It’s always hard to predict football’s rises and falls. How many people for example would have foreseen Belgium’s meteoric rise to the top of the FIFA World Rankings in the mid 2000’s? Who would have thought Wales would make the top 10 just four years removed from being ranked 117th in 2011? And who could have predicted that from 1986 the once magnificent football nation of Hungary would fail to qualify for a single international tournament for the next 30 years?
“During its history of 110 years, Hungarian football has seen glorious phases coming after each other. Later on these phases were followed by more moderate but still successful periods. However, in the past 20 years, Hungarian football has basically been unsuccessful.”
That’s how the barren years were bluntly described by the Hungarian football federation when they released “The Strategy of Hungarian Football” document for public viewing in April 2015. But is Hungarian football finally starting to emerge with a hint of life after its 30 year coma?
The victory in the playoff over Norway in November 2015 felt like a significant moment for Hungarian football. The qualification, after so many years without a hint of celebration, was met with momentous joy not just in the Groupama Arena, but around Budapest and around Hungary. Celebrations not seen in Hungarian football since Kiprich and Detari ripped through Austria in Vienna to cruise to the 1986 World Cup. But this time it was different.
Hungarian football in 1986 was on a cliff edge, and even though Hungary had qualified for three World Cups in a row, the wind was blowing pretty powerfully. Gone were the days of Quarter Finals and better, Hungary had become content with merely participating, and they were struggling even with that. Most could see the demise coming, even though they probably wouldn’t have admitted it at the time.
Then came 1989 – the removal of Communism and the “Third Republic”. Even those peering over the cliff in 1986 couldn’t have predicted just how far they were going to fall. Hungarian football at the time was already visibly on the decline so there was no real outcry for it to be maintained, and instead it was disregarded and put to the back of the shelf like an old wooden toy. It wasn’t menacingly marginalised; it’s just people had more important things on their minds. Hungary’s political landscape was changing - these were halcyon times for the Hungarian people after years of being ruled by the Iron sickle of the USSR.
As the football world blew up in the early 90’s, Hungarian football stood on, watched, then walked backwards. Since the introduction of the Champions League in 1992 only two Hungarian teams have reached the group stage – Ferencvaros in 95/96 and Debrecen in 08/09 – less than the likes of Croatia, Cyprus, Slovakia and Israel. Since the 1986 World Cup, only once have Hungary finished second in a World Cup or European Championship qualifying group, and on that occasion they succumbed to Yugoslavia 12-1 on aggregate in the playoff.
Even in the recent qualifying campaign, Hungary were unable to automatically navigate through a group that was topped by Northern Ireland and seconded by Romania. The club sides haven’t exactly been pulling up trees recently in the Europa League either – Hungary sit between Liechtenstein and Moldova in the UEFA Country Coefficient rankings. In this season’s competitions, runaway league leaders Ferencvaros were bettered by Zeljeznicar who sit 6th in the Bosnian league in the Europa League, and title winners Videoton were embarrassed by Lech Poznan after being knocked out by BATE in the Champions League.
And in attendance terms – since records began – 2015 paints an even grimmer picture. 2015 was the worst year the Hungarian league has ever experienced; averaging at just over 2,500, which is more than half as low as 20 years previous.
So surely there’s no room to be optimistic? Of course you can say that when you look at the results on paper, but a shift genuinely feels like it’s taking place. Obviously it’s easy to feel optimistic about the future after qualifying for a major tournament, but after all the behind the scenes work that has been done by the government and the MLSz(Hungarian football federation) over the past few years, on the pitch success was vital to legitimise the strategy, legitimise the spending.
What would Hungarian football have done were it not for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán? Loathe him or love him, Orbán has been absolutely instrumental in the resuscitation of Hungarian football. From the stadiums to the sponsorship, from the football academies to even the propaganda, there is absolutely no coincidence that Hungarian football has had a sudden resurgence since he resumed office in May 2010.
Orbán has poured his heart, and plenty of government money, into Hungarian football. A former semi-professional footballer himself for Felcsut FC (now known as Puskás FC), Orbán is a huge football fan and he’s made reviving Hungarian football one of his major priorities as Prime Minister, and one of his major successes was convincing Hungary’s richest man Sandor Csanyi to head the Hungarian football federation in July 2010.
Since Orbán and Csanyi have been at the forefront, Hungarian football has developed a potent strategy – something that has been completely lacking in the 30 years previous. Inspired by the German academy overhaul post-Euro 2000, the MLSz have started a complete ‘Germanification’ of Hungarian football from top to bottom, and they’re starting to see some encouraging results even in these early stages.
The Puskas Academy set up in 2007 in Viktor Orbán’s home village of Felcsut has already produced Laszlo Kleinheisler a Hungarian international who recently signed for Werder Bremen, Adam Gyurcso a Hungarian international at Pogon Sczeczin in Poland, and 17 year old Matyas Tajti who’s now at La Masia with FC Barcelona. These type of academies and knowledge centres have become more and more commonplace across Hungary which are all audited on a regular basis by outside agencies.
At the top, former West-German U21 international Bernd Storck was appointed to oversee Hungary’s youth development and was appointed Hungary U20 / U21 manager in 2015. No one could have predicted how well this went, his appointment has been nothing short of genius. Storck took Hungary to the Last 16 of the U20 World Cup in June before taking the reins of the national team in October where he guided the national team to Euro 2016 in a hugely impressive manner. Meanwhile Hungary’s youth sides also have two German managers, the U21’s Head Coach is Robert Kilin and the U18’s boss is Oscar Corrochano.
Of course not all the changes have been positive or even seemed legitimate. The most disturbing concern is how Hungary’s top division was slashed from 16 teams to 12 for the start of this season only a few months after the MLSz publicly stated they’d like to see the Hungarian league shrunk to centralise talent.
Gyor, Kecskemet, Pecs and Nyiregyhaza became the first four clubs since FC Sopron in 2008 to be relegated from the top tier for “financial irregularities”. Nyiregyhaza who have kept hold of their best players since moving to Hungary’s third tier are fighting an ongoing court battle with the MLSz which their President says they are confident of winning.
And now, following the four team demotion, almost every single Hungarian top flight team has a link to Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz: Ferencvaros are headed by the Party Director, Debrecen, Videoton and Haladas are owned by close friends of Orbán and have all had their new stadiums partially funded by the government, MTK is headed by the founding member of Fidesz, and Puskás FC is basically owned by the PM himself. Only Ujpest in NBI are the club to not have any visible government ties.
The first thing that will obviously worry the distrustful fan is match fixing. With a lack of transparency emanating from the league having such low visibility outside of Hungary and only televising two league games a weekend, the potential for match fixing is enormous. Hungary has had its fair share of match fixing in the past, especially in the 80’s where major league games were found out to have been thrown and even more recently after 45 people were charged in 2013 over 11 alleged fixed matches in Hungary’s top tier.
With the government having an interest in almost every top flight club, does this mean that every club is pushing towards the same goal to benefit Hungarian football, or does this mean that the clubs will be ordered to maintain the Status Quo and let the big teams rule Hungary? Is it a coincidence that after 12 years without a title Hungary’s most supported club Ferencvaroshave just won the league with 7 games to spare? Maybe not.
But for now Hungarian football has to be celebrated. Too long has the Magyar Foci fan been stuck with nothing to revel in but former glories. Hungary, with the delightfully enigmatic Storck at the helm, have a really exciting, youthful spine that it will take to France in June, and even though they may be the rank outsiders with some bookmakers, the “Mighty” Magyars are just glad to be back at a major tournament. What comes next? A further rise or a dramatic fall?
Tomasz is @TMortimerFtbl.