Relic of Puskas glory days bulldozed in Hungary

Budapest (AFP) – As Hungary count down to Euro 2016 and face Germany in a friendly on Saturday, a relic of their glory days as a world-beating side has just been demolished in Budapest: the communist-era Ferenc Puskas stadium.

It was here, watched by almost 100,000 spectators, that the legendary ‘Magical Magyars’ were kings, famously thrashing England 7-1 in 1954, still the Three Lions’ heaviest ever defeat.

Originally called the ‘Nepstadion’ (Peoples’ Stadium) it was built by volunteer labour “for the people by the people” between 1948 and 1953, the heyday of Puskas’s all-conquering ‘Golden Team’.

“It was more than a stadium, it was where Hungary ruled the world,” Zoltan Molnar, a groundsman at the stadium for 28 years, told AFP.

– Stalinist baroque –

The dictator Matyas Rakosi, nicknamed ‘Stalin’s best pupil’, imagined it as a symbol of Communism’s superiority over the West, Gergely Csoti, a sports historian, told AFP.

Even national hero Puskas, seen smiling awkwardly in a propaganda photograph during the works, lent a hand.

“Its style was ‘Stalinist baroque’: vast with lots of reinforced concrete, a state-of-the-art technology at that time,” Csoti said.

In 1957 French sports daily L’Equipe called it a model of “sporting and architectural perfection” which put the “crumbling” Colombes stadium in Paris to shame.

The interiors were finished with marble tiling replete with Socialist-Realist-style sporting motifs, complementing statues of sportsmen posing on plinths outside the stadium.

Fearful of attack by the West, Rakosi also had an air-raid bunker built in, as well as a VIP box with hotlines to Communist Party henchmen.

He then ordered its opening despite it missing half its top tier, after a Radio Free Europe broadcast suggested the construction had run into trouble. “Prestige was at stake,” Csoti said.

– Like a Palace –

Also designed as an Olympic Stadium, the ground was a centrepiece of Hungary’s bid for the 1960 Games.

Rakosi appeared, however, to snub International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage on its grand opening.

On a hot August day he reportedly said: “I don’t want to sit beside an Imperialist”, and assigned the American a seat outside the air-conditioned VIP area.

Whether the dictator’s attitude influenced the IOC’s decision to award the Games to Rome is not on record.

“It’s more likely that Moscow (which hosted the Games in 1980) did not want the event to be awarded to an Eastern Bloc country before it,” said Csoti.

In April 1954, shortly before a World Cup that the ‘Magical Magyars’ were favourites to win, Hungary routed England 7-1 at the Nepstadion, a return game after the famous 6-3 mauling in London the previous year.

The English players, used to the 1920s-era Wembley stadium, marvelled at the facilities.

The whole team could soak in the bath after the game, while the dressing rooms were “like a palace”, the English goalkeeper Gil Merrick said.

Hungary lost the World Cup final though to West Germany, a shock defeat which led to riots in Budapest, a precursor to the failed anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, and the defection of Puskas and the break-up of the Golden Team soon after. 

– Another one bites the dust –

Football’s use as a propaganda tool now gone, the communist regime withdrew backing from the sport and the Nepstadion, its top tier never to be completed, opened up to other functions.

Some 80,000 watched Louis Armstrong play there in 1965, an attendance record at the time for a jazz concert, while British rock group Queen were allowed to stage one of the first rock concerts behind the Iron Curtain in 1986.

The band’s management charged 140,000 dollars in cash upfront, a struggle to find in near-bankrupt Hungary, Molnar told AFP.

In 2002 football-mad Prime Minister Viktor Orban renamed the by-then decrepit stadium in honour of Puskas’s 75th birthday.

After he died in 2006, Puskas’s body lay in state at the stadium where thousands filed past to pay their respects. 

“Michel Platini remarked he’d never seen such an occasion for a footballer,” Molnar told AFP.

The planned 68,000-seater rebuild as one of 13 host venues for Euro 2020 — held in 12 countries — is part of a nationwide stadium-building drive by Orban in a bid to restore Hungary’s footballing fortunes.

Euro 2016 is the first time since 1986 that Hungary has qualified for a major tournament.

For the 61-year-old Molnar, who lived in lodgings inside the stadium and whose children grew up there, the reconstruction is painful to watch. 

“I switch off the TV if a report on it comes on,” he said. “During communism, sport was all we had, there wasn’t much else to enjoy, a lot of people had good times there.”

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