This article was written by Thomas Cserep. You can follow him on Twitter @bootdeball
For the start of the 2015/2016 season MLSZ (the Hungarian Football Association) had decided to implement the drastic measure of reducing the number of clubs in the top flight from 16 to 12 teams. The process had attracted a lot of controversy since teams were relegated that were not in the relegation zone due to licensing and financial issues. Many would argue that a degree of politics and corruption was involved as some of the clubs going down were not in debt.
However, I want to focus on the impact the changes have had on the Hungarian top flight. As well as reducing the number of teams in NBI (1st divison), the football association also decided to abolish the unsuccessful league cup, and similarly to the German league system, they introduced a rule by which B teams cannot progress beyond NB III (3rd division). The top flight saw an increase of 3 games per season as each of the clubs in the new 12 team league would play every other team 3 times (3*11=33).
Better Quality, Better Entertainment?
From the 2015 summer transfer window onwards the early impacts of the reduced number of teams in the top flight could be seen. The best players from the relegated teams were soon caught up in a tug-of-war between NBI clubs as they raced to get their signatures. For example the likes of Marek Strestik, Máté Pátkai and other Győri ETO players signed for NBI teams following their relegation to NB3 due to bankruptcy. This improved the squads of other clubs in the top flight. The lower number of teams in the league allowed talent to be more concentrated within it, which corresponds to the agenda of MLSZ to improve Hungarian football.
Over the last two years the league has undeniably gained in entertainment. The gap between the teams has been reduced and the outcome of games has become less predictable. The new format could mean that teams fighting against relegation could also potentially be involved in a struggle for the European places. For example, going into the winter break Paks were dangerously close to the drop zone. Thanks to 3 wins in a row during the spring restart helped propel the club up the table and now they find themselves 5 points off 4th, which could potentially be a route to the Europa League qualifiers depending on the outcome of the Hungarian cup. This acts as a testimony to the fact that the league has had an increased level of drama added to it and the potential of teams being ‘lost’ in the middle of the table – such as Kecskemét used to – has been eradicated.
The gulf in quality between the teams was also reduced in the new format. In the past there was a clear difference in standard between the top and bottom halves of the league. This was evident in the standard of football poorer teams offered due to their limited funding. Their poor financial position could be seen from the quality of the facilities they offered to both fans and players. The new system has allowed improved football matches to take place in better venues which are more likely to attract fans and investors alike. Questions may be raised on the holistic effect this will have on the Hungarian league system. In the long term a stronger top flight will make it more difficult for lower division teams to adapt and thus struggle to survive relegation, thus increasing the gulf in quality between the top 10 to 12 teams and the rest of the football clubs in the country. For example, while Gyirmót may have a renovated stadium, it’s clear that they’re unable to adapt to NBI which is shown by the fact they are sitting bottom of the league 9 points from safety. On the contrary in NBII recently relegated Puskás Akadémia are top of their division. While their position is certainly not assured, they have demonstrated their financial superiority over the rest of the league through the transfers they made which included Dániel Prosser, Péter Szakály and Gábor Gyömbér who were all solid NBI players with plenty of experience. It is also very likely that the team relegated from NBI this season along with Gyirmót will come straight back up again. Even though this scenario is far from certain, the development of a ‘super league’ top flight is possible and appears to be in the making.
National Team Effect
The new system provides financial benefits for clubs that play a certain number of Hungarian players and Hungarian youth players, which has resulted in the inflation of their value as they are in high demand. It could have a detrimental effect on the national team as clubs will be less willing to sell players abroad due to the monetary benefits MLSZ provides for them. For example, Vasas rejected a transfer offer from FC Midtjylland for Zsolt Korcsmár due to his importance to the team and the fact that he is Hungarian. Foreign teams may not be prepared to pay higher transfer fees, thus preventing Hungarian players from taking the next steps in their career.
The new format also means that the top flight has become very Budapest centred. All the teams relegated in 2015 were from outside Budapest and today 5 out of the 12 teams are from the capital. This means that football is not as accessible as it used to be. The whole of the South East – more than a quarter of the country – has no football team at all in NB1. A top flight team in the region would allow more people to be engaged with the league and help promote it. A team in Szeged – the country’s 3rd largest city – could potentially support the league in becoming more nationwide. This would coincide with MLSZ’s aim of attracting more fans to the sport.
The new format of the league has made NB1 much more exciting than it used to be, both in terms of the football matches and the league table. The teams have also improved as talent has become more concentrated in one league. However it cannot be denied that the formation of the 12 team NB1 has resulted in the exclusion of lots of clubs outside of Budapest and increased bonuses and financial aid have made it more difficult to enter into group of elite teams.