In Conversation with...Thomas Sowunmi

Thomas Sowunmi is one of Hungarian football’s most fascinating characters.  Born in Lagos, Nigeria, to a Hungarian mother and Nigerian father, Sowunmi became the first black footballer to represent Hungary at International level in 1999. During his 20 years playing career, Sowunmi played for 8 different clubs across 5 countries, and also found time to study for a University degree while still playing top-flight football.  He has now taken on a new role away from the pitch as Club Manager at NBII club Vasas as he looks to help revive the Budapest based sides fortunes.

It’s an overcast
autumnal morning in Budapest when Thomas Sowunmi finds me wandering around the
car park of the beautiful new Rudolf Illovsky Stadion, home of NBII club Vasas.
I’m a few minutes late for our meeting and a little apprehensive as I was
always taught as a child how important it was to make a positive first
impression; being late is not a good start. 
Fortunately, Thomas welcomes me with a warm smile and friendly handshake
before inviting me inside the club offices for a coffee.

For the next hour
or so I am engrossed as Thomas talks openly and in-depth about a variety of
subjects; the highs and lows of a playing career that, in his own words, could
have delivered so much more; pride at representing Hungary at International
level; his thoughts on the development of the Hungarian game; and where he sees
his own career developing.

“I’m a multi-cultural
guy” Thomas begins to tell me when I ask about what inspired him to play in so
many countries during his career.  “I
wanted to understand different cultures, how they showed their passion for
football.  I also wanted to travel the
world and meet new people.  I’m very
lucky that football allowed me to do that.”

During his playing career, Sowunmi played club football in Hungary, France, Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Scotland. “I made friends everywhere I went, and I’m very grateful for that.”

However, despite the
great personal experiences gained throughout his career, there is a sense that
all did not go quite according to plan for Thomas, and that he did not quite
manage to fulfil his true potential.

“I won a lot of things in my career including the Hungarian Championship and Magyar Kupa while at Ferencvaros, but I thought I could have achieved more.  I didn’t always have luck on my side.  I think I was sometimes at the right club at the wrong time, and at others, it was the wrong time at the right club.”

“At Hibs, for
example, it didn’t work out for me as I hoped. 
When I arrived the guys had already qualified for the League Cup Final (in
2007) and the gaffer wanted to play those boys in the Final.  That’s normal and I accepted it, but then I
got injured in training after colliding with David Grof (now goalkeeper at
Ferencvaros) and was out for 5 weeks.  It
just wasn’t to be.”

“In Cyprus, the
team I played for went bankrupt, and at Ferencvaros  I broke my leg during my first season before
coming back stronger and winning the League and Cup.”

Despite these knock-backs, and the obvious disappointment of not reaching the career heights he had planned, there is no resentment in Thomas’ voice.  As he put it to me “these things all happened for a reason, and without them, I might not be where I am today.”

Indeed, had his
career panned out differently, who is to say that he would still have had the
opportunity to carve his name into Hungarian football folklore by becoming the
first black player to represent the Nemzeti Tizenegy?

“That was a dream come true,” he told me, bursting with pride as we spoke about his debut for Hungary in the summer of 1999 against Moldova.  “I always believed I was good enough to play for the national side and actually thought that my time would come earlier than it did, as I was playing better the previous season.  In the end, it didn’t matter when it came; it was just a dream come true to make my debut.”

Sowunmi in action for the Nemzeti Tizenegy

Sowunmi played 10
times for Hungary scoring on one occasion. 
A laid back and relaxed character, Sowunmi paid little attention to his
status as Hungary’s first black International. 
Nor did he allow the racism that was rife in Eastern European football
during his career, and is sadly raising its ugly head again, to affect his
game.

“For me, I didn’t
really think about being the first black player to play for Hungary, it wasn’t
an issue.  There had been other black
athletes represent Hungary in other sports before me, so I didn’t really
consider myself a trailblazer in any way. 
I am half-Hungarian, so as far as I was concerned I was just playing for
my country.”

“I had a good relationship with the fans and rarely encountered much racism at the games.  Sure, it was normal for opposition fans to boo me, but I used that as a motivation to play better.  I can only remember one time where there was a banner at a game that read ‘Go Home To Africa Monkey’, but by the time I came out to warm-up the banner had been removed and the opposition coach apologised to me after the game.”

“Nowadays, I
think it is more of a shock to the players when they experience racism during
the game because it’s something that should have been eradicated by now.  I think the MLSZ has done a good job at
removing racism and the monkey chants from the game here, but UEFA needs to do
more in its competitions.”

“The current
level of fines and sanctions does nothing to deter fans from chanting what they
want as they don’t punish the club or national team enough.  Take a look at the recent game in Bulgaria
against England.  I applaud the President
of Bulgaria for the stance he has taken, but he shouldn’t have to get involved
and any fine that comes from UEFA won’t deter the fans from their actions.  It’s very sad.”

“There needs to
be stricter sanctions and bigger fines, fines that actually hurt the
clubs.  Only then will they do something
to educate the fans and remove racism from the game and leave it in the past
where it belongs”

Along with
sharing his opinions on how football’s authorities can do more to eradicate
racism from the game, Thomas was also willing to share his thoughts on the
development of the game in Hungary.

Thomas Sowunmi was a man of many clubs but the most successful spell of his career was with Ferencvaros

“I think there is
a lack of identity in Hungarian football at the moment, and we need to develop
a style we can call our own.  The Spanish
have tiki-taka, the Dutch are famous for Total Football and playing 4-3-3, even
Scotland is known for its fast, aggressive and direct football.  But there isn’t really a particular style of
football in Hungary anymore and I think that affects the national team.”

“There is an
emphasis at youth level on results over player development, and we have become
more negative and defensive as a result. 
Young players are not being given the chance to develop their skills and
express themselves, and we have a situation where clubs are judging and
discarding players as young as 10 based on their height or skills at too young
an age.”

“When I played in
Scotland, I saw 15 year-olds who knew everything about the game; when to run,
when to pass, how to head and shoot, when to make the tactical foul.  But the best thing was how they all
communicated on the park.  That doesn’t
happen so much in Hungary, young players are very quiet these days and as
coaches, we need to change how we coach and develop the next generation.”

“It’s something
that has been talked about a lot in Hungarian football recently, and we need to
find a consensus to develop a new football identity.”

It is clear that
the development of the game and young players is something that is close to
Thomas’ heart, and this desire to improve can be traced back to his own playing
career when he made the decision to undertake a degree in Sports Management and
Recreation Management at the highly-regarded Semmelweis University, Budapest.

“It may be
uncommon now, but back then I was part of a group of around 20 NBI players who
went to University to study, some of that group are now Doctors and Lawyers.  It wasn’t just us footballers though, most of
the Olympic Gold Medal winning Water-Polo team also studied at University.  For my generation, getting an education and
looking out for your future away from football was something we took
seriously.”

Settling into life off the pitch as Club Manager of NBII side Vasas.

“Even now I am
still thinking about what the future will hold and what I need to do to achieve
my future career goals.  I want to help
Vasas get back into NBI and help more young players make the breakthrough into
the first-team here.  I enjoy the variety
in my current role, however, I do miss being in the dressing room.”

“Along with my role Vasas, I am also the coach at Balatonfuredi in the 4th Division.  Things are going well there and if we get promoted at the season at the end of the season then I might have a decision to make.”

“I’m not sure
what the future holds for me, but I am excited for whatever it may be.”


Ferencvaros – Ujpest: Boli the Difference as Ujpest Left to Rue Missed Opportunities

Ferencvaros took home the spoils and city bragging rights following their victory in the first Budapest derby of the season against Ujpest thanks to a close-range finish from in-form striker Franck Boli.  The Ivorian pounced on a dangerous cross from Eldar Civic mid-way through the first-half to score the game’s only goal.  However, visitors Ujpest were left to bemoan a lack of cutting edge of their own as they dominated for large spells without being able to get the goal their play deserved.

Of Budapest’s numerous derbies, it is the Ferencvaros – Ujpest match that captures the enthusiasm of the city more than most.  As Copa90 found out back in 2014 when they came to the city to cover the game, there is no love lost between both sets of fans who expect their players to leave everything on the pitch at the end of the match.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYbOZBJQJUw

Yesterday’s encounter - the 227th league meeting of the two clubs - was no different as Ferencvaros, 4th in the table at kick-off played host to 7th placed Ujpest under the watchful eyes of Yoda; the Jedi Master forming part of an impressive pre-match tifo display from the Fradi Ultra’s.

What Master Yoda would have made of the opening quarter of
the game, I’m not sure as the opening exchanges passed with very little of note
happening.  However, just as Ujpest were
beginning to assert a measure of control on the game Ferencvaros broke the
deadlock with their first real attack of the game.

Left-back Civic swung in a teasing cross from the left into the danger zone between defenders and goalkeeper.  While the Ujpest defence froze and failed to deal with the cross, Boli used the Power of the Force to steal in unmarked at the far post and, with an expertly controlled finish, steered the ball home to hand Ferencvaros the lead.

Stunned and deflated, Ujpest found themselves on the rocks in the minutes following the goal but managed to regain their composure before the break, Feczesin and Zsoter both going close to levelling the scores before the interval.

Expecting a reaction from both sides following the break,
the second-half literally started with a bang as the Fradi Ultra’s announced
the start of the half by setting off a firework display that set the tone for
what was to follow on the pitch.

Bar one half-chance that fell the way of the largely disappointing Tokmac, the second half was pretty much one-way traffic directed at Dibusz in the Ferencvaros goal.  Wave after wave of Ujpest attacks were repelled by a combination of saves by the Fradi keeper or last-ditch defending, with at least one effort cleared from off the line. 

As the game drew to a close there was a growing sense of tension amongst the home support that an equaliser was on the cards, such was the intensity of Ujpest’s constant attacks.  Tensions from the crowd transferred to the players on the pitch as mistakes and slackness took over the Ferencvaros players, gifting yet more chances to the visitors.  But still, they could not penetrate the Ferencvaros defences.

From the sidelines, the lively Nebojsa Vignjevic urged his players on for one last push to get the goal his team deserved on balance of play, but could only watch on helplessly as chance after chance went begging.  Alas, it was all in vain as Fradi somehow held strong to claim all three points.

MANAGER REACTIONS

Sergiy Rebrov - Ferencvaros

Despite the win, Rebrov was extremely dissatisfied with his
side’s performance stating that they lost the ball on far too many occasions,
resulting in a loss of confidence as the game wore on.

He also showed his displeasure of the fans booing his
players for playing passing backwards to keep possession in the later stages,
arguing that in those moments it is better to keep the ball in defence than
attack and lose it.

“I wasn’t happy with our attacking players today, they did nothing.  If I could have made more changes I would have taken them all off.  We won, but the performance was not good enough.”

Nebojsa Vignjevic - Ujpest

Vignjevic cut an inconsolable figure in the post-match conference and was lost for an explanation as to how his team had failed to win the match after dominating in the manner they did.

On more than one occasion he spoke of his pride in his player's performance and that he could not remember a game in which they dominated so much in a long time. 

“We had a game plan to press Ferencvaros’ weaknesses, to be aggressive, and patient on the ball.  We created so many chances and I just don’t know how we didn’t score.  I feel so sorry for the players, they gave their all today.”   


FRADI: Next Stop, Europa League

On a night of high emotion and drama, Ferencvaros secured their return to European Group Stage football for the first time in 15 years thanks to a 4-2 victory against FK Suduva of Lithuania.

Spurred on by a spectacular Rocky inspired tifo display with the phrase Feladni Soha – Never Give Up – and a spine-tingling rendition of Himnusz, Ferencvaros showed the bottle of champions to come off the ropes and secure a famous result.

After a cagey opening to the game, it was the visitors who dared to spoil the occasion, opening the scoring on the 11th minute following the first of several failed attempts by Ferencvaros to play out from the back.

The loss of the opening goal stung Fradi and momentarily knocked them for six, almost long enough for Suduva to extend their advantage with what would surely have been a tie ending second goal. As it transpired, it was Ferencvaros who scored next in slightly controversial circumstances.

Ivorian forward Franck Boli was brought down in the box by the Suduva keeper for a clear penalty, however, as the match official blew for the foul, the ball rebounded off a Suduva defender and into the goal. The goal was not given and the penalty stood instead. Fortunately for all concerned Roli Varga converted the spot-kick to level the scores.

Better was to come in first-half stoppage time as Boli flicked home a cross from the right to give the hosts a deserved lead at the interval and send the 18,500 strong support wild with delight.

After the break Suduva emerged motivated from their half-time team talk, began to inch more and more into the game, winning more individual battles. On the 63rd minute their persistence paid off as Topcagic scored Suduva’s second of the night, from a similar position to Boli’s goal in the first half. Unlike the Ivorian’s strike, Topcagic managed to squeeze his effort passed Dibusz at his near post.

At 2-2 Ferencvaros was facing elimination for the second time on the night. However, for a second time they showed character and resilience to bounce back and regain momentum, and the lead just three minutes later.

Tokmac, who’s quick feet and direct running had troubled Suduva all evening, went on another of his mesmeric runs before firing a right-foot effort from fully 20 yards across goal and into the far corner. In an instant of genius, the tie turned once again in Fradi’s favour.

From here on out the hosts dominated proceedings with Tokmac, Isaes, and Signevich all missing highly presentable opportunities to wrap the tie up.

In the end, it took a second debatable penalty decision in added time, this time converted by Signevich, to put the icing on the cake and secure Europa League football for Ferencvaros for the first time in 15 years.


Hungarian Digital Football Benchmark: 2nd Edition

In January (2019) the inaugural Hungarian Digital Football Benchmark Report, analysing the digital reach of Hungary’s NBI clubs, was first published.  With the 2019/20 season now underway, we have decided to bring forward publication of the 2nd Edition, and are proud to announce that the Summer/Fall 2019 Edition of the Hungarian Digital Football Benchmark Report is now available on request.

The Report offers a high-level overview of the digital reach
and performance of NBI and, for the first time, NBII clubs, assessing how the
four most popular digital platforms used by Hungarian clubs are used; Twitter,
Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.  The 2nd
Edition of the Report also marks the first time that YouTube subscribers have
been added to clubs Digital Community tallies, having not been included last
time out.

It should come as little surprise to followers of Hungarian football that Ferencvaros have retained their crown as the club with the largest Digital Community, the current NBI champions leading the way in follower number on all four platforms under consideration.

There has also been no movement in the top 7 places of the NBI Digital Community League Table, however, newly promoted ZTE enter the table in a highly respectable 8th place.  At the bottom, fellow new boys Rákóczi Kaposvár prop up the standings.

At NBII level, Győr leads the overall Digital Community League Table with a following of over 56,000.  Vác, Vasas,  Haladas, and MTK Budapest, covering 2nd to 5th respectively, all have Digital followings of 10,000+.

Notably, while all NBII clubs are present on Facebook, the
majority of clubs are yet to sign up to Twitter, possibly the #1 digital
platform for football fans around the globe, Instagram, or YouTube, suggesting
that work is still required to improve the digital reach and awareness of the
NBII and its clubs.

While there have been some minor changes to the Report, one feature that remains is the inclusion of the Social Media Directories detailing the social handles and accounts for all NBI and now NBII clubs.  I would encourage you to get social, to start following, and help to grow the reach of Hungarian football.

To request a PDF copy of the full report, please send a mail to kevin@hungarianfootball.com and we will arrange for a copy to be issued as quickly as possible; requests for individual bespoke club reports will also be considered.


Ferencvaros Vs. Valletta: Late Away Goal Blights Fradi Copybook

Ferencvaros enjoyed almost domination in their Champions League 2nd Qualifying Round 1st Leg encounter against the Maltese champions Valletta at the Groupama Arena.  Fradi ran out comfortable 3-1 winners despite a late flourish from the visitors, however, the loss of an avoidable away goal will take some of the shine off an otherwise impressive performance.

Two goals from returning talisman Davide Lanzafame helped Ferencvaros to open up a comfortable three-goal lead before the hour mark against Valletta, before some slack defending in the closing minutes allowed the Maltese back into the game, and possibly the tie.

After a cagey opening period during which neither side was able to gain a foothold on the game, Ferencvaros eventually settled into the match and began to take the ascendency. The hosts made the most of their home advantage and took the lead after 19 minutes in rather fortuitous fashion as Valletta keeper Bonello punched a Fradi corner into his own net.

The goal proved to be the turning point in the match as Ferencvaros, buoyed by a large and noisy support, immediately took control of the match. Lanzafame's clever movement and link-up play unsettled the Valletta backline, while the busy Zubkov caused no end of problems with his direct runs and dangerous passing. 

The Lanza-Zubkov combination led the Ferencvaros assault on goal and twice came close to doubling Fradi’s lead in quick succession around the half-hour mark before the Italian eventually got his name on the score sheet from the penalty spot.

The laconic striker added his second, and Frencvaros third goal of the evening, mid-way through the second half, clipping a neat finish over the Valletta keeper following another fine through pass from Zubkov.

At three-nil, and looking comfortable, Ferencvaros pressed for a tie killing fourth goal and came close on several occasions, Bonello making amends for his earlier howler with some vital saves.

However, as the game crept towards a satisfactory conclusion, Ferencvaros were caught out by a long ball over the top.  Fontanella, who was identified pre-match as the Valletta danger man, found a yard of space on the right before flashing a low cross to the far post and the waiting Messias who stroked home a vital away goal.

Worse was almost to follow as substitute Piciollo, again unmarked at the back post, saw a gilt-edged effort saved crucially by Dibusz in the 92nd minute.   However, the drama was not quite over yet as Valletta’s Steve Borg saw a late red for an elbow in the face of Ferencvaros sub Bole in the final minute of injury time.

Despite the 3-1 scoreline, the final whistle was met with a mixed reaction of joy and relief as Ferencvaros threatened to somehow throw-away a commanding lead. As it stands, Fradi will take a 2 goal advantage to Malta next week, but will they live to regret conceding that all important away goal?


Ferencvaros Vs. Ludogorets: Match Report

Ferencvaros got their European campaign off to a positive start in front of a packed and expectant Groupama Arena on Wednesday evening thanks to a 2-1 win over Bulgarian champions Ludogorets. Goals from Tokmac Nguen and debutant Oleksandr Zubkov, sandwiched Jakub Swierczok’s first-half leveller to give Fradi a slender lead to take to Razgrad next week.

Ferencvaros, making their first appearance in Champions League Qualifying since 2016/17, could barely have wished for a better start to the game as Nguen opened the scoring after only 6 minutes. The Green Monsters, who were vocal throughout the game, had barely caught breathe after a rousing rendition of Himnusz before Nguen’s goal sent the crowd into raptures; the Norwegian showing deadly instincts to poke home a Lovrencsics cross from the right.

Buoyed by their early goal and the support of the crowd, Ferencvaros were positive in attack and looked to take the game to the visitors. The combination play of Lovrencsics and Zubkov down the right was a constant threat to Ludogorets, while goalscorer Nguen fluctuated between moments of brilliance and frustration in equal measure.

On the 8 minute mark Tamas Priskin missed the first of several gilt-edged chances on what would prove to be a frustrating evening for the former Watford striker.

Despite the misfiring Priskin, Ferencvaros were comfortable for the most part with Ihnatenko controlling the midfield. That was until around the midway point in the half when Fradi seemed to inexplicably switch off and allow sloppy errors to creep into their game.

On the half-hour mark, Ihnatenko, who had looked extremely composed up to that point gifted possession to Lukoki with a poor attempted pass out from defence. A couple of quick passes later and Tchibota fired off a shot that Dibusz could only parry out to the waiting Swierczok. 1-1 and the Groupama was silenced.

The concession of the goal rocked Ferencvaros who failed to regain their rhythm in the remainder of the half. Ludogorets, on the other hand, only grew in confidence and it was the hosts, so comfortable in the opening exchanges, who were the happier to hear the half-time whistle.
Bar the early goal, the second half followed a similar pattern to the first. Ferncvaros started brightly and again looked to the combination of Lovrencsics and Zubkov on the right and the individual trickery of Tokmac Nguen to create openings.

Ferencvaros thought they had regained the lead on the hour as Dvali headed home only to his goal ruled out for offside. However, less than a minute later Zubkov fired home after some fine wing play Tokmac Nguen to give Ferencvaros a 2-1 lead.

As with the first half, the goal seemed to have an adverse effect on Fradi who once again began to lose their hold on the game which turned scrappy with neither side able to keep possession for an extended period.

Ferencvaros’ mental and defensive frailties at European level rose to the surface time and again as Ludogorets presses for an equaliser and second away goal and came close on 83 minutes as substitute Siger was caught napping in midfield. Fortunately, Ludogorets were not able to capitalise.

The final minutes proved somewhat of a rearguard action for Fradi as they withstood constant pressure, a lot of which was self-inflicted. Eventually, they managed to hold out and will take a slender lead with them to Bulgaria for the 2nd leg.

In order to progress, Ferencvaros will need to sharpen up their play and cut out the defensive errors as Ludogorets will no doubt pose a greater threat at home. However, speaking after the game, manager Sergei Rebrov was confident his team had enough in the tank to see the tie through.