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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Tune in or turn off as soccer hell beckons

A fever is approaching the edge of Europe. Hovering on the outskirts, it is gathering momentum ready to make a full-on assault on 8 June 2012. Experts reckon it will reach its peak on 1 July. Collateral damage is expected to be high. Those who succumb to the fever will be rendered incapable of talking about anything other than what ails them. Those who live with them or work with them face a gruelling four weeks of sleepless nights and inane conversation. Big screens are being erected. Fans are pulling out their colours. And facepaint will be the most sought-after cosmetic on the market. Euro 2012 is about to unleash itself upon the world.

What’s in a name?

The UEFA European Football Championship has played itself out every four years since 1960.  Originally called the UEFA European Nations Cup, it changed to its current name in 1968. And then in 1996, it adopted the more manageable form of Euro 2012 or whichever year is appropriate. But no matter what you choose to call it, if you’re not involved, if you’re not interested, if you’re not a soccer head, you’re in for four weeks of hell. Four weeks where every watering hole this side of the Atlantic will be showing soccer matches. Four weeks during which fashion gives way to team jerseys and national colours. Four weeks in which conversation revolves around the permutations and combinations needed to win. Sheer hell.

And hell is how I remember Euro 2008 in Budapest. It was as if life stood still and all other forms of entertainment were mothballed. It was soccer or ….soccer. I watched one match and I can’t for the life of me remember who was playing. I know Ireland missed out on qualifying by drawing with Germany in front of a home crowd of 67,495 fans in Dublin. What interest I might have had died a death as the final whistle blew.

Jack’s army

When Jack Charlton managed the Irish team and brought us to Italia 1990, I was part of a nation that lived, breathed, and slept with soccer. I was working in Dublin in the Bank of Ireland and remember the government advising employers to supply TVs for their staff to avoid the whole workforce going off sick. Grannies dyed their hair green, white, and orange. Tourists wondered why there were no taxis or buses on the road. During match times, the silence on the streets was punctuated with loud roars from the pubs as people cheered on the boys in green. It was a fantastic time. A nation united. Had Jack Charlton run for President of the country, he’d have been elected (assuming the matter of his holding a British passport could be overlooked). The big question on everyone’s lips was ‘where are we going to watch the match!’ Those who had gone to Italy were writing home for money; quitting their jobs when their bosses wouldn’t sanction additional leave; and pledging their first-born sons to anyone who might fund their extended stay.

But that was then. When Jack left, he took my interest with him. This, too, was around the time I moved to the States and so baseball and basketball took over what little sporting interest I had. When I came back to Ireland, I converted to rugby – a far better class of men. As far as I was concerned, the WAGs could keep their pretty boys and soccer could keep its prima donnas.

An interest reborn

As Euro2012 approaches, though, Ireland has qualified. And what’s more, Ireland is playing a friendly with Hungary, in Budapest, on Monday, June 4th. And the question on my mind: will I go? My deep-rooted sense of patriotic duty would have me on the sidelines of an egg and spoon race were Ireland being represented. But eggs and spoons are interesting. Could I bring myself to watch a soccer match – to sit through a full 90 minutes of theatrics (assuming goals are scored) by metrosexual men who earn millions running around a pitch, occasionally jumping in the air, and hugging their team mates? But it’s Ireland. And it’s Hungary. And I’m in Budapest. And I can get a ticket. So yes, I should go.

In preparation, I watched the highlights of Ireland’s last international at home against Bosnia & Herzegovina. I recognised but one name – Robbie Keane. And the Dublin man is looking as good as ever. But one name? Therein lies a problem. If I’m going to cheer my head off, I will need to at least know their names. So I have to do my homework. I have a few days to get to grips with who’s playing in what position and the friendly at Ferenc Puskás Stadion on Monday will be a good text of my new-found interest. Who knows, it might just last all the way through to 1 July.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 June 2012