Normally when I do these on-the-road journals, I go out with a sense of excitement mixed with trepidation. What will the food be like? Can I speak enough of the lingo? What will my Ibis be like? Does it have a subway system? And will I get attacked when I take pictures of run-down tower blocks?
Well, when I took a trip to Budapest, all of these things went through my mind. Yes, I found my way around, even though the escalators in the Hungarian subway go at about 100mph. Yes, I found my hotel just fine. Yes, I got by for five days somehow with my very, very basic Hungarian skills. And yes, I did survive despite the fact that 1 in 4 Hungarians wear leather jackets and have a scowl on their faces….
So, nothing to fear right? Well, not quite. You would think that finding a football game in a city with no less than four relatively decent sized clubs would have a load of fixtures waiting for me to devour, right? Well, not quite. Predictably, they had a weekend away from the league season at…. wait for it …….. the exact same time as I was out there. Typical. It’s almost as though they know I’m coming, discover this site, and realise I’d cause an international incident by mentioning what shit music they play over their PA systems.
Worse, nobody actually had any sort of fixtures up. Second division Ferencvaros (the mob who beat Millwall in the UEFA Cup and who also stabbed a Millwall fan) were away, none of the other clubs like Honved or MTK were playing, and I’d resigned myself to an afternoon of finding more iffy looking tower blocks to photo whilst trying to look inconspicious. All seemed lost until I discovered Ujpest were at home in my stay there. Even better, it turned out they had the equivalent of the Carling Cup to play in against I team I’d heard of, in Debrecen. Quick check to see where the ground was, and suddenly a new article full of references to sexual practices and insults of policemen was brewing….
So, where to start? At a u17 Hungarian league fixture, obviously. No, actually I’m lying – it was an u19 fixture instead. Well, if truth be told, I don’t actually know as I found it by accident. I’ll explain. Not really knowing where I was going, I headed to the ground on a crisp, coolish Saturday morning (ie the day before) so I didn’t get lost. Anyway, I found it quite easily as it goes, but for some reason there were a couple of people dotted about. I thought it was a training session for the game the next day – quite common in Europe that teams train on the pitches by the stadium the day before a fixture and you can go and watch no problem (like Eintracht Frankfurt, who went I saw them were riding high in the Bundesliga).
In true journalistic fashion, I wandered in expecting to see about 10 minutes worth of jogging about, drill training and discussions on how not to take corners. Suddenly I heard a whistle go and lo and behold, a football game broke out. What was I watching? A Saturday league game? The Hungarian equivalent of Leyton v Folkestone? There were as many people there, certainly. And who were they playing?
Well, I eventually discovered it was Honved – so really I was watching a Budapest grudge match with the players literally a couple of feet away from me. Basically, they have a pitch a bit like having the Athletics Track next door to KM, though it’s a proper CCL type setup (complete with CCLesque grass verge). This could be Frimley Green away. Nobody minded you watching, in fact they opened up a kiosk to buy your kava and beer. All this at 10am…
The other thing that grabbed me was the pitch – it was artificial. Obviously, you need it in Hungary because of the winter cold, but bearing in mind that recently Russia were getting grief because England had to play on an artificial surface. From what I saw, the game wasn’t markedly different on astroturf as it was on grass. Ball control was no worse. Bearing in mind that Prem sides train on astroturf, I think it was the usual excuses that England made when they lost in Moscow. It’s not their fault, it never is.
If the surroundings were CCL, the game was shockingly familiar. Good possession in midfield, shooting on a par with Danny Webb on a bad day. This was like watching us. Honved managed to miss a header from 6 yards out, so taking the hint I started to leave. And guess what – Ujpest scored. Deja vu again. I stayed for a little while longer, insofar as I was actually quite enjoying it. Watching the minor leagues the world over is actually quite similar to watching it in England – though with my notepad and camera in hand, everyone else probably thought I was a scout. Rest assured that there was nobody playing who I’d recommend Terry Brown to. Mind you, I’m not cruel enough to recommend Guliano Grazioli to Ujpest either…..
Before I go on, a bit on Hungarian football. Basically, it’s shit. The national team is shit, the club sides aren’t much better (Ujpest were a good side in the past but have done nothing since) and the attendances are woeful. I’m not kidding when I say that AFCW would be one of the better supported clubs in the whole of Hungary. You can sense the decay when you walk past the Ferenc Puskas Stadium, their national stadium. The top tier is crumbling and is now out of bounds. The rest of the stadium is of Feltham Arena quality, a monument to what was and what is now. Needless to say, in them days it was called the Nepstadion, or People’s Stadium. And you know what I think about stadia with names like that…..
Yet even more symptomatic is what I saw on the front of a travel agent there. An A4 sheet advertising a trip to London for the new year. Not unreasonable, you may think. Here’s what it genuinely said: Between 29/12/07 and 2/1/08 you fly to London and stay at the Victoria Thistle hotel. Included in your package is a match ticket to West Ham United v Man Utd, plus another match ticket to Fulham v Chelski. Yours for 239,900 HUF, or Â£665. If that’s too expensive, there’s a cheaper deal to watch Chelski or Real Madrid in the Champions League for 64900 HUF, a slightly less wallet bashing Â£180.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, if you’re a Chelski fan, or a West Ham or United follower, and you can’t get tickets for a game, don’t worry. Your seat is getting sold not only to corporate freeloaders, and Japanese tourists, but also Eastern Europe daytrippers as well. If you need further proof that football isn’t a spectator sport now and just merely an “event”, look no further. It does at least explain why the soul-destroying Mexican Wave is making an unwelcome return to grounds.
Secondly, it doesn’t do much for the development of Hungarian football if people would rather spend their money watching West Ham United. I wonder how many of those u19s (or was it u17s?) I saw on that Saturday morning will get a chance to progress further? Very few of them I’d imagine, because unless they’re really good – in other words, sellable – the clubs won’t really be able to afford much more in making them better players. Football in Hungary seems to have hit a vicious circle – teams are crap so there’s no interest. There’s no interest so the money is tight. The money is tight and therefore the teams are crap. And on it goes. It’s probably of little surprise that the main sports headlines that weekend were the Hungarian water polo team playing in some big tournament, and how well WBA and Hungary captain Zoltan Gera is doing.
Anyway, I put my money where my mouth was and contributed just a tiny little bit to the Hungarian football economy. Ujpest’s ground is in a part of Budapest called, er, Ujpest. Which basically means “New Pest”, insinuating it’s a new town (though I don’t know what Pest means). Like all new towns, it’s right by an industrial estate. The ground itself is actually very nice – the seating and roof is all modernised, although the toilets aren’t refurbished and smell like a car park in Croydon. The Hungarian national team have played there before. Strangely, there was a pricelist for Hungary v Malta on display, which was odd because that game was at the National Stadium. Maybe it was u21 or something? Anyway, you could have bought tickets for 3000 HUF, or Â£8.31. You can’t get into KM for that.
Naievely, I turned up a good hour before kickoff. It was getting dark (with a stupid 5.30pm Sunday kickoff), and I thought I’d better beat the rush for tickets. Urm, right. When I got there, the floodlights weren’t on, and there was a distinct lack of life. Had I got the dates and times wrong? Disturbingly I hadn’t. There were a couple of stewards, four or five fans milling about and me. And that was it. We were joined a couple of minutes later by the rendorseg, aka the police, who were probably glad of the overtime. I’ve been to reserve games with more pre-match buzz than this.
I figured that it might be best to buy a ticket, to beat the obvious rush that was going to descend any minute. Bravely, I brushed my way past the, er, ones that were standing round, and in my best attempt at Hungarian asked for a match ticket.
“One thousand forint” came the accented reply.
“Excuse me?” I replied. Admittedly, my hearing isn’t the best but I had to repeat it just to make sure it was what I’d heard.
“Yes, one thousand forint. Thanks very much”.
Now, if you’ve been following my exchange rate calculations so far, you would have worked out that I paid Â£2.77 for a match ticket against another top flight side. When you get used to paying Â£9 for even shitty non-league football, paying that for less than a cheeseburger in some cases is an eye opener. OK, I know it’s all relative, and for your average Magyarian it certainly isn’t the equivalent of Â£2.77 but sometimes you have to remember just what football is really worth.
Anyway, I waited about for a bit longer, went in and scanned my ticket in. Yup, although you can’t see it my ticket had a barcode so I could get into this highly anticipated fixture without relying on a tout. With the queue to get in a good one person long, I was finally inside. The buzz, the anticipation, the, er, well not a lot really. There were some people in the ground, but it all felt a bit Slurrey Senior Cup-like. Presumably Ujpest would be allowed an appeal if they got chucked out though.
So much so that it was time to do what all good football fans do when they have time to kill. Yup, the bar. Or rather, the kiosk (Ujpest don’t have a bar at the ground as such. Well they do, but it’s for VIPs). This time, there was a queue of more than one person. Plenty of time to finally get some Hungarian under my belt, and with much frantic searching for “one beer please”, I took a deep breath.
“Ej sor kerek” I bravely asked.
“You want one beer?” came the reply
“Yes” I sighed.
I know I have a strong accent, but it wasn’t that bad, surely? Mind you, it’s only in France where they speak back in their native language to you, but that is the French. Anyway, more importantly the beer tasted nice and only cost 400 HUF, or Â£1.11. They wouldn’t even let you have a thimble of water for that price at the KM bar.
In common with most grounds in Europe, you can take your beer in to watch. As I wandered in, I noticed something. For a ground that holds a fair few, 3 sides were empty. Correction – 3 sides were closed. Except for the bit where the Debrecen fans were going – all 30 of them. Yup, it was definitely low key Carling Cup night. For 90 minutes it would be a surreal atmosphere watching two of the better teams in Hungary duke it out. Hungarian football is struggling for crowds, but I didn’t think it was this bad. My seat was supposedly in the front row (where the rain was heading), but somehow this evening it wasn’t exactly going to be an issue..
As the PA blasted out AC/DC (kewl), Guns and Roses (also kewl), 80s hair metal (not so kewl), Scooter (ummmm) and live Bon Jovi (obviously some sort of cultural reference in Hungary that I just don’t understand) I got a bit disturbed by what I saw. I was near what I would imagine are the Ujpest Ultras. What I saw put me on edge for the rest of the night. These grown men with shaven heads in some cases were approaching other people and………… kissing them on both cheeks. Not just members of the opposite sex either. Maybe it’s because I was weened on 80s football, but one just doesn’t do that sort of thing, especially at a game with your mates. Maybe it’s a continental culture thing, where a more relaxed approach to physical contact is accepted (one after all remembers that Brezhnev kiss) and is reflected in a more liberal, tolerant attitude towards sex and nudity, in comparison to the more suppressed, stunted and uptight approach to this within the British Isles.
Unless they really were going to bum each other afterwards that is.
Thankfully, the game was about to start. With a massive crowd of about 500 people settled in the stadium, the teams came out (Ujpest play in purple, hence the title of this article). Before we got down to the nitty gritty of this pulsating cup tie, we got the Hungarian national anthem playing. Now, apart from a GAA game, the US and Canada, I don’t ever recall the relevant national anthem getting played before a non-international tie. Maybe it’s a hangover from old Commie times, when they were actively discouraged from showing national pride? Well, showing Hungarian national pride anyway. Funnily enough, they were expected to show total devotion to Soviet pride…
If it was meant to rile up the sides for a rip roaring contest in front of the live TV cameras, it certainly did the trick. After about 2 minutes, Ujpest pressed forward, hit the post then went in. Everyone jumped up and down, kissed each other etc only for their jubilation to be short lived. The frenzy created by this incident carried onwards until………. er ………… well, that was about it. No, really, apart from a red card late in the second half for a Debrecen player and the Ujpest fans singing something like “piano”, I really can’t remember much about the game.
If the shooting was bad at the u17/19 game the day before, it was worse for the seniors. As the rain came down, and as the coppers behind me were spending their time smoking fags and discussing something else entirely, something metaphorically hit me. Here goes…
I have a theory about watching games which has yet to be disproven, and it works both at the ground and on telly. The more empty spaces at a ground the less interesting you find the game. Seriously, try it next time you’re watching a game at Middlesbrough or Franchise. As my pictures show, watching a game with three sides empty is difficult at the best of times. When the game itself has precious little action, suddenly Â£2.77 starts to feel a bit of a rip-off. They might have been better playing the contest where the u17s played the day before. It could have been CCL Hungarian style – maybe even some paprika-flavoured cheese rolls for that authentic lower division experience….
I’d read stories about how much of a decline Hungarian football was in, but you don’t really believe it until you see a game. Think some of the shittier games we’ve played and you’re getting close. Difference is of course that our lot are amateurs, and you expect a far less superior quality from us. If you’ve heard of the name Debrecen, it’s because Man Utd defeated them in a Champions League qualifier in 2005. That’s basically putting the standard on a par with the Eircom league. The national team hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1986, and forget the Euros – 1972 was their last outing there.
The game finished 0-0 and everyone buggered off home. I’m not sure if I’d ever complain about a shitty LSC cup match again, although that will soon change when we next crash out to Waltham Abbey away.
There is a little further twist in this tale on a rainswept Sunday evening in northern Budapest. There is a rather nice training facility/arena next to the ground, which transpires holds ice hockey games. How do I know this? When I left the ground, I saw some people piling into this arena, and not for a pint of beer either. At the same time, the Ujpest ice hockey team were playing the New Zealand All-Stars. I guess that must be the equivalent of the Streatham Redskins taking on the Providence Bruins reserve side. Still, it was free and I went and had a look.
Two things grabbed me. Firstly, it was freezing. Seriously, it was colder inside the arena than out. Secondly, although Hungarian sport isn’t all that, they do have decent facilities. I don’t know why sport in the country is so underachieving, maybe there’s still the iron curtain inefficiency. Maybe they’re just not good enough? I did look at the game which wasn’t the worst game of ice hockey I’d seen. I then looked at the score – Ujpest 0 NZ All-Stars 5. And it was only the second period. I wasn’t staying for the third….
In a nutshell, if we were to play in the Hungarian league we would be out of our depth. But worryingly enough, we would probably end up holding our own in a lower division. Certainly their u17s were no better than our equivalent.
As for Ujpest, they seem a nice enough club to visit, although I bet their games against Ferencvaros are good humoured, placid affairs. Indeed, one bit of graffiti outside Ujpest-Varoskapu station proudly states “Mocskos Ferencvaros”, which means “We are very friendly with our cross-city rivals and often kiss them on both cheeks when we meet in the tunnel outside this station”. Probably.
Now, about getting a refund on my Â£2.77…….