Football Mania in Budapest

There are few things in this world that unite people quite like the game of football. “O jogo bonito”, as the legendary Pele called it. For 90 minutes two teams do battle in an epic chess match of tactics, cunning, finesse, and raw athleticism. Whole countries are either lifted up, or dejected, based on the way the ball bounced in a given day.

O jogo bonito. The beautiful game.

Football perfectly captures the the nature of struggle, the joy of victory, the agony of defeat, and the endurance of camaraderie. 

From the streets of Rio de Janeiro, to the parks of Paris, to the schoolyards of New York, football is deeply entrenched in cultures around the world. During my trip to Budapest, I found that Hungary was no exception.

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This was my second go-round in Budapest. During my studies in Antwerp in 2012, our group went there as part of a ten day trip that also included Prague, Vienna, and Munich. Of the four cities, Budapest was my favorite. So I was excited to return to and spend some more time in the Hungarian capitol.

The day I arrived was both a Saturday and a game day for Hungary. After checking in to my hotel I went for a stroll around some familiar landmarks that I had seen four years ago.

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Heroes’ Square, a World Heritage Site built in 1896 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Hungarian state’s founding.

In 1873 the towns of Buda and Pest were united and became a truly global city. The formerly-known-as Buda sits on the west bank of the river Danube and Pest lies on the east. Today, Budapest is the 25th most popular city in the world for tourism and 6th in Europe.

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Vajdahunyad Castle

Buda is generally regarded as the more peaceful and calm area…so obviously I didn’t stay there. I would make the more lively Pest my home for a few days and embrace the nightlife that I only got a small taste of four years ago.

As game time was approaching I decide not to wander for too long or too far as I was keen on finding a good bar. This proved to be a task. As mentioned above, Budapest has become insanely popular due to being a cheap destination for young hostel-going partiers across Europe and the world. Though I adore and have spent a lot of time with these types, I much preferred to watch the game at some dingy local spot with actual Hungarians.

(As I walk by the prototype tourist hubs I hear a mix of Brit and Aussie accents and even some Americans …*shudder*)

I find my hole-in-the-wall destination several blocks from the city center. It is a small and uninteresting venue but is packed wall-to-wall with locals. Dozens of empty beer glasses sit atop the tables and the game hasn’t even started. The bartender is so absorbed by the pregame festivities that I have to motion several times to get his attention when I go up for a drink.

The screen flashes the starting lineups for the Hungarian side and their opponent, Iceland. This would be a crucial group stage match for two surprising countries seeking a spot in the final 16 of the tournament.

From kickoff to the final whistle, the Hungarians sitting around me are completely engrossed in the game. The drunken crowd is a mess of emotion (these are the fans I want to be around, I think to myself).

I am an avid and proud DC sports fan. Wizards, Nationals, Redskins, and Capitals. The latter two I saw live in playoff games over the past six months, both of which the home team lost. Indeed, we have not had much success inside the beltway these past few decades. The last time a major DC sports team won a championship I was in diapers, when the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992.

That was 24 years ago. So when I learn that Hungary has not even qualified for a major football tournament in over 30 years, I begin to appreciate what this game means for the men and women around me. These moments don’t come around often.

Tensions rise as the game gets underway. Screams and cheers echo through the tiny bar. Beers clink together when a call goes Hungary’s way; illegible curses and hand motions are directed at the referee when they don’t.

Iceland strikes first in the 40th minute when Gylfi Sigurdsson converts a penalty kick. Rabid just minutes ago, the fans around me look visibly distraught. A blanketed lull settles over the crowd; the positive energy seemingly sucked out of the air.

Halftime comes and goes. The minutes trickle by. The Hungarians mumble curses under their breaths. Some step outside to smoke, others nurse their beers and gaze at the TV with wishful eyes. Their nerves are mine, I am completely immersed in their hope that Hungary can pull even, though hope is fading as the clock slowly crawls toward 90′.

Just when it seems all is lost, a godsend arrives in the 88th minute.

Hungary mounts an attack in the waning moments. A threatening cross flies right in front of Iceland’s goal. The Hungarian strikers don’t get the first touch, but Icelandic defender Birkir Saevarsson, attempting to clear the ball from danger, instead boots it errantly into the back of his own net.

“GOALLLLLLLLL HUNGARIAAAAAA!!!”

Sheer ecstasy. Everyone is out of their seats including me. Chairs fall over. Beers are chugged. People embrace each other. Who cares if it was an own goal? The scoreboard reads 1-1. I felt like the room had been black and white since the first goal, and now all the colors were returning.

Play continues and the bar settles down for ten more tense minutes.  In extra time, an Icelandic striker sends a careening shot just wide of the goal. The final whistle blows, I could feel a collective sigh of relief spread through the room. People smile at me as we raise our glasses and say “Hungaria!”.

With a tie that evening, Hungary is leading their group and is in prime position to advance to the next round of the Eurocup. 

Outside, cars are honking their horns and a mob begins to form on Andrassy street, the main avenue of Budapest leading to Heroes’ square. People spilling out of buildings and metro stations begin to gather. Restaurant-goers wolf down their food and join the masses. It all happens remarkably fast. 

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The throng of fans begins to move down the street. I work my way into the thick of it. Hordes of people appear from the side streets and join in, drinks in hand. Everyone is cheering and drinking and causing a ruckus. I’m loving it.

“RIA! RIA! HUN-GA-RIA!”

I hear that chant over and over again. Eventually the mob reaches a large roundabout and plants itself there. More cheering. More drinking. The most drunken and/or ambitious young men climb on top of bus stops or whatever they can scale. These guys and others lead the crowds in a series of cheers.

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I hope no one is urgently trying to get through this roundabout. Looks like the masses are going to be here indefinitely.

At one point everyone just crouches down to the ground and hushes. Moments later one man in the middle jumps up and starts singing some song, then everyone else does the same.

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Flares are lit. Bottles are smashed. Even the local police get into it. One cop is in the middle of the crowd on his motorcycle, gunning the engine to the rhythm of the chants, much to the delight of those surrounding him. It seems years in the football doldrums have resulted in a  collective release for the Hungarians. I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Half an hour later the roaring horde is still going strong; but I have to peel off in lieu of a pub crawl I was keen on attending after hearing about it on reddit.

When I reach the meet up point I implore one of the local guides, Anna, if she had ever seen Budapest as crazy as this over football.

“Never. I think we have a lot of energy built up over years of losing.”

Over the course of the night we go to a series of bars and clubs. Drinks, shots, and mingling, it is one of the better pub crawls I’ve been on. I meet a group of British girls on holiday, they implore me to play a game with them throughout the night called “Odds-on”.

The rules are as follows: First, someone challenges another to make odds on doing something. For example, “odds on you doing a handstand in the middle of the street”. That person then responds with odds, the lowest being 2-to-1, the highest being 50-to-1. Both people then say a number within the odds at the same exact time. If they both say the same number, the challenged has to do the task. Obviously the more daring you are, the lower odds you’ll elect. It’s considered bad form to ask for 50-to-1 every time, plus that’s way less fun.

The worst “Odds-on” I ending up doing is walking up to a random couple outside a restaurant and asking how their food is. One of the Brits, Sarah, ends up winning a staggering 30-to-1 odds with Micah, another one of our guides, and gets to wear his guide badge for the rest of the night. She hilariously pretends to lead the group and ask for tips in a drunken stupor.

I found the “Odds-on” game to be appropriate given the ridiculous odds that Hungary would be in a position to advance to the final 16 of the Eurocup. As mentioned, this is the first time they have even qualified in three decades.

The Brit ladies are all firmly in the Remain campaign with regards to Brexit. A few of them are indifferent, but one is quite passionate about being able to travel freely through the EU, as many have before her. I do feel that the younger UK generation is getting shafted a bit. They are not being afforded the same opportunities that their predecessors had. The vote to leave is maddening in my opinion (when I was in Budapest the verdict was not yet in).

Sarah posing with my “Shrek”: a wine cooler-esque drink that tastes like Gatorade — The Remain camp ladies

Later on while sipping on Shreks, I chat with a Scottish girl, Leigh who is all sorts of weird (in the good ways). I ask what she does and she says she is following her lifelong dream of creating a first-person cat video game where you play as a machiavellian cat and mess shit up all over the human’s house. I tell her it sounds wonderful. I respond in kind – telling her I’m a Hogwarts dropout and now am a rogue wizard practicing arcane magic, using the dark arts to steal money from muggles. She asks how old I am. I tell her I can’t be sure, but probably between 700 and 800 years old.

Such is life as a solo traveler. Sometimes after answering the same questions over and over again it’s more fun to mix it up. Anyway, this is a good place and a good time to be a bit weird. The Hungarians are out in droves at the bars and clubs, dancing and boozing and cheering the same songs I’d been hearing all day.

Onto more serious discussion, Leigh remarks that she will vote Remain as well. (Scotland did actually vote to stay, overwhelmingly. It will be interesting to see if they seek a vote on their independence from the EU).

I chat with Micah about football. He hails from London and is an avid Arsenal fan, but is a football fan above all else. I love a metaphor he uses to describe football fans, in all their glorious rowdiness (which as the Eurocup has shown us, can get violent)

“Football fans are like groups in high school. Jocks, goths, preps, nerds. There’s so much that divides us, but occasionally we all get along”

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Micah (right) said to “look tough” for the picture ……….

It was an overall excellent night of drinking, dancing, and meeting interesting people. People are still cheering and cars are still honking as I’m stumbling home at 4 AM.

The next night I make it back to Szimpla, Budapest’s most recognizable bar/club, considered one of the best in the world. People write all over the walls on the inside. After a half hour of searching I find what I’m looking for.

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Blast from the past – if you look in the center you’ll see where my JMU College of Business classmates and I signed the wall over four years ago! My how much has happened since then…

Budapest proved to be just as fantastic and enchanting as it was my last time around. I feel lucky to have been there while Hungary was having its first taste of international football success in decades. The beautiful game truly means so much to so many people around the world; the Hungarians deserve their moment of glory.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll return in another four years, which conveniently aligns with the next Eurocup!

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Four years later, still aggressively average as ever.

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