In the Champions League the Hungarians will take on La Liga runner-up Barcelona, Italian champions Juventus and Dynamo Kiev, the former club of Ferencvaros head coach Sergei Rebrov. – Photo: MTI

Ferencvaros’ prayers answered: the biggest names are coming

Giants of Hungarian football finally return to elite level

Ask a football fan outside Hungary to name any of the country’s leading clubs and they are likely to remember Ferencvaros, and that’s probably all. Ferencvaros won their 31st league title in June, adding to their status as easily Hungary's greatest club. But the name once celebrated in Europe has had to endure a 25-year wait to secure their place back among the continent's elite.
20. October 2020 16:58

On Tuesday, October 20 the Hungarian champions return to the Champions League, with their first group stage game a visit to Barcelona’s imposing Nou Camp stadium. As well as the two games against the 2019-20 Spanish La Liga runners-up, Ferencvaros will take on Italian champions Juventus and Dynamo Kiev, the former club of Ferencvaros head coach Sergei Rebrov.

The attractive group will see them play the world’s top two players of the past several seasons, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Barcelona, and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Juventus. This is reward for a Budapest outfit that is already five games into its European campaign, and is the only side to reach the group stage having started in the Champions League first qualifying round in mid-August.

It will be the first time Ferencvaros have faced Barcelona in European competition but they have history with Juventus, having beaten the Italian giants in the 1965 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final. The 2020-21 campaign will be a big step for a club that has spent the past decade rebuilding after dropping into the Hungarian second tier and falling into near financial ruin.

“Due to the Covid situation we were sitting in front of the television at the club watching the draw and praying for big names,” Ferencvaros chief executive Pal Orosz said. “Now we are back, after 25 years, we want to have big names and it’s fantastic having these clubs. It’s very special for Sergei as well, playing against Dynamo Kyiv.

“It’s really a celebration for all of Hungarian football. To play against Barcelona and Juventus is just incredible. For me it’s very emotional because my father was a member of the team that beat Juventus in Turin.

“It is fantastic. These are very different levels. These teams start their competition now and we have already reached our goal. For them the goal is winning the title.”

Ferencvaros have won back-to-back league titles, and reached the Champions League group stages for the first time since the 1995-96 season by eliminating Djurgardens of Sweden, Glasgow Celtic of Scotland, Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia and Molde of Norway.

Reaching this point has been a gradual process for the team and Orosz, who took over a club in a “disastrous situation” in 2011, picking up the pieces after a spell during which they were relegated to the second division because of financial irregularities.

“When we started it was kind of in ruins,” Orosz says. “The Albert Stadium that we liked a lot because of the good memories was not up to the European standards, nobody in the club got a salary for more than four months, no bills were paid, no electricity, nothing. We had to invest some money to start with.

“We had to be realistic and see where we can get with our background, with our financial background. You have to set realistic goals and reach them. That is what football is about.

“We said first we have to come back on the Hungarian stage, winning the cup and the championship, and then the next level will be the international stage.

“It was long work. I say this achievement we have is extraordinary, getting into the group stage, starting from the first qualifying round. With our financial background, sporting background, we are a classic ‘Europa League group-stage club’, so for us this is something fantastic.”

The heady days of Hungarian football came in the 1950s when the national team was the envy of the world. The Mighty Magyars were crowned Olympic champions in 1952, they beat England 6-3 in front of 105,000 people at Wembley in a 1953 game dubbed “Match of the Century” and thrashed the Three Lions 7-1 in Budapest the following year. This is still the heaviest defeat suffered by England.

Hungary should have won the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland weeks later, taking a 2-0 lead against West Germany only to slip to a 3-2 defeat in a final labelled “The Miracle of Bern”. They had defeated the Germans 8-3 in the group stage.

Then in 1956 the domestic league was cancelled because of the Hungarian Uprising. The suppression of the revolt and invasion of Soviet troops led to the break-up of one of the nation’s greatest club sides, Honved. Stars such as Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis left for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively.

Honved’s demise paved the way for Ferencvaros, traditionally one of the dominant sides in Hungarian football, to take on the baton as a domestic powerhouse and the Green Eagles won their first title in 14 years in 1963.

Two years later they beat Juventus to win the Fairs Cup, a predecessor to the Uefa Cup, and lost to Leeds United in the final the following season after knocking out Liverpool earlier in the tournament.

They boasted a Ballon d’Or winner in legendary forward Florian Albert, who beat Manchester United and England’s Bobby Charlton to the award in 1967, and lost to Dynamo Kyiv in the 1975 European Cup Winners’ Cup final.

But despite regularly qualifying for European competition, Ferencvaros’ days as an imposing force on the continent gradually faded away.

“My father, Pal, passed away a few years ago. He was a club legend and I talked a lot with him about it,” says Orosz. “I said: ‘What happened to Hungarian football? You guys, in the 1960s, you won everything – you beat Liverpool, Juventus…’

“At the end of the 1960s, in Western Europe, some people realised football is not only a sport but a branch of the entertainment business. They chose clubs that were really supported by masses and they built them as brands.

“But here, in this region, it was state football and the gap opened. Now the gap is so big that we will probably never catch up.”

Research by the club suggests two million people, 20% of the Hungarian population, are Ferencvaros supporters. But Orosz knows they cannot compete, at least financially, with clubs in Europe that are now global brands.

“We beat Juventus in 1965 in the final. Now if they look down they don’t see us because the budget is so much different,” he says. “In this region, it was not considered a business, a brand. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona – these are multinational companies. It is absolutely different and they are managed like that.

“It is the same if you want to sell Manchester City in Manchester or in China or in Tokyo because it is considered a worldwide brand. This has gone for us; you will never catch up a handicap of 40-50 years.”

Former Tottenham striker Sergei Rebrov took the manager’s role at Ferencvaros in 2018. Successive titles have come under the guidance of the former Ukraine, Dynamo Kyiv and Tottenham Hotspur striker who won two Ukrainian championships with his old club and had a brief spell at Al-Ahli in Saudi Arabia before joining Ferencvaros.

“Sergei is really the kind of guy who takes things very seriously and he always believes in a team as one, not individuals,” says Orosz. “He is a key element but it is about the whole staff he is working with, all the colleagues in the offices that have worked for this success for the past 10 years.”

Returning to Europe’s elite competition is a moment Ferencvaros are keen to share with fans, with Hungary not having had a representative in the group stages since Debrecen in 2009-10. Ferencvaros will play Barcelona and Juventus at the 67,000-seat Puskas Arena, one of the host venues for next summer’s European Championship, which means they can admit about 22,000 fans under Uefa’s current 30% attendance guidelines.

The club’s own Groupama Arena, built in 2014, has a capacity of 22,000, so it could only host about 7000 supporters in the European present situation, despite no restrictions being placed on domestic games in Hungary as it stands. Ferencvaros will host Dynamo Kiev here.

“It is important for the whole of Hungarian football and important for us that we know we’re on a good track,” says Orosz. “Last season we reached the Europa League group stage and were only one goal away from progressing to the knockouts. This season we reached the Champions League group stage – we were so far away from this 10 years ago.

“We have to do the construction step by step; improve year by year. It is important for all the Hungarian supporters but at the same time the most important thing for us is to win the Hungarian championship again, because if you don’t, you don’t have the chance to qualify.”

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