Ferencvaros a symbol of Hungary's sad decline

Updated: July 27, 2006, 10:06 PM ET
Reuters

By Zoltan Fazekas

BUDAPEST, July 28 - The demotion of Hungary's most successful club, Ferencvaros, to the second division because of financial problems is symbolic of the decline at both country and club level which has sapped money, confidence and talent.

Hungary, which boasted the greatest team in the world in the early 1950s featuring Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti, have failed to qualify for the past five World Cup finals.

Its clubs have achieved nothing in European competition since Ferencvaros won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1965.

Now impoverished and owing money to the Hungarian League, former employees and other creditors, Ferencvaros have been refused a licence to play in the top division and now face their first season in the second.

Many clubs are struggling with the same kind of problems as Ferencvaros.

Some, although not Ferencvaros, are owned by cash-strapped local authorities and run a host of other activities like tennis and handball to make ends meet but have failed to thrive since the support of the old communist state ended.

Ferencvaros were founded in 1899 and have played in Hungary's top division since they started in 1901, winning 28 titles and 20 domestic cups. In 1931-32 they won all their matches.

As well as their long-ago success in the Fairs Cup, the club also reached and lost the 1968 Fairs Cup final and the 1975 European Cup Winners' Cup final.

They were also the only Hungarian team to have tasted Champions League football, taking part in the group stages a decade ago.

FINANCIAL MIRE

The club did have a chance of getting out of the financial mire a few years ago. Despite having a group of supporters notorious for their anti-semitic chants, Jewish businessman Gabor Varszegi bought the club through his Fotex company in 2001.

But by 2003 after a huge fight between Fradi fans and rivals from Debrecen, Varszegi had had enough and sold out -- and matters have got worse since then.

Newspaper reports put Ferencvaros's debt at around $5 million, although that has not been confirmed by the club.

"Hungarian football has been engulfed in a crisis for years. Presumably every club suffers from the same problems," said Levente Bank Boros, vice-president of the Ferencvaros supporters club and a politics professor at the University of Miskolc.

"Clubs are swimming in debt and stadiums are increasingly worn down, which reflects the responsibility of the Hungarian Football Association," he added.

Financial instability means that clubs like Ferencvaros are forced to sell their best players, like Zoltan Gera who helped them to a 2004 league and cup double, the last time they won anything.

Ferencvaros finished sixth in the 16-team first division last season, missing out on European football this coming campaign which they will now start in the second division.

FOREIGN INVESTORS

Players and fans alike blame the management board for Ferencvaros' relegation, although the media and the Socialist government have also been targets of their ire.

There have been numerous stories of mysterious foreign investors eyeing Ferencvaros, but none have come to fruition. The latest one centres on a Spanish consortium: HI Grupo.

There have been various schemes to allow Ferencvaros to develop its ground, but these have all foundered and government aid to help rebuild the dilapidated stadium has not arrived.

The decline of Ferencvaros is symbolic of a greater malaise in Hungarian soccer.

Hungary, whose only defeat between 1950 and 1956 came in the 1954 World Cup final to West Germany, were also runners-up in the 1938 final.

During their golden age, the "Magical Magyars" became the first continental team to beat England at home, famously winning 6-3 at Wembley Stadium in November 1953. The following May they beat England 7-1 in Budapest -- still England's record defeat.

HEADY DAYS

But since those heady days Hungary have fallen among the minnows. They are currently ranked 84th in FIFA's world rankings, below 80th ranked Malawi and just four places above war-torn Iraq.

Zoltan Varga, a leading player in the sixties and the club coach in the late 1990s, told sports daily Nemzeti Sport that ironically Ferencvaros's demotion could be positive.

"The team will have a nice rest in the second division. I reckon that it will only have good effects in the club, now it can get rid of the scroungers," he said.

On the other hand it might not do anything of the sort and their malaise and that of Hungarian football in general, could continue well into the foreseeable future.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index