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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!

2013 Grateful 17

My interest in soccer died when Jack Charlton retired as manager of the Republic of Ireland team. When players started earning obscene sums of money for prancing around a pitch and giving Oscar-worthy performances of being injured in a tackle only to bounce up bright as new seconds later, I gave up on soccer and pledged my allegiance to the more manly sport – rugby.

IMG_7331 (800x600)I had forgotten how engrossing it can be, though, to watch a soccer game …live. Especially when the teams that are playing are young, not yet corrupted by fame and fortune, and still in possession of the dream – the dream to play their hearts out and win.

Létavértes is a small town of about 3000 people close to the Hungarian/Romanian border. Its team plays in the third division under the auspices of Debrecen. Under the watchful eye of ZS, they have been doing well this season. Yesterday, they played an away game in Budapest against Ferencváros’s second team (Fradi 2). I was one of the six-country cohort that went along to cheer them on and I am so glad I did.

IMG_7342 (800x600)I’d been a little reluctant to go to a Fradi game as I’d witnessed the first team’s reception in Nyíregyháza when they had an away game there a few years ago. Armed police escorts, brawling fans, and mob-like chants – all very intimidating. While Fradi might rank up there amongst the best teams in the country, its fans are famous for their racist, anti-Semitic cat calls and a hooliganism that could stand alongside the worst of what British football has every produced.

But I needn’t have worried. There might have been 100 people in the grounds of Gozdu Palya in Népliget and the vast majority were supporting the home team. Yet there was nothing intimidating about any of them. When the teams went through their opening rituals, I was amazed at how young they looked. Their eagerness to get started was infectious. Their neon-coloured football boots created a rainbow affect against the green of the grass, and it was all go from the start.

IMG_7332 (800x591)LétaV played their hearts out. They attacked. They took opportunities. They made the breaks. And they missed. Yet with just two minutes to go, they were one up. And then Fradi scored two goals in quick succession. It was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking to see a young team have their neon-clad feet swept from under them (a magnificent No. 27 subbed on and he just 18 years old,  and I’d give it to No. 7 and No 13 for the dogged determination they displayed) . Their star player, a young Brazilian, in a No. 19 jersey, was the most marked man on the pitch and while not quite on his game, he was amazing to watch. I’d forgotten the skill that soccer requires. I’d forgotten the dexterity that top players have. I’d forgotten that, all things considered, it’s still a game worth watching.

The goalie, who reminded me a little of Packy Bonner, did his damnedest. Mind you, he didn’t have a lot to do as Fradi were never really in the game (until those fateful final two minutes) with any amount of offensive. The LétaV lads seemed to be doing all the work.

IMG_7348 (800x600)It was soul-destroying to see their three points disappear in a puff of latent adrenalin. And to see them slink off the pitch, despondent, when they should have been walking tall…it was gut wrenching. They played by far the better game and were by far the better players. But on the day, it just didn’t go their way.

As we sat in a nearby bar waiting for ZS to appear, they walked by on their way to the bus that would ferry them back to Debrecen. We cheered. They looked. And we realised that they thought we were taking the mickey. One of ours was in a green shirt – the Fradi colours. Who was to know.

Next time, as a fan group, we need to get our act together. We need to rehearse our cheers that will out-do the moronic Fradi chants that bordered on the neanderthal. We need to colour coordinate in red and white. And we need to get to know the names of the players. Shouting top volume to egg on No. 27 ain’t quite as powerful as telling Lászlo or Tamás to get the boot in.

The fan club – Wales, England, Ireland, Catalonia, the United States, and Hungary – as a body were so very proud of our lads and how they played. And as they left the pitch, we felt their pain. But we’ll be back. And we’ll travel to Debrecen if needs be.

IMG_7364 (800x637)This week, I’m grateful to the players at Létavértes for reminding me of the golden days of Italia ’90, when we’d barrel in to the Lord Mayor’s in Swords, two hours before kick-off, just to be sure we had a seat. When all anyone talked about was where they were going to watch the match. When the entire country came to a standstill for 90 minutes as we watched our boys, en masee, fight for glory. Those who’d taken holidays to go to the opening games called home looking for extended leave. And if they didn’t get it, they quit. They called home asking for loans to finance their extended stay and if they didn’t them, they remortgaged their houses. Companies brought in TVs and beer so that their staff would at least work up until 30 minutes before kick-off. The country, probably for the last time in recent memory, was united behind Jack’s Army. Those days indeed were the glory days. And it was soccer that knit us all together.

And while you can’t compare the European championships or World Cup antics with a second division game in Gozdu Palya, it did it for me. The lads at LétaV have rekindled my interest in soccer and reminded me of how good it is to be young, and energetic, and in charge of life. I sit tonight, somewhat chastened; embarrassed at how easily I give up at times, especially on things I want so badly. Their will, their tenacity, and their determination were an inspiration. You might have lost that game, LétaV, but you’ve won so much more. Go n’éiri an bothair libh.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52