under dog and this tournament had a few of them for sure. More importantly we have won back our own nation. We once more have pride, have hero’s and have a belief that we can now go on and keep improving, getting stronger, becoming a force to be reckoned with out there on the pitch.

What is important now is for us to capture that hope and belief and grow it. We need to as a nation realise that several of those hero’s play their football in the NBI, our top domestic league and we have to start promoting that league, supporting it, no more sitting at home watching the Premier League/ La Liga/ the Bundesliga on TV; lets instead get out en masse to the local teams – Honvéd, Ferencváros, Haladás – it doesn’t matter who you support. These are our Hungarian players, this is where the pride, belief and hope starts – out there in the NBI. This is where our next generation of players will come from, our future hero’s. Okay, granted the football might not be quite of par with the Premier League right now, but that’s okay, it means there is room to grow. The bigger the support, the bigger the interest will in turn lead to better facilities, better coaches and ultimately a higher standard of football. We have a taster now, it’s down to us to either seize that and run with it or to hide away and spend the next 30 years saying “Do you remember the team of 2016?”

Now I appreciate that if you still awake at this point you may well think hang on a mo, that’s all very good but you’re not actually Hungarian are you, so who are you to speak for us? Fair point. I’m just some mixed raced Western girl who, if I had had have been good at anything other than just chatting rubbish, could have chosen any 1 of 4 nations to represent – none of them being Hungary! I’m mostly Northern Irish, that’s the biggest % in the melting pot. I grew up (mostly) in England supporting Northern Ireland (trust me I understand the small unfashionable nation with a football team that has achieved diddly squat in over 30 years). On the club front my team has always been AFC Bournemouth who have spent most of my life in League 1 or 2. On a personal level this Euros was the best; my home nation and my adopted nation bursting back onto the scene.

My love of Hungarian football is really down to one man. Viktor Kassai. Now you know who to blame! Well Gábor Király has long been a favourite goalie of mine so he can take some of the blame as well! I am one of those rare breed of football fan that also has a love for the referee. Yep, that little Hitler, who turns up with his whistle to ruin your games, hates your team more than he hates the other team and is clueless about football! Goalkeepers and referees – love them! As a teen I was a referee myself, my match fees brought my clothes, paid for my nights out, and actually furnished my first flat! I swim against the tide of being a fan who blames everything on the ref, I have a lot of referee friends, right from those in mini-soccer up to a couple of them out there at the Euros. I’m not going to try and say they are perfect – they’re not. They are human beings who when making over 250 decisions/game sometimes call one wrong. They may well have a complete stinker of a game and only call one right – not because they hate your team but because they are human. Trust me, they love football as much as the rest of us. It doesn’t make me any better or worse as a fan of the game, but just a bit different.

Viktor has long been my favourite non UK referee, I cried watching him happily sing the Champions League anthem as he stood proud at Wembley ahead of the 2011 CL final. After that game I started to take a little bit of notice of NBI and would search for highlights of his domestic games – not easy to find 5 years on so you can imagine how hard it was back then! Over the next couple of years I suddenly realised I had gone from watching an occasional 30-second clip on YouTube of his game to bookmarking M4, as it is now, on the PC and watching any NBI game. Didn’t matter who was playing or who the ref was, if there was an NBI game on, I was watching it. Magyar Foci had its claws into me and I was utterly hooked!

I chose my team – Budapest Honvéd. Their kit is very similar to AFCB & that was why I chose them (it’s a good a reason as any). Three years down the line they have totally stolen my heart, and I would defy anyone to try and tell me that I am not a real fan! I was lucky enough to meet a bunch of brilliant Hungarian football fans on twitter, some are in the UK, the children or grandchildren of refuges from the 1956 revolution, and some are in Hungary. They took pity on me and took me in as one of their own – the adoption process had begun. They laughed as I unleashed my attempts at speaking Hungarian on them, told me I was insane for loving NBI, but they knew I was there to stay so set about educating me. Thanks Gaby & Tom in particular, their patience and perseverance has paid off! They taught me about the rivalries, they taught me the history I was missing and one day one of the wider group said to me that I was more Hungarian than many Hungarians they knew save for my ever-present optimism. They are still trying to knock that out of me, but sorry guys, a natural pessimism didn’t arrive along with my adoption papers so deal with it! The Irish optimism will not be broken!

The rise of my first love AFCB, coincided with my ever growing love of the NBI. Don’t get me wrong, I love my club being in the top flight but I can’t help missing those days in League 2 with 250 people stood behind a goal watching less than perfect football played in front of a brilliant atmosphere. That’s what the NBI gives me, and I love every single second of it. I love the Hungarian passion, I even love the pessimism. Despite being very against hooliganism, I also love the ultras. I respect that any trouble is away from the ground and never involves some innocent bystander. They seem pretty strict on that, they keep that side of things amongst their own and will actively protect any regular non-ultra fans. If ever I was scared at a match in Hungary I would actively seek out the ultras and ask for their help and I know I would get it. Once inside the ground they lead the singing and chanting; it’s non-stop noise and all for their team. No songs about the other team, just passion for their own.

For the National Team games they lead the pre-match fan march to the ground; not even a mere hint of trouble, the thousands of non-ultras following them happily sing with them and wear their colours with pride. I guess in many ways the ultras actually police their own fans to a degree. They will protect if needs be but will not tolerate violence towards or in front of regular fans, particularly women and children.

I didn’t take much notice of the national team in my early NBI years; it was drawing Hungary and Northern Ireland in the same qualifying group that pushed that particular love affair. I wanted both teams to qualify and somewhere along the line I found myself singing Himnusz loud and proud; okay my pronunciation may need a bit of work but I tried! My pain after a Hungarian defeat was equal to my pain after a Northern Ireland defeat; my joy at a win, or draw was equal. My adoption was complete so there you have it; I’m now a fully fledged non-Hungarian Hungarian with as fierce a loyalty and pride in my adopted nation as that of my own! Hajrá Magyarok!!