We live in a divided world. Catholic, Protestant. Black, White. Conservative, Democrat. Jew, Muslim. National, Non-national. Native speaker, Non-native speaker. Roma, Non-Roma. Male, Female. Child, Adult.
In many instances the divisions don’t matter. But in many others, they do. They’re the cause of wars, of racially motivated attacks, of hatred. And because they are so mainstreamed, so part of our society, they force us to take sides. Not having an opinion, or proclaiming not to know enough to be entitled to an opinion, doesn’t wash. If you’re not anti-Israel, you’re pro-Palestine. If you’re not for me, you’re against me. And it sucks. Particularly when this divisiveness is felt at community level.
I’ve never been a great lover of football, preferring the rigors of rugby to the more sedate style of soccer. But in recent years I’ve come to appreciate the game at club level and to understand its importance for a community.
Eight months ago, at the start of the Hungarian soccer season, about 400 fans turned out to see second division Békéscsaba play their opening game. I use the word ‘fan’ rather loosely here, primarily to describe those who paid into the grounds to watch the match, not necessarily those who lent their support to the players.
It’s not unusual in Hungarian football for fans to castigate the ref (I can understand that – I could have swung for yer man who reffed the game on Tuesday night, and the four yellow cards he didn’t dole out in the first half!) and the coach (perhaps on occasion) and the players (no excuse in my mind – everyone can have a bad day). And it can get personal to the point of being embarrassing to listen to. Supporting a team seems to mean something completely different in Hungary than it does at home.
But eight months later, with just nine games left to go in the season, nearly 5000 fans made their way to the stadium in Békéscsaba to see their boys unseat the top team. The Ultras, the diehards who sing and wave their flags under the conductorship of the man with the fog-horn, were in fine voice. The fans – from toddlers to teens, from twenty-year-olds to pensioners – embodied every stratum of society. Entire families turned out, three, four, five generations. It was nothing short of amazing.
The players were stupefied. For them, it had to have been like playing to a home crowd at Wembley. Gone was the castigation, the cutting remarks, the nastiness, and in its place, encouragement, support, and congratulations. Even when players missed their mark or dropped a pass, positivity ruled. The pride the spectators took in their players was the stuff that goosebumps are made of.
The lads played their hearts out and despite the best efforts of a ref who should in all fairness have donned a Vasas jersey, they won, 2-1. But more than winning the game, and moving to top place on the table, they won the hearts and minds of the people. And for the players I spoke to afterwards, this was what mattered most.
Much work has gone in to putting the team back at the heart of the community. Fundraising initiatives to support local causes, open gates for training sessions, plans for a new stadium, all have done their part to replace the ‘them and us’ with the new team slogan: Együtt erősebbek vagyunk – we are stronger together.
At the end of this week, a week of endings and new beginnings, I’m grateful that I got to experience the magic of it all and look forward to seeing the lads in action against Síofok later this month.
Go on the boys in purple… continue to do us proud.