A Lancastrian in Hungary: that's football Europa

Why would Lancashire lad Chris Flanagan find himself in deepest Hungary watching a Europa League qualifier? For the love of football...

It's 3am and I'm waiting in the departure hall at Szekesfehervar railway station. To my right, an elderly gentleman is muttering to himself in a rather bizarre fashion.

I have no idea what he's saying. The only two words of Hungarian I know are Ferenc and Puskas. But I imagine even if I did speak the language, he'd still be making no sense.

To my left, a drunk man falls off his seat and makes a thud on the floor that shakes the entire station.

This is a quiet town of 100,000 people, 40 miles south west of Budapest. Few people have heard of it, and fewer tourists visit, yet here I was waiting for a departing train in the middle of the night. The reason was quite simple. Football.

A few hours earlier, at the nearby Sostoi Stadion, local side Videoton had faced Trabzonspor in the play-off round of the Europa League. Granted, it was possibly not the most glamorous fixture Europe had to offer that week: the previous night on the other side of the continent, Real Madrid had played Barcelona.

And when my day-to-day work involves writing about sport as a Lancashire-based journalist, it perhaps wasn’t exactly getting away from it all either.

But this was not a new thing for me. Over the past few years I have watched football in Latvia and Macedonia, in Romania and Bulgaria, in the winter chill of Russia and Norway.

Travel didn't always interest me but football changed that when my team, Bolton Wanderers, qualified for the UEFA Cup in 2005. Off we went to Lokomotiv Plovdiv, to Besiktas, to Vitoria Guimaraes, to Marseille. Two years later we qualified again and visited Rabotnicki, Bayern Munich, Red Star Belgrade, Atletico Madrid and Sporting Lisbon.

Bolton fans in Madrid honour their favourite local export

Europe’s secondary club competition isn’t exactly a crowd-puller in the UK, and admittedly the football isn't always top class, but I wouldn’t have missed any of those trips for the world.

It's the same sport but each country is unique, each set of fans possessing their own nuances of passion for the game. England is often said to be unrivalled for its big-match atmosphere, but anyone who thinks Stoke is loud should probably try Istanbul.

Bolton’s European days are now long gone, but the fascination for such football – and for travel to such varied places – remained. So this time it was Hungary, taking in the tourist sights of the capital Budapest before making the 75-minute rail journey to Szekesfehervar.

Slightly ominous was the march of Videoton’s Red Blue Devils ultras from the town centre to the stadium before kick-off, accompanied by around 100 riot police. This was one of Videoton’s biggest European matches since the 1980s, when they were beaten by Real Madrid in the 1985 UEFA Cup final.

Up until this season, they had won only two European ties in the following 27 years. But backed by the local electronics company of the same name, and counting the current Hungarian Prime Minister among their fans, they appointed Paulo Sousa as manager last year after the former Portugal midfielder had spells in Britain with QPR, Swansea and Leicester.

Clearly a popular man, he inspired fans to learn a little Portuguese to produce a banner saying ‘Feliz Aniversario Paulo’ to congratulate Sousa on his 42nd birthday on the day of the game.

"Aw shucks": Sousa marches on Europa

Around 10,000 were present and, despite the lack of a roof inside the bowl of a stadium, they produced noise levels of probably double that in this country – while launching tickertape into the air like it was Argentina '78. All it was missing was Mario Kempes.

I had waited for the first-leg scores before deciding upon my destination for the week and a perhaps surprising 0-0 draw in Turkey had put the tie in the balance.

Trabzonspor had Didier Zokora, once of Tottenham, and ex-Leicester man Sol Bamba in their line-up. Their most impressive player was the diminutive Alanzinho, who admittedly does sound like a bloke called Alan given an ironic Brazilian nickname by his Sunday League team-mates, but was actually quite good.

Alanzinho: "Something funny with my name?"

Videoton, now possessing funds to strengthen, had a starting line-up including seven different nationalities. They later brought on ex-Crystal Palace battering ram Sandor Torghelle, who proceeded to throw his weight about to such degree that he was on the verge of getting sent off within five minutes, before launching one of the most hopeless volleys I have ever seen almost out of the stadium. The Premier League misses you, Sandor.

With the last train due to depart Szekesfehervar 25 minutes after the scheduled final whistle, the one thing I didn’t particularly want was extra time. So 0-0 it was then and eventually all the way to penalties, when Zokora missed and Videoton celebrated victory as if they had won the Europa League rather than merely qualified for it.

Sousa was hurled into the air by his jubilant players, who then embarked on a lap of honour lasting fully 10 minutes – seemingly determined to shake hands with almost every fan in the stadium. The four-hour wait for a train, eventually getting back into Budapest at 4.30am, wasn't ideal. But it was worth it nonetheless.

Sousa won the Champions League with both Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, and yet it was clear from his celebrations that this would be another night he would treasure for some time.

Then and now: Sousa in 2005 and unveiled at Videoton

Don’t expect Videoton to win the Europa League this season. Don’t even expect them to qualify from a group including Sporting, Basel and Genk. Hungarian football still has some way to go for any sort of return to the days of the Magnificent Magyars, of Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and the like.

The national stadium in Budapest, once called the Nepstadion and now named after Puskas, was just five years old when Hungary famously won 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. Now it looks horrendously tired and will soon be replaced. The national team lost 4-1 there to the Netherlands in the latest round of international fixtures.

But the passion for football was still clear to see in Szekesfehervar. It's the same wherever you go in Europe, just different.

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