An Insider’s Guide to Soccer in Budapest
The statue of legendary Hungarian footballer Flórián Albert (known as “The Emperor,” he was European Footballer of the Year in 1967) in front of the museum at Ferencváros Football Club’s Groupama Arena.
David Holzer, embracing his newfound love for Hungarian soccer, gets the inside track on following the beautiful game in Budapest.
I write this on the morning of the day that Hungary plays England at the Puskás Aréna.
Foci, as the Hungarians call football, is not normally my beat, but Hungary did amazingly well in a difficult group in the delayed Euro 2020 Championships this summer, and I got hooked. Being English, my loyalties are slightly torn for tonight, but, at the very least, I hope it’s a great game.
The stadium is already sold out for the match, a World Cup qualifier for Qatar 2022, and excitement in Budapest is building.
I followed football back in the 1960s and ’70s, as did most English boys. So I know about that towering figure of 1950s football, player-manager Ferenc Puskás, widely regarded as the sport’s first international superstar. But I hadn’t realized that Hungary was one of the prime movers of European football.
The Hungarian Football Federation was founded in 1901. In 1902, Hungary and Austria played the very first international between national teams in Europe. Most of all, as a massive mural on Rumbach Sebestyén utca depicts, Puskás’ Hungary beat England at Wembley Stadium 6-3 in 1953.
No doubt, there are grizzled Hungarian football fans all over the country reminiscing about this epic victory and praying it happens again.
Thinking about Puskás, who began his career playing for Kispest-Honvéd, where his father was the coach, made me wonder about the pleasures of watching football in the city today.
I spoke to Peterjon Cresswell, writer for the website We Love Budapest, the printed Insider guides, and the man behind the soon to be relaunched football travel website liberoguide.com. PJ has followed Budapest football since the 1990s, reads Hungarian sports daily Nemzeti Sport religiously, and has watched the game at stadiums all over the city.
“There are four main Budapest clubs in the top league and three or four from the city in the second tier,” PJ told me. “On any given weekend in the season, there’ll be a game on Friday night, two or three on Saturday, and the same amount on Sunday. If you wanted to, you could watch three decent games every weekend.”
Because Hungary was one of the pioneers of football in Europe, the leading Budapest clubs are surprisingly old. MTK Budapest was founded in 1888, and Ferencváros, the city’s leading club, in 1899.
Today, these clubs play in stadiums built in the past five years. As PJ says, “For a match ticket of around HUF 2,500, you’ll see European league-level football in comfortable conditions. Crowds are low, with an average attendance of around 3,000. For atmosphere, it’s best to head for Ferencváros, where crowds are around 10,000. Apart from the derby between Ferencváros and Újpest, security isn’t an issue.”
In the big cities of the United Kingdom, which team you follow usually comes down to where you live or family tradition. I’m a very fair-weather fan of North London club Tottenham Hotspur because my grandfather, father, and I were born in that part of London.
“That’s true of Budapest to a certain extent,” PJ told me. “It’s about family and history more than where you live. It’s generally the smaller clubs where there’s a geographical affinity. There is a really traditional club in the fourth tier with deeply loyal fans on the old industrial island of Csepel. And there’s a team called III. Kerület (‘Third District’) from that part of the city.”
Those of us looking for a cultural experience that gives an insight into Budapest life will want to watch an entertaining match in an exciting atmosphere. Where would PJ suggest we go?
“By far the biggest crowds and the best atmosphere will be at Ferencváros. They made the Champions League last season and were recently close to making the group stage again. They’re now in the Europa League. That’s a pretty high standard for European football, let alone Hungarian. There’s a decent bar in the stadium and even a club museum. Be warned, though; their fans aren’t the most snowflake liberal in the world, so you might want to head for Honvéd, way down in Kispest, where Puskás played.”
Ferencváros is reasonably easy to get to on the number 1 tram. With the number 3 metro down, it’s a bit difficult to get to Honvéd, but you can get a replacement bus from the city center at Határ út, towards Kőbánya-Kispest, then the 42 tram.
At Ferencváros, you have to sign in as a member to watch a match because of the crowd trouble they’ve had in the past. But it’s a reasonably straightforward process, PJ says. For all other clubs, you can just walk up and buy a ticket.
Your ticket will have a barcode and map of the stadium. Stadiums are all seating, but it won’t be difficult to find your seat.
What about the cultural aspect and profound insights into the Hungarian way of life?
“When you go to the ground, there will generally be tables set up selling little bags of sunflower and pumpkin seeds, lightly spiced. You’ll see people just nervously nibbling on them as the action takes place, like chewing gum. After the game, the terraces will be covered in seed husks. It’s the same throughout Eastern Europe, in countries around the former Soviet Union. I think beer is sold at most grounds. You can also bring it to your seat.”
And what are likely to be the most memorable matches? “The derbies. Between Újpest and Ferencváros, for example, at either ground. Apart from the football, for sheer vitriol alone, these matches are always fun. It’s a good way to learn Hungarian.”
This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of September 10, 2021.
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