Hungarian football appears to be in terminal decline. As you can see below, attendance figures have been in freefall since the early 1980s. Compare this with England (average for the top four leagues which has recovered from its travails of the mid-80s with the help of the ’reinvention’ of football thanks to the introduction of the Premier League in the early 90s and also with Austria, Hungary’s richer but comparable neighbour, which has an almost inverse relationship. (Unfortunately, due to the region’s fairly turbulent recent history, I struggled to get figures for near neighbours Slovakia, Romania and the Yugoslavs.)
This year’s average attendance in Hungary is below 3,000 and more or less on a par with the Swedish second division (Sweden is a country with almost identical population size to Hungary). MLSZ seems to have seen the above graph and has decided to tackle the problem the English way. Is this the right way?
Improving the Infrastructure
Hungary’s football stadiums are, on the whole, terrible. I love them, but in reality they are a big turn-off for the fleeting voter. As an example, our recent trip to Kecskemet saw the away fans squirreled away on a concrete bank far away from the action. There were no seats, no roof and not even any supports for standing. One of the MTK fans is an elderly gentleman (80+) who despite asking whether he could move to the home section so he could sit down was denied by the security. Fortunately, it was a cool, dry Autumnal evening but these type of facilities become significantly less comfortable/more dangerous in the height of summer or in less clement weather generally. Would you want to take your kids to an exposed terrace in the wet/heat? No.
England followed this path in the wholesale reconstruction of stadiums from the mid-80s onwards. Gone were the Manor Grounds, Burden Parks and Victoria Parks of this world to be replaced by The Kassam Stadiums, Reebok Stadiums and the Britannia Stadiums. I think many English fans somewhat pine for those old temples to the game, but they were unsafe and (proven) death traps. Hungary could do worse than investing in its stadiums, but please leave the terraces.
Eliminating the hooligans
As we all know English hooligans rampaged through town centres and stadiums for many a year. The problem was complex and probably reflected fundamental societal issues. I am no expert on how and why the issue went away beyond stronger, targeted policing and a general disapproval amongst the common man who wanted to watch football without worrying about a dart in the eye.
Does Hungarian football have a hooligan problem? Tough one. In the twenty plus games, I have been to I have seen one small scuffle between Ferencvaros fans. I have never felt threatened (although I am yet to do the away trip to Ferencvaros). On the other hand, Fradi-Ujpest games are heavily policed and still end up with incidents and Hungary’s recent trip to Romania showed that underbelly still follows the national team (much like England).
As an MTK fan, I can safely say that there is no hooligan element at the club other than children runnning with wild abandon up and down staris.
MLSZ has decided in its infinite wisdom to force the wide scale introduction of a Fan Card. Without a Fan Card, it is not possible to buy tickets to enter Hungarian football stadiums. Ferencvaros have used the fan card system for several years without any indication that it acts as any deterrence for people to commit ’unsocial acts’ inside the stadium. For example,
During MTK’s trip to Ferenc Puskas Stadium (Fradi’s temporary home whilst the Groupama Arena was being built), Fradi fans displayed the following banner honouring recently decesaed Csatary Laszlo.
Csatary Laszlo was an alleged Nazi war criminal, sentenced to death in absentia in Czechoslovakia. He died whilst still on the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s Most Wanted List. Such actions have no place inside a football stadium. Surely this is the perfect opportunity to lean on a fan card system. Identify the culprits, revoke their fan cards and they are automatically banned from football stadiums. MLSZ did nothing. Fradi fans set up a Facebook, Spartacus style, all claiming to be responsible for the banner. It obtained some 3,000 members. Eventually MLSZ handed Fradi a pathetic fine (HUF 800,000 or EUR 2,750) and effectively turned a blind eye. This came almost a year to the day after Hungary had played Israel in a friendly in the same stadium and the anti-Semitism resulted in Hungary being forced to play Romania behind closed doors in a crucial World Cup qualifier. (Hungary conceded a last minute equaliser.)
The fan card system did not work for Fradi although that is not to say that it could have done. It is a tool, not an answer and without effective policing to stop rogue elements enter the stadium then the rogue elements will continue to enter the stadium, continue to spout their anti-Semitism and (from an MTK perspective) will continue to turn off fans who have better things to do than pay money to be racially abused.
Despite this, MLSZ decided to introduce the fan card system for every club with heightened rules for Fradi. From September 15, this year every Hungarian wanting to enter a football stadium needs to possess a fan card showing a picture and date and place of birth. Each person can only possess one fan card. Each fan card is linked to an individual’s local identification card. The matter is complicated for MTK because fan cards are not available from the Bozsik Jozsef Stadion (as MTK does not have any facilities there as a borrowed stadium) so everyone needs to make a separate trip during office hours to the Hidegkuti Nandor Stadium (which is strangely still standing and untouched by the demolition machines). In short, it is no longer possible a) to go and watch a team other than your own and b) for someone to turn up and buy tickets on the day (without prior organisation of fan card).
The fan card has singlehandedly turned existing fans away from the game (what have 95% of fans ever done to be treated like criminals) and stop new fans from coming to the game. Sledgehammer to crack a nut. Ferencvaros fans are now also required to provide finger prints to gain entry into their new stadium!!
The upcoming twelfth round of the Hungarian league is being boycotted by fan groups up and down the country with a corresponding protest to take place outside Parliament. Hungarian football as a spectator sport is dying, MLSZ seems to want put it out of its misery.
ps. As a foreign passport holder, I am exempt from the fan card system.