I’m afraid I have to disappoint everyone: the title is only an urban legend. But the fact that this urban legend is alive and kicking about József Stadler, one of the most iconic Hungarian football club owners, tells you a lot of things. He grew up in a remote farm, worked as a shepherd, did all kinds of wheeling-dealing, set up his own football team, got it into the top division, had a 12 000 capacity stadium built in a settlement of 3000 inhabitants. He ended up in prison, the football club ceased to exist, the stadium is in disrepair. Stadler’s story oozes the reality of the 1990s in Hungary. Written by Gergely Marosi
“Ah, I remember when we were carrying the money by the wheelbarrow for Mr. Stadler! We had a good deal, importing stuff from Ukraine and getting it to Germany. We did not have the infrastructure though, so Mr. Stadler offered his help and his trucks. In exchange we had to help financing the stadium. He was a decent guy. And he was always correct with us in business.”
Well, that’s József Stadler in one paragraph. I’ve overheard it from a discussion at a record listening party and – as it’s usual for the stories about him – can be true or can be an urban legend. Urban legends are plentiful about Stadler. Filing a tax return for Leonardo’s The Last Supper? Teenage Andriy Shevchenko being on trial and refused at Stadler FC? Parties after games with plenty of easy women and a lot of booze? Having his own portrait painted with a blonde Ukrainian bombshell girlfriend, 30 years his junior? Throwing a party, inviting the whole village?
All of these exist. Some might be true. Some are true. The Last Supper and Shevchenko stories are unfortunately not, but it shows what kind of man József Stadler was in the public’s eyes. The iconic owner of the now-defunct Stadler FC passed away in late November at the age of 66. His story is, well, Hungary in the early 1990s in a nutshell.
‘I’VE EVEN MADE MONEY OUT OF SHIT’
József Stadler was born in 1951 in the village of Akasztó. You probably have never heard about Akasztó, and to be honest, most Hungarians would not have the faintest clue about its whereabouts had Stadler not made it into his headquarters. The village – first mentioned in 1278 as Akazthow (the name could either refer to hanging somebody or stopping carts on their tracks) – is in the middle of nowhere, so to say. Football-wise it was definitely a wasteland. Up until 1994 the county of Bács-Kiskun never gave a team to the Hungarian first division.
So, József Stadler grew up in a tanya – a typically remote farm, oft-seen on the Great Hungarian Plain –, working with the animals from the age of five.
‘At the age of five I was already running errands and doing tasks about the farm. A year later I was looking out for the horses at the nearby farm. I started earning money very early and my parents never took it from me, it was mine and I took great delight in collecting and feeling the cash. I did my eight years in primary school and I wanted to become a mason, but eventually stayed with being a shepherd. At the age of 14 I was earning as much as three adults in the village combined. I started to buy the skin of deceased sheep and sold it in nearby Solt, because I knew someone who paid good hard money for quality goods. I started wheeling and dealing with the local shepherds. I had my own sheep, collected their dung and sold it for the local vineyards. That’s how I made money out of shit’
– writes Stadler in his 5-book autobiography.
So to say, he was a born businessman with a reasonably relaxed attitude towards taxpaying and shady deals. The 1990s were a gold mine for such a businessman in Hungary. Quick-thinking and with a delicate smell of good business, Stadler funded his own Ltd. in 1988. He was doing business with anything and everyone, especially Ukraine and Russia – most businessmen shied away from those lands after the fall of the USSR. Not Stadler: he built a business empire and a fortune.
Oh, and he bought a football team.
A SHEPHERD GOES TO NB I
Kiskőrös is a town of 15 000 in the county of Bács-Kiskun. Everyone knows the name because one of the most famous poets of Hungarian history, Sándor Petőfi was born there in 1823. The local football team – obviously enough – took the name of Kiskőrösi Petőfi. The team (apart from the occasional beating up of referees) peacefully played its seasons for decades in the lower divisions of Hungarian football. The club started to climb the ladder in the late 1980s and made its way to NB II, the second division. The team rose, but expenses rose as well and the club started to look around for sponsors – as Akasztó is only a few kilometres away from Kiskőrös, József Stadler was an obvious choice.
Stadler said yes to pouring his wealth in the football, and overtook the financing of the club. That meant a one-man rule, and Stadler said to everyone: it’s his way or the highway, the team needs to win the second division, otherwise he’s out. He proceeded to sit on the bench for the games (“I’ve only had a hand in the substitutions, but man, they were good!” – he claimed), renamed the club (after himself, of course – Kiskőrösi Petőfi became Kiskőrös-Stadler and later Stadler FC), and brought in some well-known players. There were doubts – the people of Kiskőrös looked at the sudden ascent with amazement, but feared that if Stadler leaves, the whole club collapses. But money was flowing freely, for the time being.
“My hobby is football. Have you looked around the pitch? Have you seen the fans? Football is loved here, and people have enough of mediocrity”
– he claimed to Nemzeti Sport in the autumn of 1993.
József Stadler wanted to build a stadium in Kiskőrös, but after a tug-of-war with the local authorities in the end he used one of his own lands in his home village of Akasztó. While the stadium construction started, the team fought for promotion and Stadler fought for his freedom – literally, as in April 1994 he was kidnapped by the Chechen mafia. He got off harm-free (apart from a hundred million forints, given to the kidnappers) and everything went on. The team kept on winning and won promotion to NB I – the first club from the county of Bács-Kiskun to do so.
“A lot of people doubted us, but I did not doubt that we can go up. We’re going forward. We’ll have a stadium of Western European quality, we’ll have a good team. The fans at Kiskőrös will stick with us”
– Stadler said after the promotion.
BLUE AND WHITE DREAM
The local government of Kiskőrös stopped to give any financial support for Stadler, so the club started its first ever NB I season as Stadler FC. Off the field, József Stadler started an ongoing battle with the tax authorities. Stadler threatened that if the tax authorities did not sign his tax return requests to the tune of 1 billion forints, he’ll pull the club from the football championship.
The league season for Stadler FC began with a postponed match (Videoton – which went by the name of Parmalat FC those days – were away on tour), luckily so, as everything seemed to be on the verge of a collapse. József Stadler finally announced before a cup tie with Siófok that his club will start playing NB I football. The stadium was not ready yet, so Stadler FC played 13 away games out of 15 in the autumn! The two remaining games were held in the old Kiskőrös ground.
Not very surprisingly, Stadler FC started the season with three defeats before beating Békéscsaba away – as Békéscsaba was quite a force back then, the overwhelming fan sentiment immediately pointed to a fixed match. Not only the fans were outraged: the coach of Békéscsaba, József Pásztor accused Stadler FC’s crew and players that they approached the home players with offers for match-fixing. Stadler was seeing red and refuted the claims – the whole case descended into a farce and ended almost three years later.
Stadler duly lost their next three matches – 7 games in and they had one win, two goals scored and six losses. Coach Ioan Patrascu was fired and technical director István Sándor – a man from Zakarpattia, the Ukrainian region bordering Hungary, with a Hungarian minority – took over. Sándor lost his first game, but Stadler run riot away at Nagykanizsa (5–1 win) and only lost five games from then on.
Sándor used his Ukrainian contacts wisely and signed the “U2 of Akasztó”, Igor Nichenko and Vyacheslav Yeremeyev. Nichenko was the ultimate poacher of the 1990s in Hungary: the blonde Ukrainian striker always seemed to do absolutely nothing, apart from popping up in crucial situations and converting chances out of nowhere. Yeremeyev was a playmaker with a formidable left-foot and free-kicks – the pair only came in the winter break, but played a huge part in Stadler solidifying its position in the top flight.
Stadler Stadium finally opened in March 1995 (it was the most modern stadium of Hungary then), and the team ended the season with a nine-game unbeaten run. The last match against champions Ferencváros was literally a festival – supposedly 22 000 fans (probably less in reality) crammed into the stadium at Akasztó, witnessing a 1–1 draw and a mass pitch invasion, which caused Fradi finishing the match in Stadler’s away kit, as their fans decided to celebrate on the field early, stripping the players naked in the process.
The blue and white dream continued well into next season: Stadler FC, playing in their very distinctive blue and white chequered kit, were never threatened with relegation and repeated their 9th place finish from the season before, even though they lost Igor Nichenko to Ferencváros in the winter break. They even had a hand in deciding the championship: their 3–1 home win against BVSC essentially dented the title-winning hopes of the Budapest Railwaymen, who ceded the fight against Ferencváros a round later in front of 42 000 fans. Stadler finished the season with three losses but in safety.
“TEAM X” AND THE DOWNFALL
That was as high Stadler FC could get. The next season was abysmal: the weakened team started with a six-match winless streak and won only 2 games all autumn. Spring was slightly better, but still, Stadler needed to go to the relegation playoff against Dunaferr – they won 4–3 in aggregate and the village of Akasztó could enjoy some rooster stew as a celebration, courtesy of József Stadler. The club owner wept pitchside in relief as the referee ended the match (Stadler FC needed to survive two shots hitting the underside of the bar and off the goal line in the last minute) and proceeded to celebrate, casually popping up a 5-litre champagne bottle. Judged by the contemporary reports it’s safe to say that the whole local community woke up with a major hangover the next day…
Summer brought upheaval, as it looked like the curious Békéscsaba–Stadler match (played three years ago) came back to haunt the Akasztó team. The first verdict saw the match-fixing proven and relegated Stadler FC to the second division – when the draw for the NB I was made, Stadler was replaced by the “Team X” moniker. József Stadler appealed and MLSZ decided that the team could stay in the top flight, because even though there was a match-fixing attempt, the one who made it was not contracted to Stadler FC at the time.
Stadler survived, but the damage was done – the team could not sufficiently strengthen its squad, as the match-fixing case caused uncertainity, and rumours about the owner getting into major trouble with the tax authorities were rife.
The next season was horrible from start to finish: Stadler FC scraped together only one win and 11 goals in the autumn and only won three more games in the spring season. József Stadler was arrested in April for tax evasion and illegal financial activities (mostly cheating with tax return requests).
“If I committed so many crimes, I do not wish to live a minute longer. Let’s re-instate death penalty, put me in the stadium, kill me there, so I can have a proper burial. My conscience is clean. I’m fighting to the last shot. The team will finish the season of course”
– Stadler said to Nemzeti Sport after the public prosecutor’s decision. He was found guilty and sentenced for 9 years in prison and seizure of all assets.
The team played its last match in the NB I on 6 June 1998: mice were eating through the cables in the stadium, the stands were almost empty and Stadler won 3–2 against Haladás, despite being 0–2 down early in the game. The turnaround was ignited by the worst penalty decision ever (0:57 in the video below and you won’t believe it), but the home team could leave the Hungarian flight with their heads held high.
They were never seen playing a match again.
THE RUINS REMAIN
Stadler said no to NB II football, so Stadler FC ceased to exist. NB I minnows Gázszer FC (they also ceased to exist in December 1999, selling their NB I right halfway through the season to Pécs, which is probably the most bizarre move ever in Hungarian football history) used the stadium in the 1998–1999 season, and Dunaferr played two matches there in the spring of 2002, while their own ground was being rebuilt.
József Stadler was in and out of prison in his later life, always searching for a big business, but always finding trouble with the tax authorities. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, wrote the story of his life (he maintained his innocence in all tax cases) and suffered a stroke in a signing session. The stadium, once the most modern one in Hungary, eventually fell into disrepair.
“If I built my stadium now, probably I’d get honours from the state”
– Stadler remarked dryly in an interview given a few months before his death.
He was not only a shrewd (and shady) businessman, but something like a folk hero of the 1990s Hungary, who was seen as an entertaining and clever self-made men fighting against the corrupt authorities. He remains in the memory of local fans as the millionaire who spent his money on a vanity project in his own village – and Stadler FC ended up as a fun tale in the Hungarian football legend book.
THE BEST OF STADLER
IGOR NICHENKO (striker): The blonde, baby-faced angel of death of the Hungarian football pitches. Igor Nichenko knew only one thing: scoring. He was a classic poacher, coming out of nowhere, sniffing out every mistake and opportunity. He wasted no thoughts of any other aspect of the game. He won the Hungarian league with Ferencváros (1996) and Dunaferr (2000) and was top goalscorer of the NB I in 1995–1996 (Stadler/Ferencváros). He’s the second most prolific foreign player ever in Hungarian top flight football with 98 goals – only Nemanja Nikolics is in front of him (118 up until his naturalisation).
VYACHESLAV YEREMEYEV (attacking midfielder): Goatee or strong stubble, shoulder-length brown hair, formidable left foot – Vyacheslav Yeremeyev was a classic number ten and Nichenko’s best partner in crime. While Nichenko left for Ferencváros, Yeremeyev stayed, became the captain of Stadler FC and continued to play in Hungary until the early 2000s, amassing 167 top flight matches and 23 goals.
ATTILA DRAGÓNER (central defender): Probably the most well-known player ever to wear Stadler FC’s jersey, Attila Dragóner spent only a season in blue and white. That was an excellent one: Dragóner pushed into the squad of the Hungarian Olympic team in Atlanta and made his senior national team debut in August 1996, as a player of Stadler. He went on to play in BVSC and Ferencváros (with stints in Germany and Portugal), and retired as a club icon for Fradi.
NORBERT NAGY (left midfielder/left-back): Stadler FC picked him up from almost complete obscurity and a year later he debuted in the Hungarian national team – the first player from the club to do so. As Nichenko, he signed for Ferencváros and won two championships with them. He passed away at the age of 33 in 2003, suffering a fatal car crash.
ISTVÁN SÁNDOR (manager): The Ukrainian-Hungarian coach was doing an excellent job at Stadler FC, saving the team from relegation in his first season and only leaving when pretty much all was lost. He sat on the bench of Stadler in 102 league games. Sándor – the father of footballers György Sándor and István Sándor Jr. – sometimes made near-wonders with his limited funds. His shrewd scouting of Ukraine provided Stadler of several high-calibre players. He was present with Igor Nichenko at József Stadler’s burial ceremony.
STADLER FC RESULTS IN NB I
1994–95 9th 30 matches 9 wins 10 draws 11 losses 37 points
1995–96 9th 30 matches 8 wins 12 draws 10 losses 36 points
1996–97 16th 34 matches 7 wins 7 draws 20 losses 28 points
1997–98 18th 34 matches 4 wins 10 draws 20 losses 22 points
Most NB I matches played for the club: János Kertész (110)
Most NB I goals scored for the club: Igor Nichenko (16)