History

Green shoots

It has been a long and sometimes agonising path back to the Champions League for Ferencváros, but the Hungarian giants with a storied past are beginning to put new roots down on the European scene

WORDS Simon Hart

“We’ve been to hell and brought it with us.” So reads the slogan, written in Hungarian, English and several other languages, beneath which the players of both teams pass on their way from the changing rooms to the pitch at Ferencváros’s home stadium. It serves, first of all, as a message of warning.

Opponents from Djugården, Dinamo Zagreb and Molde did not encounter hell as such at the start of this season, but their Champions League qualifying hopes all went up in smoke a few steps beyond those words. So too the 2-0 lead that Dynamo Kyiv held when Champions League group stage football returned to the Ferencváros district of Budapest on 28 October, Franck Boli’s 90th-minute goal earning the Hungarian titleholders a point.

For the nation’s most successful and best-supported club, the reference to hell conveys something else entirely: a sense of the long and tortuous road travelled since their previous appearance in the group stage 25 years ago.

“Twenty unstable years” is how Andy Clark, a Scotsman resident in Hungary for more than two decades, describes a period which brought a series of financial crises and culminated in the club’s enforced relegation to the second tier in 2006. “They couldn’t pay players, owed money to state companies and were refused a licence,” explains Clark, a season-ticket holder at the time and now covering the club’s return to the Champions League for UEFA.com. “There were some games where we had a bigger crowd at Ferencváros than all of the top-division games put together.”

That huge supporter base – estimated at 50% of football fans in the country – also includes followers among the ethnic Hungarian populations in neighbouring Slovakia and Romania, who in ordinary times undertake long car journeys to attend home fixtures. In Clark’s view, these supporters ask for one thing above all. “They want you to sweat blood for the team. They had a defender in the 1990s, Tibor Simon, who said, ‘You can play badly but never without heart.’”

The late Simon – tragically killed in an assault outside a Budapest club in 2002 – was a member of the Ferencváros line-up which, at the time of writing, posted the last victory by a Hungarian club in the Champions League group stage: 3-0 at Grasshoppers in September 1995. Simon played with a broken hand that night, among the highlights of a campaign which inspired a 25th-anniversary documentary film, The Team of Passions.

“They were a real team,” says current captain Gergő Lovrencsics. “After watching that documentary us Hungarians understood that they did well because they stuck together.” A winning formula his side followed to a tee during qualifying. “I said some words as captain before the match [against Molde], but I wasn’t really needed because I saw the fire in their eyes. We also played like a real team and this was the result. It’s true we’ve had to wait a long time for it, but we are back in the Champions League.”

To understand the place the 31-time national champions occupy in Hungarian sporting culture, it is important to consider their origins. Ferencvárosi Torna Club were established during the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1899, initially as a gymnastics club. Budapest was then predominantly German-speaking, and the club’s nickname of Fradi comes from the German translation of Ferencváros, namely Franzstadt.

Club legend Máté Fenyvesi (left); Ferencváros prepare for kick off away to Barcelona on Matchday 1 (right)

Fradi were in the vanguard of football’s growth in Hungary. They were the first club to open a purpose-built football stadium in 1911. That same year they went on a tour to Germany and England, losing only one of six matches as their enduring (if self-appointed) ‘Team of the nation’ epithet was born.

Early success in Europe came with two victories in the Mitropa Cup – a forerunner to UEFA’s club competitions – with the second, in 1937 against Lazio, following six goals across the two legs of the final by György Sárosi, who would captain Hungary to the next year’s World Cup final. From that position of strength, Ferencváros’s fortunes dipped after the Second World War. The Communist regime did not look favourably on this strongly nationalist club: among the impositions, they had to change their name – to ÉDOSZ and then Kinizsi – and their colours to red and white. Moreover, the deliberate dismantling of their 1948/49 title-winning team led to László Budai, Zoltán Czibor and Sándor Kocsis – all members of Hungary’s great Mighty Magyars side – joining rivals Honvéd, the then flourishing army team.

Supporting Ferencváros became a symbol that you were against the regime. When they reclaimed the title in 1962/63, their first for 14 years, it inspired a popular chant aimed at János Kádár, leader of the Hungarian Communists: “Ferencváros are champions. How do you like that, János Kádár?”

That title was the cue for the club’s golden era in Europe, spearheaded by Flórián Albert. Joint-top scorer at the 1962 World Cup, Albert won the 1967 Ballon D’Or. In between, he helped his only club to their Inter-Cities Fairs Cup triumph, defeating Roma and Manchester United along the way before a 1-0 final victory against Juventus.

Máté Fenyvesi grabbed the winner in Turin from a Dezső Novák cross, though not all his team-mates noticed at the time. “Flórián Albert and Zoltán Varga arrived in the box as usual, but Flóri was pushed away by the defenders,” Fenyvesi recalls. “I was behind him so I was able to head the ball into the net. Flóri didn’t realise I’d scored so he started to argue with the ref. I had to shout, ‘Flóri, leave it, I scored – we’re in the lead!’”

Ferencváros had more continental feats up their sleeves too, reaching the quarter-finals of the European Cup the next season before returning to the Fairs Cup final in 1968. Liverpool and Athletic were both defeated home and away, though a 1-0 loss to Leeds United dashed their trophy hopes in the decider.

Fate had it that it was Albert’s son, Flórián Albert Jr, who was the hero of their group stage campaign in 1995/96 – a run which pitted them against holders Ajax and Real Madrid, along with Grasshoppers. “One of our eyes was crying while the other was laughing,” Albert says, recalling the response when the draw was made. He duly provided the high point with the goal that earned a 1-1 home draw with Madrid – something to celebrate after a 5-1 home loss to Ajax and 6-1 drubbing at the Santiago Bernabéu. “We had an anniversary event [recently] to commemorate the journey. We qualified for the Champions League 30 years after my father’s team won the UEFA Cup. We were discussing that it’s been 25 years since then, so these might be mystical numbers.”

“FERENCVÁROS IS EVERYTHING. IT HAS A GREAT HISTORY, IT FIGHTS TO ACHIEVE BIG THINGS. BUILDING A CLUB IS HARD WORK”

So it has proved and the wish now is for Ferencváros to make Europe a regular fixture once again. Coached by the former Ukraine, Dynamo Kyiv and Tottenham Hotspur forward Serhiy Rebrov, the Hungarians reached the Europa League group stage in 2019/20 and are now scripting another feel good story. “This development has been over the longer term, with the group stage of the Europa League and being very competitive there last season, and now making one more step forward,” says sporting director Tamás Hajnal, a ball boy during Ferencváros’s last Champions League adventure. “I’m not saying we’re a Champions League team – for sure not– but we want to be competitive and reach one of the group stages of the European competitions [each year]. This makes our club interesting for players too. You can sense it in the negotiations when you approach them.”

Since politician Gábor Kubatov took over the club presidency in 2011, Ferencváros have become an ever more attractive proposition. That was a significant year for more than one reason: Ferencváros, the multi-sport organisation, succeeded in buying out the football club’s departing English owner, Kevin McCabe, for the sum of €1.

The Hungarian state acquired from McCabe the land on which the stadium stands. A year later, Ferencváros regained the merchandising and marketing rights that had been sold during an earlier era of missteps. By 2014, they had a new stadium, freshly opened on the same site as their two previous grounds.

Ferencváros’s return to prominence mirrors an overall renaissance for Hungarian football since the election in 2010 of Sándor Csányi, a billionaire banker, as president of the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ). First came the hosting of the Under-19 EURO in 2014. Then, in 2019, the Women’s Champions League final was played at Ferencváros Stadion. This year, the rebuilt Puskás Aréna staged the UEFA Super Cup, and four EURO 2020 matches will follow there next summer. At grassroots level, a pitch-building project has helped double the number of registered players.

Whatever happens to Ferencváros this season, the challenge is to sustain their success. Skipper Lovrencsics reflects: “Ferencváros is everything. It has a great history, it fights to achieve big things that are similar to my goals. Building a club is hard work. The ambition of doing well in Europe again is true to its tradition, and Ferencváros wants to put itself back on the map of Europe.”

From his strategic viewpoint, Hajnal sees certain clubs in nearby countries as shining examples, starting with Dinamo Zagreb, one of the sides they surprised in this year’s knockout rounds. “We’re competing with Dinamo, let’s say, but I know they can spend much more money on player salaries. They also get more revenue from selling players at the moment, so we hope to catch up in the future.

“With Slavia Praha and Sparta Praha, other top clubs from leagues in the surrounding countries, we’re still below them in terms of salary budget, but the challenge is to get this level. We want to continue in this way and be competitive, not just with money but by making the right decisions and working hard and efficiently in every aspect.” The signs are certainly good. For one thing, hell has already long vanished from the rear-view mirror

Insight
Going places

In his short time as a coach, Serhiy Rebrov has already amassed more trophies than many managers will win during their entire careers. The 46-year-old led Dynamo Kyiv to back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016 and then did the same with Ferencváros in 2019 and 2020.

“Serhiy Rebrov brought something to the team which was not there before – a lot of attention to every detail,” explains Sporting director Tamás Hajnal. “He brought good organisation, good structure. The roles are very clearly defined so everybody knows and understands what he has to do in possession, out of possession, in the transition phases of the game, and he repeats it again and again.”

Captain Gergő Lovrencsics has felt the Ukrainian’s impact on his game and the team’s. “We’ve improved a lot – especially tactically, but also physically. When Serhiy arrived, he started to tell us about different tactical variations, from the goalkeeper to the forwards. He explained where each player should be in different situations.

“At first this was strange and new. Before he arrived I’d been playing as a right-sided midfielder for a year. Iran up then came back. I wasn’t always where I should have been and I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. I made a lot more mistakes.

“When the coach arrived he just told me, ‘When your opponent has the ball you go down there, next to the line, use the whole width of the pitch. If you are further in, you will be attacked quicker, but if you are further out you’ll get more time.’ He has helped me a lot, but I can speak for the others, because he has helped all of them. He is tactically prepared for everything. He’s always preparing for the next opponent. This is the biggest improvement the team has undergone.”

“We’ve been to hell and brought it with us.” So reads the slogan, written in Hungarian, English and several other languages, beneath which the players of both teams pass on their way from the changing rooms to the pitch at Ferencváros’s home stadium. It serves, first of all, as a message of warning.

Opponents from Djugården, Dinamo Zagreb and Molde did not encounter hell as such at the start of this season, but their Champions League qualifying hopes all went up in smoke a few steps beyond those words. So too the 2-0 lead that Dynamo Kyiv held when Champions League group stage football returned to the Ferencváros district of Budapest on 28 October, Franck Boli’s 90th-minute goal earning the Hungarian titleholders a point.

For the nation’s most successful and best-supported club, the reference to hell conveys something else entirely: a sense of the long and tortuous road travelled since their previous appearance in the group stage 25 years ago.

“Twenty unstable years” is how Andy Clark, a Scotsman resident in Hungary for more than two decades, describes a period which brought a series of financial crises and culminated in the club’s enforced relegation to the second tier in 2006. “They couldn’t pay players, owed money to state companies and were refused a licence,” explains Clark, a season-ticket holder at the time and now covering the club’s return to the Champions League for UEFA.com. “There were some games where we had a bigger crowd at Ferencváros than all of the top-division games put together.”

That huge supporter base – estimated at 50% of football fans in the country – also includes followers among the ethnic Hungarian populations in neighbouring Slovakia and Romania, who in ordinary times undertake long car journeys to attend home fixtures. In Clark’s view, these supporters ask for one thing above all. “They want you to sweat blood for the team. They had a defender in the 1990s, Tibor Simon, who said, ‘You can play badly but never without heart.’”

The late Simon – tragically killed in an assault outside a Budapest club in 2002 – was a member of the Ferencváros line-up which, at the time of writing, posted the last victory by a Hungarian club in the Champions League group stage: 3-0 at Grasshoppers in September 1995. Simon played with a broken hand that night, among the highlights of a campaign which inspired a 25th-anniversary documentary film, The Team of Passions.

“They were a real team,” says current captain Gergő Lovrencsics. “After watching that documentary us Hungarians understood that they did well because they stuck together.” A winning formula his side followed to a tee during qualifying. “I said some words as captain before the match [against Molde], but I wasn’t really needed because I saw the fire in their eyes. We also played like a real team and this was the result. It’s true we’ve had to wait a long time for it, but we are back in the Champions League.”

To understand the place the 31-time national champions occupy in Hungarian sporting culture, it is important to consider their origins. Ferencvárosi Torna Club were established during the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1899, initially as a gymnastics club. Budapest was then predominantly German-speaking, and the club’s nickname of Fradi comes from the German translation of Ferencváros, namely Franzstadt.

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Club legend Máté Fenyvesi (left); Ferencváros prepare for kick off away to Barcelona on Matchday 1 (right)

Fradi were in the vanguard of football’s growth in Hungary. They were the first club to open a purpose-built football stadium in 1911. That same year they went on a tour to Germany and England, losing only one of six matches as their enduring (if self-appointed) ‘Team of the nation’ epithet was born.

Early success in Europe came with two victories in the Mitropa Cup – a forerunner to UEFA’s club competitions – with the second, in 1937 against Lazio, following six goals across the two legs of the final by György Sárosi, who would captain Hungary to the next year’s World Cup final. From that position of strength, Ferencváros’s fortunes dipped after the Second World War. The Communist regime did not look favourably on this strongly nationalist club: among the impositions, they had to change their name – to ÉDOSZ and then Kinizsi – and their colours to red and white. Moreover, the deliberate dismantling of their 1948/49 title-winning team led to László Budai, Zoltán Czibor and Sándor Kocsis – all members of Hungary’s great Mighty Magyars side – joining rivals Honvéd, the then flourishing army team.

Supporting Ferencváros became a symbol that you were against the regime. When they reclaimed the title in 1962/63, their first for 14 years, it inspired a popular chant aimed at János Kádár, leader of the Hungarian Communists: “Ferencváros are champions. How do you like that, János Kádár?”

That title was the cue for the club’s golden era in Europe, spearheaded by Flórián Albert. Joint-top scorer at the 1962 World Cup, Albert won the 1967 Ballon D’Or. In between, he helped his only club to their Inter-Cities Fairs Cup triumph, defeating Roma and Manchester United along the way before a 1-0 final victory against Juventus.

Máté Fenyvesi grabbed the winner in Turin from a Dezső Novák cross, though not all his team-mates noticed at the time. “Flórián Albert and Zoltán Varga arrived in the box as usual, but Flóri was pushed away by the defenders,” Fenyvesi recalls. “I was behind him so I was able to head the ball into the net. Flóri didn’t realise I’d scored so he started to argue with the ref. I had to shout, ‘Flóri, leave it, I scored – we’re in the lead!’”

Ferencváros had more continental feats up their sleeves too, reaching the quarter-finals of the European Cup the next season before returning to the Fairs Cup final in 1968. Liverpool and Athletic were both defeated home and away, though a 1-0 loss to Leeds United dashed their trophy hopes in the decider.

Fate had it that it was Albert’s son, Flórián Albert Jr, who was the hero of their group stage campaign in 1995/96 – a run which pitted them against holders Ajax and Real Madrid, along with Grasshoppers. “One of our eyes was crying while the other was laughing,” Albert says, recalling the response when the draw was made. He duly provided the high point with the goal that earned a 1-1 home draw with Madrid – something to celebrate after a 5-1 home loss to Ajax and 6-1 drubbing at the Santiago Bernabéu. “We had an anniversary event [recently] to commemorate the journey. We qualified for the Champions League 30 years after my father’s team won the UEFA Cup. We were discussing that it’s been 25 years since then, so these might be mystical numbers.”

“FERENCVÁROS IS EVERYTHING. IT HAS A GREAT HISTORY, IT FIGHTS TO ACHIEVE BIG THINGS. BUILDING A CLUB IS HARD WORK”

So it has proved and the wish now is for Ferencváros to make Europe a regular fixture once again. Coached by the former Ukraine, Dynamo Kyiv and Tottenham Hotspur forward Serhiy Rebrov, the Hungarians reached the Europa League group stage in 2019/20 and are now scripting another feel good story. “This development has been over the longer term, with the group stage of the Europa League and being very competitive there last season, and now making one more step forward,” says sporting director Tamás Hajnal, a ball boy during Ferencváros’s last Champions League adventure. “I’m not saying we’re a Champions League team – for sure not– but we want to be competitive and reach one of the group stages of the European competitions [each year]. This makes our club interesting for players too. You can sense it in the negotiations when you approach them.”

Since politician Gábor Kubatov took over the club presidency in 2011, Ferencváros have become an ever more attractive proposition. That was a significant year for more than one reason: Ferencváros, the multi-sport organisation, succeeded in buying out the football club’s departing English owner, Kevin McCabe, for the sum of €1.

The Hungarian state acquired from McCabe the land on which the stadium stands. A year later, Ferencváros regained the merchandising and marketing rights that had been sold during an earlier era of missteps. By 2014, they had a new stadium, freshly opened on the same site as their two previous grounds.

Ferencváros’s return to prominence mirrors an overall renaissance for Hungarian football since the election in 2010 of Sándor Csányi, a billionaire banker, as president of the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ). First came the hosting of the Under-19 EURO in 2014. Then, in 2019, the Women’s Champions League final was played at Ferencváros Stadion. This year, the rebuilt Puskás Aréna staged the UEFA Super Cup, and four EURO 2020 matches will follow there next summer. At grassroots level, a pitch-building project has helped double the number of registered players.

Whatever happens to Ferencváros this season, the challenge is to sustain their success. Skipper Lovrencsics reflects: “Ferencváros is everything. It has a great history, it fights to achieve big things that are similar to my goals. Building a club is hard work. The ambition of doing well in Europe again is true to its tradition, and Ferencváros wants to put itself back on the map of Europe.”

From his strategic viewpoint, Hajnal sees certain clubs in nearby countries as shining examples, starting with Dinamo Zagreb, one of the sides they surprised in this year’s knockout rounds. “We’re competing with Dinamo, let’s say, but I know they can spend much more money on player salaries. They also get more revenue from selling players at the moment, so we hope to catch up in the future.

“With Slavia Praha and Sparta Praha, other top clubs from leagues in the surrounding countries, we’re still below them in terms of salary budget, but the challenge is to get this level. We want to continue in this way and be competitive, not just with money but by making the right decisions and working hard and efficiently in every aspect.” The signs are certainly good. For one thing, hell has already long vanished from the rear-view mirror

Insight
Going places

In his short time as a coach, Serhiy Rebrov has already amassed more trophies than many managers will win during their entire careers. The 46-year-old led Dynamo Kyiv to back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016 and then did the same with Ferencváros in 2019 and 2020.

“Serhiy Rebrov brought something to the team which was not there before – a lot of attention to every detail,” explains Sporting director Tamás Hajnal. “He brought good organisation, good structure. The roles are very clearly defined so everybody knows and understands what he has to do in possession, out of possession, in the transition phases of the game, and he repeats it again and again.”

Captain Gergő Lovrencsics has felt the Ukrainian’s impact on his game and the team’s. “We’ve improved a lot – especially tactically, but also physically. When Serhiy arrived, he started to tell us about different tactical variations, from the goalkeeper to the forwards. He explained where each player should be in different situations.

“At first this was strange and new. Before he arrived I’d been playing as a right-sided midfielder for a year. Iran up then came back. I wasn’t always where I should have been and I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. I made a lot more mistakes.

“When the coach arrived he just told me, ‘When your opponent has the ball you go down there, next to the line, use the whole width of the pitch. If you are further in, you will be attacked quicker, but if you are further out you’ll get more time.’ He has helped me a lot, but I can speak for the others, because he has helped all of them. He is tactically prepared for everything. He’s always preparing for the next opponent. This is the biggest improvement the team has undergone.”

“We’ve been to hell and brought it with us.” So reads the slogan, written in Hungarian, English and several other languages, beneath which the players of both teams pass on their way from the changing rooms to the pitch at Ferencváros’s home stadium. It serves, first of all, as a message of warning.

Opponents from Djugården, Dinamo Zagreb and Molde did not encounter hell as such at the start of this season, but their Champions League qualifying hopes all went up in smoke a few steps beyond those words. So too the 2-0 lead that Dynamo Kyiv held when Champions League group stage football returned to the Ferencváros district of Budapest on 28 October, Franck Boli’s 90th-minute goal earning the Hungarian titleholders a point.

For the nation’s most successful and best-supported club, the reference to hell conveys something else entirely: a sense of the long and tortuous road travelled since their previous appearance in the group stage 25 years ago.

“Twenty unstable years” is how Andy Clark, a Scotsman resident in Hungary for more than two decades, describes a period which brought a series of financial crises and culminated in the club’s enforced relegation to the second tier in 2006. “They couldn’t pay players, owed money to state companies and were refused a licence,” explains Clark, a season-ticket holder at the time and now covering the club’s return to the Champions League for UEFA.com. “There were some games where we had a bigger crowd at Ferencváros than all of the top-division games put together.”

That huge supporter base – estimated at 50% of football fans in the country – also includes followers among the ethnic Hungarian populations in neighbouring Slovakia and Romania, who in ordinary times undertake long car journeys to attend home fixtures. In Clark’s view, these supporters ask for one thing above all. “They want you to sweat blood for the team. They had a defender in the 1990s, Tibor Simon, who said, ‘You can play badly but never without heart.’”

The late Simon – tragically killed in an assault outside a Budapest club in 2002 – was a member of the Ferencváros line-up which, at the time of writing, posted the last victory by a Hungarian club in the Champions League group stage: 3-0 at Grasshoppers in September 1995. Simon played with a broken hand that night, among the highlights of a campaign which inspired a 25th-anniversary documentary film, The Team of Passions.

“They were a real team,” says current captain Gergő Lovrencsics. “After watching that documentary us Hungarians understood that they did well because they stuck together.” A winning formula his side followed to a tee during qualifying. “I said some words as captain before the match [against Molde], but I wasn’t really needed because I saw the fire in their eyes. We also played like a real team and this was the result. It’s true we’ve had to wait a long time for it, but we are back in the Champions League.”

To understand the place the 31-time national champions occupy in Hungarian sporting culture, it is important to consider their origins. Ferencvárosi Torna Club were established during the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1899, initially as a gymnastics club. Budapest was then predominantly German-speaking, and the club’s nickname of Fradi comes from the German translation of Ferencváros, namely Franzstadt.

Club legend Máté Fenyvesi (left); Ferencváros prepare for kick off away to Barcelona on Matchday 1 (right)

Fradi were in the vanguard of football’s growth in Hungary. They were the first club to open a purpose-built football stadium in 1911. That same year they went on a tour to Germany and England, losing only one of six matches as their enduring (if self-appointed) ‘Team of the nation’ epithet was born.

Early success in Europe came with two victories in the Mitropa Cup – a forerunner to UEFA’s club competitions – with the second, in 1937 against Lazio, following six goals across the two legs of the final by György Sárosi, who would captain Hungary to the next year’s World Cup final. From that position of strength, Ferencváros’s fortunes dipped after the Second World War. The Communist regime did not look favourably on this strongly nationalist club: among the impositions, they had to change their name – to ÉDOSZ and then Kinizsi – and their colours to red and white. Moreover, the deliberate dismantling of their 1948/49 title-winning team led to László Budai, Zoltán Czibor and Sándor Kocsis – all members of Hungary’s great Mighty Magyars side – joining rivals Honvéd, the then flourishing army team.

Supporting Ferencváros became a symbol that you were against the regime. When they reclaimed the title in 1962/63, their first for 14 years, it inspired a popular chant aimed at János Kádár, leader of the Hungarian Communists: “Ferencváros are champions. How do you like that, János Kádár?”

That title was the cue for the club’s golden era in Europe, spearheaded by Flórián Albert. Joint-top scorer at the 1962 World Cup, Albert won the 1967 Ballon D’Or. In between, he helped his only club to their Inter-Cities Fairs Cup triumph, defeating Roma and Manchester United along the way before a 1-0 final victory against Juventus.

Máté Fenyvesi grabbed the winner in Turin from a Dezső Novák cross, though not all his team-mates noticed at the time. “Flórián Albert and Zoltán Varga arrived in the box as usual, but Flóri was pushed away by the defenders,” Fenyvesi recalls. “I was behind him so I was able to head the ball into the net. Flóri didn’t realise I’d scored so he started to argue with the ref. I had to shout, ‘Flóri, leave it, I scored – we’re in the lead!’”

Ferencváros had more continental feats up their sleeves too, reaching the quarter-finals of the European Cup the next season before returning to the Fairs Cup final in 1968. Liverpool and Athletic were both defeated home and away, though a 1-0 loss to Leeds United dashed their trophy hopes in the decider.

Fate had it that it was Albert’s son, Flórián Albert Jr, who was the hero of their group stage campaign in 1995/96 – a run which pitted them against holders Ajax and Real Madrid, along with Grasshoppers. “One of our eyes was crying while the other was laughing,” Albert says, recalling the response when the draw was made. He duly provided the high point with the goal that earned a 1-1 home draw with Madrid – something to celebrate after a 5-1 home loss to Ajax and 6-1 drubbing at the Santiago Bernabéu. “We had an anniversary event [recently] to commemorate the journey. We qualified for the Champions League 30 years after my father’s team won the UEFA Cup. We were discussing that it’s been 25 years since then, so these might be mystical numbers.”

“FERENCVÁROS IS EVERYTHING. IT HAS A GREAT HISTORY, IT FIGHTS TO ACHIEVE BIG THINGS. BUILDING A CLUB IS HARD WORK”

So it has proved and the wish now is for Ferencváros to make Europe a regular fixture once again. Coached by the former Ukraine, Dynamo Kyiv and Tottenham Hotspur forward Serhiy Rebrov, the Hungarians reached the Europa League group stage in 2019/20 and are now scripting another feel good story. “This development has been over the longer term, with the group stage of the Europa League and being very competitive there last season, and now making one more step forward,” says sporting director Tamás Hajnal, a ball boy during Ferencváros’s last Champions League adventure. “I’m not saying we’re a Champions League team – for sure not– but we want to be competitive and reach one of the group stages of the European competitions [each year]. This makes our club interesting for players too. You can sense it in the negotiations when you approach them.”

Since politician Gábor Kubatov took over the club presidency in 2011, Ferencváros have become an ever more attractive proposition. That was a significant year for more than one reason: Ferencváros, the multi-sport organisation, succeeded in buying out the football club’s departing English owner, Kevin McCabe, for the sum of €1.

The Hungarian state acquired from McCabe the land on which the stadium stands. A year later, Ferencváros regained the merchandising and marketing rights that had been sold during an earlier era of missteps. By 2014, they had a new stadium, freshly opened on the same site as their two previous grounds.

Ferencváros’s return to prominence mirrors an overall renaissance for Hungarian football since the election in 2010 of Sándor Csányi, a billionaire banker, as president of the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ). First came the hosting of the Under-19 EURO in 2014. Then, in 2019, the Women’s Champions League final was played at Ferencváros Stadion. This year, the rebuilt Puskás Aréna staged the UEFA Super Cup, and four EURO 2020 matches will follow there next summer. At grassroots level, a pitch-building project has helped double the number of registered players.

Whatever happens to Ferencváros this season, the challenge is to sustain their success. Skipper Lovrencsics reflects: “Ferencváros is everything. It has a great history, it fights to achieve big things that are similar to my goals. Building a club is hard work. The ambition of doing well in Europe again is true to its tradition, and Ferencváros wants to put itself back on the map of Europe.”

From his strategic viewpoint, Hajnal sees certain clubs in nearby countries as shining examples, starting with Dinamo Zagreb, one of the sides they surprised in this year’s knockout rounds. “We’re competing with Dinamo, let’s say, but I know they can spend much more money on player salaries. They also get more revenue from selling players at the moment, so we hope to catch up in the future.

“With Slavia Praha and Sparta Praha, other top clubs from leagues in the surrounding countries, we’re still below them in terms of salary budget, but the challenge is to get this level. We want to continue in this way and be competitive, not just with money but by making the right decisions and working hard and efficiently in every aspect.” The signs are certainly good. For one thing, hell has already long vanished from the rear-view mirror

Insight
Going places

In his short time as a coach, Serhiy Rebrov has already amassed more trophies than many managers will win during their entire careers. The 46-year-old led Dynamo Kyiv to back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016 and then did the same with Ferencváros in 2019 and 2020.

“Serhiy Rebrov brought something to the team which was not there before – a lot of attention to every detail,” explains Sporting director Tamás Hajnal. “He brought good organisation, good structure. The roles are very clearly defined so everybody knows and understands what he has to do in possession, out of possession, in the transition phases of the game, and he repeats it again and again.”

Captain Gergő Lovrencsics has felt the Ukrainian’s impact on his game and the team’s. “We’ve improved a lot – especially tactically, but also physically. When Serhiy arrived, he started to tell us about different tactical variations, from the goalkeeper to the forwards. He explained where each player should be in different situations.

“At first this was strange and new. Before he arrived I’d been playing as a right-sided midfielder for a year. Iran up then came back. I wasn’t always where I should have been and I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. I made a lot more mistakes.

“When the coach arrived he just told me, ‘When your opponent has the ball you go down there, next to the line, use the whole width of the pitch. If you are further in, you will be attacked quicker, but if you are further out you’ll get more time.’ He has helped me a lot, but I can speak for the others, because he has helped all of them. He is tactically prepared for everything. He’s always preparing for the next opponent. This is the biggest improvement the team has undergone.”

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