2015 Grateful 39

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.

(c) Zoran Barovic

(c) Zoran Barovic

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.

(c) Zoran Barovic

(c) Zoran Barovic

match 4But 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.

match 5Much 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.


Life without work

Caricatures of Irish road workers breast-feeding their shovels, as five of them watch a sixth dig a hole, mesh seamlessly with a vision of BKK controllers guarding the top of the metro escalators, desultorily checking travel passes, while chatting idly amongst themselves. Neither are advertisements for the Confucian theory that if you choose a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.

I’m still trying to figure out what my passion is in life. When I finally do, so much will click into place. In the meantime, when I come across it in others, I am awed by its power to inspire.

Last weekend I went to Békéscsaba for a disznóvágás (pig killing) with players from Békéscsaba Előre ‒ the local football club (of which I’m a fan). I met lots of fascinating people, two in particular who between them illustrated the power of passion so vividly that I envied them and such envy in me is rare.

Tomas4Thomas Michel Prasler has been playing with the team for 11 months. He came to Békéscsaba from Romania, via Germany, where at 24 he was already on the cusp of being too old to break into professional football. For a man who has ‘lots more football in his legs’, not playing the game wasn’t an option. He sought out trials around Europe, scored some goals, and was signed last year by the Hungarian club. It feels good, he says, to be part of a team, a team that plays together as one, rather than as individuals. Injuries aside, he could have ten years of professional football left in him and he plans to make the most of it. It’s work, hard work. Staying fit, avoiding injury, giving the fans something to be proud of, it takes it out of you. But when the passion is there, it’s not work as most of us understand the term.

Listening to Thomas, I was struck by his single-minded determination. Currently nursing an injury, it’ll be a few months before he starts for Békéscsaba Előre again, but until then, every day’s training takes him one day closer to doing what he loves. The five-year-old, who grew up in Germany falling asleep clutching his football, is still very much alive in the sportsman he is today.

IMG_6003 (800x600)Baukó Tusi András has been with the Club for 50 years. He used to play himself back in the 1950s and 1960s and never wanted to leave. Football is in his blood, too. As kit manager/masseur, this demi-god is a local institution. Loved and respected (and occasionally feared), he has seen many changes in the industry. Passion, a desire to be the best, club loyalty, all these motivators are being supplanted by money as the game becomes more lucrative, more cut-throat. Some 500 or so players have passed through Tusi’s hands in 50 years and they still come back to say hello to the man who helped shape their careers as players and their lives as men. For him, attitude is more important than skill. Technique can be honed with training and discipline, he says, but heart and passion have to come from within. As for himself, life without his work at Békéscsaba Előre doesn’t bear thinking about.

Although poles apart in both age and position, for Thomas and Tusi their work is their raison d’etre, a religion almost, that brings with it the fervent passion of the most devout devotee. And while Thomas, on the pitch, might get the glory, Tusi reigns supreme in the locker rooms. Each does what he does best and does it with an enthusiasm and a dedication that is sadly missing from so many working lives today. For this pair, Confucius got it right.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 January 2015


At the edge of a tradition (3)

It’s not often that parties in my world start at 7.30 am these days. Perhaps years ago when I was following Irish soccer and time differences meant that the World Cup games were shown at dawn, I’d be in the thick of it when the bars opened. But that was years ago, when I was younger, fitter, and able to last the pace. Nowadays, if I can hold my own till midnight, I’m happy. But starting at 7.30 am, I had no chance. Yet I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend a proper, country disznóvágás, especially one that was thrown for Békéscsaba Előre, my football team. Pick yourselves up off the floor:  not alone have I done the pig killing thing to death this year, I’m now a soccer fan to boot.

It was another early morning start but the pig was already dead when we got there. Utensils were laid out and no time was wasted in starting the depilation. The team vice-captain, Gyuri, won’t ever be stuck for a day job. He’s a good man with a blade; heavy work but someone has to do it.

IMG_5962 (800x600)

By 8am I was on my third pálinka (which, as Hungarians say, in small amounts is a medicine and in large amounts a remedy; whatever I had is now officially cured). I rarely touch the stuff, and then only to remind myself how much I hate it. But I was conscious of the fact that I was a guest (and a foreigner at that) and should behave accordingly. So I knocked ’em back – peach, cherry, plum, and quince. The boys found my grimacing hilarious. When I started turning in circles and doing a little dance, they got a tad worried. I detest neat alcohol. I’m a philistine. I need mixers. But I had to show willing and show willing I did.

IMG_5886 (800x600) (800x600)IMG_5897 (800x600)

At around 9 am breakfast was served. Hagmás vér – blood onion – accompanied by pickled cabbage and pickled peppers and pickled cucumber. I can’t say I was salivating at the prospects of a bowl of cooked blood but again, I had to show willing. I couldn’t let the side down – I might well have been the first Irish person the town had seen. One bite in though, I was converted. It sounds gross, but it tastes divine. This was one of the best breakfasts I’ve had – ever. Did I mention the pálinka?

IMG_5899 (800x600)

The decibels had risen and the quiet of the early morning had dissipated in a fire of onion breath and beer. The party had begun.

The assembly line converged. Each had their job to do – which, in true democratic style, could be as much or as little as you wanted. Me? I watched and took notes. Did I mention the pálinka? The meat was carved up, its future decided by whomever was in charge at any given moment in time. The sausages were made, the kolbász too, with a sizable chunk taken to the kitchen for lunch.

IMG_5913 (800x600)IMG_5945 (800x600)

It seemed like everyone had their particular specialty and favourite thing to do. Some of these lads have been dicing up pigs for longer than I’ve been alive. This is the tradition, the party, the celebration. When it came to the sausage making, Henry Ford couldn’t have done better. It was all hands on meat as the casings were filled for drying. Me? I was fascinated by the splitting of hooves and will never quite think of a pedicure in the same way again. Did I mention the pálinka?

IMG_5956 (800x600)IMG_6001 (749x800)

I’d lost count at this stage but judging from how much my Hungarian was improving, I’d say I’d had too many. And it wasn’t even noon! It felt like it was midnight. When the music kicked off and the cards came out, I thought I was at home in Ireland – except for the noticeable absence of women, which made dance partners a premium. [One thing I’ve never yet seen Hungarian men do, no matter how fast the pálinka has been flowing – I’ve never seen them dance together.] Zoli, our host, was in fine singing voice and the place was buzzing. But the songs… the songs lasted for hours. None of your three-minute jobs here. As I was being ducked and dived around the dance floor by whomever was passing by and fancied a dance, it felt like the end would never come. Then I realised that it wasn’t just the one song – it was that they all sounded the same to my untrained ear. Or…. it could have been the pálinka.

IMG_6013 (800x600)


IMG_6016 (600x800)

Lunch was divine – but at this stage, anything would have tasted great. Pork, pork and more pork. With lots of vegetables. The tepertő (crackling) was to die for. And then more dancing. And then the wine came out. By the time 4 pm rolled around, I was saying mass. My notebook was full of squiggles and exclamation marks. I’d dropped my camera on the concrete floor and it had died a death, which was probably just as well. My feet ached. My head was spinning. And three men had sworn blind that if they hadn’t been married already, I’d be at the altar on the morrow.

IMG_5997 (600x800)

But it wasn’t all about the pálinka or the sausage. I had a blast. Perhaps my being a foreigner helped. I know that my curiosity did. Everyone I met was just lovely and for about five minutes, I found myself wishing that I was young enough to be a WAG.  Okay – so maybe it was more like half an hour. I was on pálinka time.

When it comes to hospitality, the boys in Békéscsaba certainly know how to throw a party. I’m really looking forward to being in the stands when the lads take to the pitch in March. And my dance card already has names pencilled in for the stadium opening that same month. And, in the meantime, if I come across a time machine, perhaps that WAG thing could be a reality.

IMG_5892 (800x600)