The Leaving of Liverpool – a Hungarian Football Adventure (Part 2)

Written by Mike Nevin

Liverpool fan Mike Nevin wrote an article The Leaving Of Liverpool And A Hungarian Football Adventure for the Anfield Wrap in January 2018 when he discovered his love for Hungarian football. Here in part 2 Mike talks of his “Fradi debut”.

I am back in Budapest. It is early March 2018. This time I’m staying on the banks of the Danube on the Pest side – with Buda across the majestic river. My Saturday morning is viewed through a beautiful prism of early morning mist which drapes itself across Europe’s vast arterial waterway, second in command only to Russia’s Volga.

Last time I was here back in January, on my first visit, I heard sad stories. Of footballers’ dreams denied. Of supporters’ dreams that died. No-one here seemed to care much for Hungarian football such is the drain of talent and the shambolic club, national team and political leadership that leaves The Mighty Magyars team of the 1950s not so much a beacon lighting a way to the future, but instead, a dim and distant light rooted in the past.

But Hungarian people still love football. That much is obvious when you speak to them. But rather than Honved, Upjest and the Green Eagles – league leaders Ferencvaros – too many of the indigenous lads and lasses follow La Liga and/or The Premier League and the star names on people’s lips are those of players representing Barca, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea and of course, my very own Liverpool FC.

Lionel Messi now usurps the late, great Ferenc Puskas of Honved. For Ferencvaros leaning Reds’ followers, all the talk is of Mo Salah over their own current star player Daniel Bode.

When I was last here my Ferencvaros interest was spiked by a lovely man, Borotsek Szolt whose emergent career – with “Fradi” and Hungary under-19s – was cut cruelly short before he had turned 20.

Borotsek was the friendly doorman at my hotel. I didn’t speak any Hungarian. Zsolt spoke good English but then football is an international language. You know Puskas? Of course. You know Liverpool? Of course.

Though a centre-half, as a kid, he probably dreamed of being like Puskas. Like most Liverpool lads I know dreamt of being Kevin Keegan or Kenny Dalglish. 

It never happened for him. His eyes were as green as the bottom stripe on the Hungarian flag but couldn’t disguise some sadness. Zsolt suffered an awful knee injury at the age of 19 and lost his lightning pace. A fledgling career was stopped in its tracks. Zsolt began to struggle and ceded his place in the Hungarian youth squad. 

A terse, painful message from youth coach, the late Florian Albert – himself a Hungary great after whom Zold Sasok, The Green Eagles’ stadium (sponsorship aside) is named, signalled an abrupt end for Zsolt. He was finished. Imagine the same lifetime angst for an injured Liverpool lad sent packing at 19 after years being the starlet of the Academy.

Perhaps disaffected by his personal trauma, Szolt bemoaned the state of the game at home. All very sad for him and a once proud football nation, though he clearly retained a passion for the beautiful game. There are ebbs and flows in your relationships, but real love never dies.

I resolved to come back and find out more about Hungary and its association with football for myself. My friend at the Hungarian Liverpool supporters club, Istvan Takacs promised he would get me a ticket for an upcoming match without having to negotiate the clumsy Ferencvaros membership scheme; something Liverpool fans the world over could identify with in their quest to visit Anfield without recourse to touts.

Istvan delivered more than I could expect – a meeting with his Red friends in their supporters’ club, the Kizrablo pub in Budapest to watch our Manchester United (away) fixture and an invite later to see Ferencvaros take on Balmazujvaros.

Before meeting Istvan, I had business to attend to; to get out amongst the people of Budapest. During the morning, the moist haze slowly giving way to a burning spring sun, I bumped into loads of “Green Eagles”. It appears Ferencvaros still have a solid place in the hearts of their diehards.

In a taxi I spoke to the driver – Nagy Lazlo, a season ticket holder. We sat and chat in the cab for ages. He was fantastic. For him, Fradi are still what drives him; his Saturday afternoon the motivation to spend those long hours ferrying people from Buda to Pest, endlessly traversing the magnificent Széchenyi Chain Bridge which connects the west of the new city to the east. I was sad to leave him, but he had a crust to earn for his family and his football.

Outside Olympia Park, a green space where children and adults alike enjoy a kick-about with a whiff of the Danube in their nostrils, I joined in a game of football with two young boys Alex and Luca and their lovely Mum. Nutmegs everywhere and not just from my flaking left peg. Their beaming, innocent smiles made my day. I asked Mum where their Dad is – he’s working this morning but then off to the match to see Fradi, the mighty Ferencvaros.

Time runs away with itself and suddenly I’m late and need another cab back to the hotel. I’m helped to find a number by a man sweeping the streets, probably earning less than three Euros an hour in this country of typical inequality.

His friend is Hungarian goalkeeper Adam Bogdan – still at the time on Liverpool’s books – who lived just over the road. He points to Bogdan’s vacant penthouse across the way, ownership of the empty baroque facia apartment no doubt sustained by enormous Premier League wages.  I don’t have the heart to tell my willing aide Bogdan had been a failure at Anfield.  

Back at my hotel I tell the thick-set, brylcreemed man on reception, Szabo Zsolt – another Fradi fanatic – that I am off to the match later, but first have an appointment with the local Liverpool Supporters Club. He gives me flawless directions to the Kizrablo, over the River. He loves that I’m going to see his team in the flesh and he slaps me heartily on my back to send me on my way. Thus far, I have met only with enthusiasm, warmth and smiles. I feel at home amongst these lovely people.

On my previous visit, I sensed a sadness pervades many of the ordinary people. Inequality, low wages and poverty blight the nation (albeit that in the UK we have far from a financial level playing field) and 44% of Hungarian households cannot afford the essentials provisions for family life. Beyond the magnificence of central Budapest lie much starker outskirts, as though the 1956 Uprising was a figment of the imagination.

Many young people retain hope that perhaps one day they might flee and experience a better life and even on the avenues of a capital which reminds of Paris, elders look down, rooted in melancholy, haunted by a hard, hard past and with little hope for what remains for the rest of their lives. 

There is symmetry and reflection in the demise of Hungarian football. Governments plough money into new stadia but people realise the need for more money to build hospitals. Domestic football has lost its place in the hierarchy of importance and the four major Budapest teams – Ferencvaros, Honved, MTK and Ujpest – share meagre crowds who suffer crude football. 

It is no wonder that following the Premier League has become a vicarious pleasure enjoyed through the lens of the TV Camera.

When I reach Kizrablo and the Liverpool Supporters Club, a friendly face outside greets me. It isn’t mein host, Istvan but his mate, Lajos ‘Hefti’ Tankovics, who is waiting for me. He’s smoking so we share a cigarette together and chat about the upcoming Liverpool v United clash. We’re both nervous, perhaps Hefti more so given that he’s a committed Red and I have the self-importance of my Fradi debut later this evening.

Istvan – who goes by the name Steve to illustrate his loyalty to all things English – turns up soon after and we go to the bar. He’s on white wine spritzer and says it’s going to be a long day. Eschewing wine at this hour, I opt for a premium Hungarian lager, plagiarising the 4th Century Roman as I think to myself “When in Buda……”

We’re soon joined by more friends, the fantastically crazy Krisztian Gerecs, who is a lawyer and a Greco-Roman wrestler. All the best people have two jobs, I reckon. He’s not thinking about a long day and is necking Pinot Grigio apace. * Later in the year, on a third trip here – for all Kris’s alpha male front – he would show me an act of kindness that would put Mother Teresa to shame. Funny how life throws shit at you and you realise the value of true friendship as real consolation.

Liverpool lose miserably at Old Trafford. I’m taken aback by the lads’ passion for “my” club. They’re angry with the Reds’ meek showing, expletives pouring from generously lubricated mouths, but they are clearly obsessed and the prospect of an outing to the evening match featuring their home town team is no consolation.

The Liverpool match finished, we must leave to see the Budapest’s green and whites. I can’t wait and play darts while we linger – impatiently – for Istvan’s father-in-law, a Ferencvaros veteran, 65-year old Janos Balogh. I hit it off with the old man straight away. For him, old habits die hard and he’s proud that this “Englishman” is looking forward to watching his team.

The new ground they have is attractive and functional, although it resembles many of the Premier League rebuilds and lacks a little soul. The life it breathes is the voice of its 22,000 capacity. For seven years at least, perhaps even 10, the new Ferencvaros home in Budapest is to be known as the Groupama Arena. Many are content with the arrangement, but the more nostalgic feel this will always be the Albert Flórian Stadion – in tribute to one of their greats.

I recall that Florian was the man who called time on my friend Borotsek Szolt’s time with Fradi; the definition of pain for a young man to be let go by a hero, an icon of club and country.

There’s me, Steve, Kris and son, Janos and three more old guys who’ve probably seen it all in life and football. When we go inside the ground there’s another fella to meet, an acquaintance of my new buddies. Mihaly Kotai is 42, former WBF Super-Welterweight Champion of the World and a home game regular. He’s great and we chat over a pint and plate of goulash while resolving to both resume training. He’s deadly serious and so am I, even though I fancy his chances more than mine.

Inside I watch “our” players warm up in a practically empty stadium, but I notice the end behind the near goal is a barren swathe of empty green seats. During the November game versus Debrecen, a Ferencváros supporter stabbed a fellow fan in the ultras area — a unique, tawdry happening in the history of the Hungarian game. That section of the ground is locked, and this fixture is the last of a three-match closure.

The lads I’m with aren’t like that; instead they are kind, generous; yes, a bit wild and totally crazy but isn’t that what football does to you?

The ground begins to fill up and by kick off 11,000 Budapesti populate a stadium built to house more than double that number. By Christ, they are noisy. Balmazujvaros players are relentlessly jeered and whistled and every refereeing decision is contested.

With the fervour, nay bias of the home crowd, the away team are swept away and at half-time we’re three goals to the good. By the end it is five-nil with the last of a nap hand coming in the fourth minute of stoppage time. The players, resplendent in sweaty green and white hoops, and manager Tomas Doll salute all three populated sides close-up and then wave to the empty end where the shamed Ultras would usually reside. It’s a bizarre moment, and slightly chilling. The players clearly have a close bond with their fans, some more fervent than others, that puts the cossetted, distant stars of the Premier League to shame.

I promise I’ll be back when the Groupama Arena is full on a sunny afternoon – when many more thousands worship at the imposing statue of their greatest, Albert Florian – hopefully for the match we clinch the league in June. * I’ll be in the Ultras section then. I feel I’m one of them now. If Fradi and Liverpool meet in next season’s Champions League I have a dilemma. Or, maybe I don’t. It could go either way.

It has been an absolute pleasure; making friends, absorbing culture, feeling the sporting and political history of one of Europe’s grandest cities, and discovering a football club trying to dust off the cobwebs of its relationship with a diverse, distracted local populace.

It’s time to go. The lads all have families to go back to so do I. I have a plane to catch. So long Buda, you’ll be seeing this Pest again soon.

Thank you, Istvan, Krisztian, Janos, Hefti, Mihali, Nagy, Szabo and last but by no means least, Borotsek Szolt.

*Ferencvaros were pipped at the post to the 2018 Hungarian Championship by Videoton FC from the ninth largest Hungarian city of Szekesfehervar.

Fradi made amends in 2019 becoming Champions for nth time by the clear water of 13 points. Their attempt to qualify for the 2019-20 Champions League was foiled in the penultimate qualifying round at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb from neighbouring Croatia. Happily, Fradi were able to drop into the Europa League and this week reached the Group Stages of UEFA’s repechage competition for the first time in 15 years. The exposure could be crucial to the gradual recovery of Football’s most romantic nation.