Hungarian football greats. For many, it’s a list that begins and ends with Ferenc Puskas, the dashing star of the Mighty Magyars, perhaps the greatest team never to win a World Cup. Humblers of England at Wembley (and again in Budapest, still more resoundingly), pioneering precursors of ‘total football’. And yet, the first footballer to have a stadium that bears his name was not Puskas, but his now largely forgotten teammate Jozsef Bozsik.
The stadium, in the Kispest district of Budapest, was familiar to both players. The two played there for FC Kispest, the club that became the all-conquering Honved (Homeland, the Army Club). Bozsik made more than 450 appearances for the club, and won 101 international caps as a midfielder who quietly, calmly, kept the game ticking over.
At first glance, footage of Bozsik in his prime is not flattering. He looks slow, almost ponderous on those grainy black-and-white newsreels. Yet this is deceptive. Look closer, see how effortlessly he carves out time and space for himself on the field. It’s brilliantly simple: control, assess the situation and choose the right pass, rather than rushing into the first one. Often, the right pass was a diagonal feed, inside right to inside left, opening up another scoring chance for Puskas.
The Hungarians of ’53 set up their team around this. While Nandor Hidegkuti sewed confusion in the English defence at Wembley, Bozsik was the intended beneficiary. Overlooked by the befuddled men in white, Bozsik was able to dictate play at will. A modern-day equivalent might be Pirlo, pulling all the strings from the centre circle in Kyiv at Euro 2012.
But there are other reasons why Bozsik was the first player to be honoured with a stadium bearing his name. First, in communist Hungary, the collective was already superior to the individual. Thus, the national stadium – Nepstadion – was the people’s stadium. There’s no ‘I’ in team, except for party members of the appropriate level. And, unlike Puskas, Bozsik stayed at home. When the 1956 uprising saw Soviet tanks on the streets of Budapest, Honved were in Spain to play a European tie against Athletic Bilbao. Given the crisis at home, offers to remain in the west were more tempting than ever. Puskas was the most prominent defector on the team, going on to star for Real Madrid and, improbably, in a friendly for South Liverpool.
Bozsik could not follow his friend’s footsteps. As a deputy in the Hungarian parliament, he was too high profile a figure to be allowed to leave. Plus, he had recently lost his father and felt unable to leave his widowed mother alone with his four brothers. Whether he went back to Budapest reluctantly, or relieved that the regime was still intact, is unclear; the fact is that he returned and devoted the remainder of his career to Honved.
Which is why, in 1986, eight years after his death, the Honved stadium was renamed in his honour. A visit in 2011 saw a Honved team that was a shadow of its glorious past, a once dominant force in Hungarian football reduced to the status of also-ran in the national championship. This Sunday afternoon game against Videoton was all about a team chasing the title – but this time it was the visitor in pursuit of its first ever national crown. Away fans from Fehervar swelled the crowd to 3,500 – significantly bigger than usual – as a 60-year wait for glory neared its end. They left frustrated on the day; after racing into a 2-0 lead inside 13 minutes, Vidi were pegged back by halftime and had to settle for a 2-2 draw.
That stadium, with its tripod floodlight pylons and its murals of Bozsik and Puskas, is now gone. Hungary’s ambitious plans to redevelop its football infrastructure – buoyed by an upswing on the pitch as the country qualified for Euro 2016 – saw the old Bozsik Stadium bulldozed. Pre-coronavirus, the new one was due to open next season; reports from Budapest suggest much of the construction work is complete. Meeting most UEFA standards – Honved owner George Hemingway insists it could host any game short of the Champions League final – it will be a step up from the homely but aging ground with its roots firmly in the communist past. But when it finally opens, it will still proudly bear the name of Jozsef Bozsik
Jozsef Bozsik Stadion, Budapest, Hungary
NB 1, May 8, 2011
Honved 2 (Zelenka, Ivancsics) Videoton 2 (Alves, Gosztonyi)