The fall of an icon

©Getty Images – Paul Popper/Popperfoto

©Getty Images – Paul Popper/Popperfoto

On a visit to Hungary last week I took a walk to Budapest’s Puskás Ferenc Stadion. The stadium's demolition has been under way since last autumn, with a new structure to be built in its place just a short walk from Budapest’s historic centre. It’s not a pretty sight. Cranes, diggers and trucks crawl over the old ground like bugs on carrion, and rubble has piled high beside its giant, concrete colonnades. Football’s executions are often served swiftly, but the Puskás is dying slowly and clumsily and in full, awkward view. 

It’s sad if, like me, you might have hoped to whiff some of the lingering stardust of one of football’s most impenetrable fortresses, home to one of its greatest ever teams. The cement had barely dried on its elliptical foundations when Hungary’s Aranyscapat, the ‘Golden Team’ (or Mighty Magyars, as many in the western press dubbed them) hammered England 7-1 in front of over 100,000 fans in 1954. It remains England’s biggest defeat.

Hungary’s coach that day, Gusztav Sebes, shocked his opponents with a fluid style of play that had never been seen before. Players passed short, swapped positions and played balls into deep-lying strikers, who could terrify defenders with mazy runs and thunderous shooting. “The bitter struggle between capitalism and communism is fought out not only between our societies, but also on the pitch”, the fierce ideologue once said.

It helped that among the Aranyscapat’s ranks were László Kubala, Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor (all three of whom would become heroes at Barcelona’s Camp Nou) and Ferenc Puskás, Hungary’s greatest ever player – who scored 84 goals in 85 international matches and cemented his place in history during a nine-year spell at Real Madrid. “When we attacked, everyone attacked”, Puskás would say of his compatriots. “They were the best ever”, choked Stanley Matthews after the 1954 mauling.

©Getty Images – Popperfoto

©Getty Images – Popperfoto

The Aranyscapat would lose a tight-fought 1954 World Cup Final to West Germany, becoming football’s most infamous nearly-rans. Two years later, Nikita Khrushchev sent Soviet tanks into Budapest, killing thousands and razing whole swathes of the beautiful city to crush a revolution and keep Hungary under the Kremlin’s aegis. His Carthaginian peace manifested itself on the pitch, too: most of Sebes’ squad fled across the Iron Curtain. Hungary would never again glimpse international glory.

Budapest has suffered more than its share of horror in the past hundred years. Once the second city of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, behind Vienna, Budapest was a place of immense wealth, stature and beauty. First World War defeat broke the empire into nine constituent states, and Hungary fell from industrial world power to a small country – the control of which was wrested from fascist to communist hands throughout the next two decades.

In 1944 Budapest witnessed its darkest hour, when Soviet troops laid siege to the Nazi-aligned capital for 50 days. Hitler forbade his men to acquiesce at any cost. Almost 40,000 civilians died in the carnage. Four years after the siege, with Hungary under Red Army occupation, work finally began on a Népstadion (‘People’s Stadium’) just east of Budapest’s palatial Keleti railway station in the city’s Zugló district. The Népstadion was to become one of Budapest’s greatest spots of solace – a place where locals could forget politics, scream and shout and feel free to be themselves.

Architecturally, the Népstadion was similar to dozens of other sporting crucibles in communist Europe, such as Red Star Belgrade’s Marakana, or Luzhniki, Moscow’s footballing mothership. A roof covered dignitaries on the eastern side of the halfway line, while its trademark upper tier swooped around the western half. Four lattice-framed floodlights, shaped like hulking basketball backboards, lit up night-time matches.

The stadium would be home to the national team alone. Its rare club football duties came when authorities decided it would be a better fit to host one of Budapest’s fierce derbies, played out between its biggest clubs: Ferencvárosi; Újpest; Honvéd; MTK and Vasas. A stadium-high 104,000-strong crowd watched the latter thrash Rapid Vienna 9-2 in the final of the 1956 Mitropa Cup (also known as the Central European Cup). 

That sort of figure was far beyond the reach of the Népstadion once it became an all-seater ground in the 1990s. The final capacity was just 38,652, and even that was rarely reached in post-communist Hungary – which has seen football attendances fall steadily. The national squad now plays in the three-year-old Groupama Arena, a bonsai Allianz Arena also home to Ferencvárosi. Interest, however, has been ignited by Hungary’s first qualification for a major international tournament in 30 years. They will begin their Euro 2016 campaign in Bordeaux on June 14th against former partner Austria.

©Getty Images – Attila Kisbenedek

©Getty Images – Attila Kisbenedek

In 2002 the Népstadion was renamed in honour of Puskás, Budapest’s most famous sporting son. 'The Galloping Major' scored 357 goals in 354 matches for Honvéd, before converting 154 in 179 for Real. Los Merengues teammate Raymond Kopa hailed Puskás’ combination of power and precision, adding, “I thought he was a genius”. Today, FIFA’s Puskás Award goes to the scorer of the year’s ‘most beautiful’ goal. 

To Madrileños the forward was an exotic, good-looking arriviste who emerged from behind the Iron Curtain to embarrass defenders with all the brio of a Franz Liszt rhapsody. To Hungary he was a local lad, a squat, brylcreemed Budapesti who rose from a poor life in the suburbs to become a national icon. It was fitting that the city’s sprawling stadium was to bear his name - even if he did switch national allegiance to Spain for four matches in the early sixties.

Now, though, Puskás’ old home is fading. The New Puskás Ferenc Stadium, scheduled for completion in 2019 (ahead of Budapest’s co-hosting of Euro 2020) will take its place. The new venue will retain some of its predecessor’s facade, and will come close to its original 70,000 capacity. Budapest, one of Europe’s greatest cities, has marked itself as a palimpsest of Hungary’s past, able to duck and weave around change and tragedy. Hopefully the New Puskás can carry on in that tradition.

Hungary, like many of its neighbours, is facing tough times – with stuttering economic growth and an increasingly autocratic leader, Viktor Orbán, who himself has used football to push a rightwing political agenda. For an example of his misplaced largesse, look up the Felcsúti Sportkomplexum: a shiny new stadium built with taxpayers’ money to host a tiny second-tier side in Orbán’s childhood town, 45 minutes outside the capital.

His government should be able to do better with the Puskás. “I stayed alive, therefore I am” Budapest-born Nobel literature laureate Imre Kertész once wrote. The Puskás will, arguably, stay alive through this new incarnation. Whether it retains the spirit that made it a national emblem for six decades: well. that remains to be seen.

Sean Williams.

Sean Williams is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The New Yorker. You can see more of his work at www.seanwilliamswords.com and www.newyorker.com/contributors/sean-williams