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.


2014 Grateful 32

As life-long fans of QPR bask in the aftermath of their Championship win yesterday and their team’s promotion to the Premier League, Réal Madrid fans were also celebrating their team’s UEFA Champions League win. Football is something that transcends borders, colour, religion – in fact, in and of itself it could well be seen as a religion of sorts, such is the fervour and faith displayed by its fans.

IMG_2290 (800x600)For the last two seasons, I’ve been part of a small international following of a third-division Hungarian team Létavértes. Yesterday, nine of us showed up at their final league match in Hatvan, a town that got its name by virtue of the fact that it sits 60 km from Budapest. Lightning flashed throughout the game but the threatened thunderstorm never came to pass. The slight showers weren’t enough to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm and our team’s 4-2 win made the cold worth standing.

IMG_2300 (800x600)IMG_2310 (800x600)True to form, our lads played their hearts out. They’d already technically won the league when they played last Saturday. Goal difference made them uncatchable… unless one of the other teams pulled off a miracle or three.We were ahead on goals and yellow cards – not their finest performance as sportsmen admittedly – but the other team’s coach was sent off and tempers on both sides were frayed.

The lads have been somewhat bemused by this random set of internationals showing up to cheer them on at their away games near Budapest and they’ve appreciated our support. The others in the stands have also been somewhat amused by our antics, as our lack of portable cushions and sunflower seeds (the basic accessories for football fans in Hungary) mark us as different.

The coach, Zoran Spisljak, is moving on. He’s going to Békéscsaba, a second division team with its sights set on promotion. The Big Z’s track record speaks for itself – taking Debrecen to the Champions League in 2009, stopping Ujpest being relegated and taking them to the semi-final of the Hungarian Cup in 2012, and then Létavértes (which an average age of just 19) emerging as Champions this year.

While I’ve enjoyed the Létavértes games and cheered as if I had a blood relationship with them all, my time is done. Next season, I’ll be cheering just as hard for the lads at Békéscsaba. Real football fans will no doubt break out in a cold sweat at the very thought of such a traitorous transition. And they might have a point: this apparent fickleness has made me stop and look a little closer at loyalty.

The game itself does nothing for me. I’ve said that before. But seeing the players develop, the pride they take in their game, and the enthusiasm with which they play – that’s refreshing. That I can support. I’m a great fan of the Big Z – had more managers a modicum of his insight into what it takes to motivate people and develop talent, Hungarian football would be more competitive and, if business managers took note, the world would be a better place.

Living in Hungary as an expat, it’s good to have something to support. Watching an English team play on TV doesn’t even come close to sitting on concrete steps in a town with a singularly unimaginative name and cheering the lads on as if the salvation of tomorrow depended on it. And doing so with people from so many different countries certainly adds to the experience, an experience to be grateful for and one I look forward to repeating.

So congrats to Létavértes. Pick up that cup next Sunday and be proud. Am sure we’ll be seeing some of you in Békéscsaba.






2013 Grateful 5

Five o’clock kick off, she said. It’ll be cold. Very cold.We’re playing under floodlights, he said. It’ll be cold. Very cold. Neither of them said to bring a cushion.

As the newly formed Létavértes International Fan Club made their way to Széchenyi tér in Budapest’s XVth district late yesterday afternoon, I am sure that some were wondering what in God’s name they were doing with their Saturday evening. We’d left a warm pub with some First Division UK football on the screen to trudge to the suburbs to watch a third division Hungarian team play their last game of the league.

DSC03250-1Some admitted to not particularly liking football. Others admitted to never having been to watch a live match before. More still reckoned they knew more about it than the players on the pitch.  Hailing from  Australia, England, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, this mixed-age motley crew had at least made a token effort to wear the Létavértes red and white colours but underneath the woolies no one was any the wiser. It was bloody cold. And for all our collective experience, none of us had brought a hip flask.

We hogged part of the mainly empty stands near midfield and prepared to cheer our boys on to glory. We were definitely in a minority with the home team’s supporters out-yelling us at times. But the difference  was that while we were cheering for our lads, everyone else seemed hell bent on berating the referee or dogging the players.

A couple of young boys, sitting with their dad, let off a string of curses which, had they a magical power between them, would have seen guts spilling forth, hearts stopping dead, and teeth rotting out. If you wanted to come to grips with Hungarian obscenities, the stadium was the place to be. Somewhere along the way, the actual football seemed to have been forgotten.

Personally, I have only a vague idea of what is meant by offside. I can’t see well enough to distinguish between a deliberate foul and an accident. And I’m not at all current with the rules and regulations involving yellow cards. But I know enough about heart to recognise it when I see it. And the football yesterday was riddled with heart.

Man for man, our boys were younger, slighter, and more agile. The REAC lads were older, stockier, and not quite as innocent (indeed, I wonder if ‘innocent’ can be used in the same sentence as footballer?) Both sides gave it their all and our lads responded well to the cheering on from the sidelines. They won 1:6.

DSC03249-1In an interview afterwards, the TV chap commented to ZS (the LétaV coach and the reason for all of us being there) that it was good to see fans cheering on the football for a change. He said that we’d created a great atmosphere. And the team, in thanks, dedicated one of the goals to us.

The lads did us proud. Coming off the pitch, as we stood and applauded, they looked to the stand and gave us the thumbs up. They’re getting used to us. The first time we appeared on the sidelines, I don’t think they knew quite what was going on. This time though, they had a better notion. It might still bemuse them as to why we’d all be bothered, but they seemed happy out that we’d made the effort.

In a week that saw closure on one chapter of my life and signalled a somewhat manic work period ahead, I am grateful that we got up off our arses and braved the elements to support LétaV. It’s easier to talk about doing stuff that to actually do it – and all too often we leave it to others to fly the flag, happy enough as long as someone is out there supporting.  I’m so glad that I was in the stands, too.

Last time we had 10. This time we had 21. Both times we had people from six countries.  Next season, who knows. Come on ye boyos!