21 November 2016

Football and Fifty-Six: Identity and Restoration


 

At noon on 31 October 1956, the streets of Ferencváros, like the rest of the Budapest, were free of fighting. The Red Army, who twelve years before had smashed its way into the city, was gone. It had been just a week earlier (24 October) that the Soviets had deployed their 92nd Armoured Division to the capital, from its base in Székesfehérvár 70 kilometres to the south-west. They had come in response to dramatic demonstrations against the Hungarian Communist regime and the initial invitation of its head, Ernő Gerő.

But the Soviets, to their considerable surprise, had encountered stiff armed resistance to their intervention, and, over the following seven days, were unable to overcome it. This resistance most notably coalesced around the Corvin cinema, which sits where the körút [boulevard] circling inner Pest meets Üllői út, the road leading south-east towards the airport. Heading down that road from Corvin immediately takes you into the 9th district, Ferencváros, whose own notable fighting groups remained undefeated as the Soviets completed their withdrawal that morning. Was this victory?

You might assume that this was no time to think about something as trivial as football, but you would be quite wrong. On the same day, a revolutionary committee took charge of the central body that the Communist regime had appointed to micro-manage Hungarian sport on its behalf (the OTSB). Back in 1950, the OTSB had turned the people’s game on its head, imposing new identities on the nation’s biggest football clubs, including its most famous and popular one – Ferencváros (FTC: Ferencvárosi Torna Club). In the middle of that extraordinary 1949/50 season, the club formed in 1899 and colloquially known as Fradi suddenly became the team of the food industry’s union; it was renamed ÉDOSZ and had its iconic green and white kit changed to a Party-friendly red and white. But with football freed from party-state control on 31 October 1956, Fradi could return.

So it was that thousands gathered the following day at Ferencváros’ stadium on Üllői út to celebrate the re-formation of a football club. It was a moment and a process that was, in many ways, far more typical of the uprising than the street fighting that had taken place in that district a few days earlier and would soon resume again. The thirteen days of the uprising – or revolution as it is understandably also called – was characterised by two dovetailing elements central to Fradi’s return: on the one hand, the re-establishment of forms and identities that had been buried in the Communist Party’s early, Stalinist years of control in Hungary between 1949 and 1953; and, on the other hand, the emergence of new anti-regime bodies which swiftly took control of most areas of national life in support of the uprising and in place of the regime’s rapidly crumbling authority. Revolutionary committees took the reins of governments in cities, towns and villages across Hungary, while similarly anti-regime workers’ councils assumed control of factories and plants, demonstrating the emptiness of the ruling Party’s claims to represent the working class.

As these bodies set to work, they were belatedly joined in campaigns of restoration by the remaining leaders of the state and the Party, who were desperately trying to hold on to power by attempting to shape a movement they were following rather than steering. For Imre Nagy, a reform Communist who had been re-appointed Prime Minister on the first night of the uprising, the embrace of reformations came naturally. He had maintained the opinion, even when it was perilous to do so, that it had been a mistake to so quickly – under pressure from Stalin – replace Hungary’s multi-party parliamentary democracy with a one-party dictatorship. He was, therefore, a popular figure among those clamouring for change. And so on 30 October, with hard-liners having fled the country or been cowed into silence by the popular mood, Nagy announced the formation of a coalition government. With that move, parties that had been erased a few years earlier suddenly re- emerged into the public square. The Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKgP), which had comfortably won the first post-war election before being bullied into submission – and eventually banned – was re-established that very afternoon. So too was the Social Democratic Party, which had been forced to “merge” with the Communist Party in June 1948.

Suppressing, renaming, replacing, appropriating; these had all been tactics of the Hungarian Communist regime led by Mátyás Rákosi, in its haste to remake the nation in its own image. With will, power, and the mystical tide of history on their side – the ascendant Stalinists assumed in the early fifties – old forms, identities, connections, ways and ideas could be irrevocably consigned to oblivion. And that is why every revivification of an old name or practice in the uprising was so significant; each instance was a celebration of the fact that the regime had not succeeded. Cherished loyalties and meanings had not in fact disappeared beneath arbitrarily imposed replacements. They had not been forgotten. They were not dead.

Football was the perfect microcosm of the Party’s failure to create permanent felt realities beneath its fiat impositions because it was the emotional pull and socio- political significance of football that had persuaded the Party to try utilising it in the first place. The rapid unravelling of this project in the uprising also saw two of the other big Budapest clubs that had received new identities in the 1949/50 season restored: Újpest TE and MTK returned to life under their ancestral names. The exception was Honvéd, who, with a European Cup tie against Athletic Bilbao approaching, retained its new form. Nevertheless, after 31 October, newspapers quickly in the habit of reverting to pre-1950 titles also began referring to Honvéd by their former identity of Kispest. At the same time, the revolutionary committee freshly in charge of the OTSB indulged in some renaming of its own. The vast concrete-bowl national stadium that the Communist regime had built and opened three years earlier as Népstadion (People’s Stadium) would, the committee announced on 1 November, henceforth be known as Ifjúság Stadionja (Youth Stadium) in honour of the many young people who had fought in the uprising.

The football clubs founded at the end of the 19th century, particularly in Budapest, were from the beginning freighted with both organic and contrived significance. “Since their emergence and codification”, sport historians Phillip Dine and Seán Crosson note, “… modern sports have exerted a powerful influence on both personal and collective self-images, and have thus impacted extensively on local and national politics.” Football fans by definition identify themselves with an enduring identity more than with the players and coaches of the moment, aided by the fact that, as Miklós Hadas adds regarding Hungarian football, “football teams often express sociologically relevant distinctions”. This is particularly pertinent when you consider that every great name in European football started literally as a “club”. The Victorian era sporting clubs were not only places where the like- minded gathered, but also frequently means of projecting a political posture or claiming a desired identity.

Therefore, the likes of the Ferencváros and Újpest clubs were not only founded to represent and reflect their respective areas (Újpest – New Pest – was a new town north of Pest that was finally absorbed into Budapest in 1950) but were also aspirational organisations. Their adoption of the word Torna (gymnastics) gave them overtones of moral and civic engagement in a Central European context where the German turnverein and Czech Sokol gymnastic movements were vehicles of national idealism. These clubs were also being formed at a time when the Hungarian government, which had possessed a wide degree of autonomy within the Habsburg realms since the 1867 Ausgleich, was increasingly seeking to Magyarise the Kingdom of Hungary, a territory whose population was about 50 per cent non-Magyar. This cultural and linguistic agenda gave members of non-Magyar ethnicities, particularly in cities, significant incentive to emphasise their participation in the dominant national community. In this situation, Hadas relates, “a group mainly of bourgeois Jews, who deemed gymnastics too conservative” had in 1888 founded MTK (Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre – Circle of Hungarian Body Trainers). Thus, “compared to the more locally organised but socially heterogeneous” clubs that had already formed in Újpest and elsewhere, MTK, “with the word ‘Hungarian’ in its name expressing the assimilating motivesstood for ‘universal Hungarianhood’ free from local particularities”.

But foundational differences between Ferencvárosi TC and MTK, in particular, would not have played such a large part in the subsequent story of Hungarian football were it not for the remarkable fact that no other team won the championship between 1903 and 1929. Despite the genuine, though generalised, distinctions between the fan bases and identities of these two clubs, the long rivalry and the emergence of football as a mass spectator sport exaggerated them far beyond any underlying reality. This became especially the case, with sad consequences for both clubs, of the Jewish–Gentile divide. MTK was never a Jewish club or team in the way that the great Hakoah Vienna was, while Fradi had Jewish founders, fans and directors. Yet the over-emphasis on this aspect of the Fradi–MTK split was nevertheless exacerbated in the inter-war years.

The Great War and subsequent treaties had rendered Hungary a rump state, denuded of two-thirds of the kingdom that lived on only in the inter-war leader’s (Miklós Horthy) hypothetical role as regent. As a result, the new, smaller Hungarian body politic was both more ethnically homogeneous and burdened with a sense of loss. As was the case across the region, this was also accompanied by rising anti-Semitism, which was translated into restrictive legislation against Hungary’s large Jewish population. Finally, after the Second Jewish Law of May 1939 greatly restricted the participation of Jews in the economy, the management of MTK (which had renamed itself Hungária in 1926) was handed over to a right-wing chairman. After finishing second to Fradi on goal difference in the subsequent 1939/40 season, as Hungary’s German allies were rapidly occupying Central and Western Europe, the club was shut down entirely.

Despite the real confluences of interest that existed between Hungary and its Nazi German allies, the former became an increasingly reluctant partner over the course of the Second World War. Hence, in March 1944, Hitler took matters into his own hands, ordering the Wehrmacht to occupy Hungary. Then, in October of that year, with Horthy continuing his attempts to extricate Hungary from the Axis, the Germans installed leaders of the home-grown fascist party, Arrow Cross, as a puppet government. The period since the German occupation had already seen the unprecedentedly rapid deportation, with local assistance, of 400,000 mostly provincial Hungarian Jews to their death at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Hungarian most directly responsible, Interior Minister Andor Jaross, was even briefly installed as the President of Fradi. It was a sick caricature of a club whose nationwide popularity as the “quintessential Hungarian” team would continue to be conflated with the anti-Semitism that sometimes accompanied both nationalism and the city rivalry.

So while it was certainly true, in historian Győző Molnár’s words, that “before Communism each football team had its unique social connotation and groups of fans”, those identities were neither simple nor uncontested; they were subject to both exaggeration and corruption. Yet when the national league finally fully resumed for the 1946/47 season, it was reassuringly once more dominated by the old guard of Pest-based sides. That included MTK, back with their original name and playing at their old stadium between Fradi to the south and the forthcoming national stadium to the north. And in 1947 the revived MTK signed a young player, Nándor Hidegkuti, whose name now adorns that ground on Hungária Boulevard. Six years after he joined the blue-and-whites, he would score a Wembley hat-trick that brought Hungary glory across the football world.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the political upheavals and manipulations that had scarred the game in the late thirties and during the war were over. But of the six Pest teams that filled the top six positions at that 1946/47 season’s end, only Vasas – the team of the ironworkers of Angyalföld with its solid left-wing history – would emerge unscathed from the Communist takeover. As alluded to earlier, the Hungarian Communist Party (the MKP: Magyar Kommunista Párt) had initially leveraged the post-war sponsorship of the Soviet occupiers to secure a merely advantageous position in the Hungarian coalition government, while bullying and marginalising its opponents. But such relative gradualism was abandoned; by May 1949, when elections were held in which only Communists could be selected, Hungary had become a one-party state. The one party had by this time characteristically rechristened itself, after its absorption of the Social Democrats, as the MDP (Magyar Dolgozók Pártja – Hungarian Workers’ Party). Such nominal tinkering would, as we shall see, be the feature of the era.

Two aspects of this new regime sealed the fate of football. Firstly, as was the case across the new Soviet bloc, it was de rigueur for the Hungarian party-state to slavishly ape every aspect of the Soviet precedents. In the case of football, this would mean welding existing football clubs onto departments of state and trade unions without any regard to history and culture. In the Soviet Union, for example, an old Moscow club had become the team of the state security police (eventually the KGB); it was renamed Dinamo Moskva and overseen by the malignant power, second only to Stalin, of KGB head, Lavrentiy Beria. Secondly, and connectedly, in the Hungarian Stalinists’ understanding of history and their role in it, the Communist seizure of power was a natural step that necessitated and justified a top-down re-ordering of society, reaching into every nook and cranny of life. And as the historians Lara Ryazanova-Clarke and Petre Petrov summarise in The Vernaculars of Communism, “the victorious proletarian revolution implied not only the project of remaking the world, but also of renaming it. The practical- political and linguistic tasks went in hand in hand”.

For about a year it seemed that football had escaped close scrutiny. The national sporting body was overseen by the Ministry of Culture, while more easily contrived and controlled activities drew its attention. But the first dramatic indication of a fundamental reorganisation of football came two games shy of the 1949/50 season’s halfway point, when Kispesti AC was suddenly placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence, and renamed Honvéd SE (Sportegyesület). Due to the crucial role it would play in the formation of the legendary national team that the English call the Mighty Magyars (and the Hungarians refer to as the Aranycsapat: Golden Team), Honvéd is usually as far as foreigners explore Hungarian club football of this era. But, while the ability to draw on all members of the armed forces in a time of universal national service was certainly an incredible advantage for Honvéd, this focus obscures the pre- nationalisation roots of its success.

The transformation of the Kispest club’s fortunes under the appropriation and sponsorship of the Army has been greatly exaggerated both at home, by understandably aggrieved fans of other clubs, and abroad. It did not turn Kispest from an obscure backwater club into the champions; it turned them from one of the best teams in the country into the very best. The base of a great team was there prior to the takeover, partly thanks to the felicity that both Ferenc Puskás and József Bozsik were Kispest boys who naturally played for their local club. (Kispest is a town turned Budapest district which one would arrive in after a few miles of heading south-east on Üllői Road from Fradi’s ground.)

In the 1930s, Kispest had been competitive yet perennially stuck behind the traditional top teams that dominated Budapest and, therefore, Hungary. But in the first Hungarian national championship since the war, 1946/47, Kispest had finished second, behind Újpest but ahead of Fradi and MTK. That year, Puskás scored 32 goals in the league, and the following season he scored an incredible 50, although Kispest slipped down to a more familiar fourth position in a top division that had been expanded from sixteen to seventeen teams. In the last full season before the party-state takeover of Hungarian football and the Army’s absorption of Kispest, the team finished third (with 46 Puskás goals). It is hardly the record of a “small village club”, as the otherwise excellent Jonathan Wilson described their pre-1950 existence.

And the 1949/50 season looked like it was going to be the best in the club’s history. On 13 December 1949, Kispest beat Soroksár 6–1 to maintain a slender lead over Budapest rivals MTK and Ferencváros at the top of the table. With thirteen games played, Kispest were on course for their first ever Hungarian championship. But one week later, the name of Kispest was not only no longer in first place, it was nowhere to be found on the league table. In the official account, the club that now led the league, Honvéd SE, had “merged” with Kispesti AC. But this was a takeover. And it was a sign of things to come.

During the mid-season winter break, on 13 January, the regime established a new national sport authority. Significantly, rather than remaining under the Ministry of Culture, the OTSB (Országos Testnevelési és Sportbizottság: National Physical Education and Sport Committee) was placed directly under the supervision of the cabinet. It signalled the complete nationalisation and centralisation of sport, and when, at the end of February, the football season resumed, the consequences were clear. Just a few years after being snatched from oblivion, MTK was placed under the Textile Workers’ Union and given the bland new name of Textiles, while its colours were predictably switched from the traditional blue and white to, you guessed it, red and white.

At the same time, as previously mentioned, Fradi suffered a similar fate, becoming the red-and-white clad ÉDOSZ (Élelmiszeripari Dolgozók Országos Szakszervezete: National Trade Union of Food Industry Workers). Salt was also rubbed in this wound at the end of the season when two of Fradi’s best players, who would become integral members of the Aranycsapat, László Budai and Sándor Kocsis, were moved to Honvéd. With Hungary’s three top clubs renamed and appropriated, all that remained – a few weeks after the season had so bizarrely re-started – was Újpest’s transformation. The oldest club in the first division finished the season as the team of the police force, under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior and with the non sequitur name of Dózsa SE.

This was ultimately an expression of power by the regime. But it was also a mark of extraordinary confidence in its ability to both sweep away ties that historically bound clubs to people and places and replace them – while retaining the vibrancy and passion that animated the original connection – with identities of the regime’s choosing. As Hadas puts it, “the omnipotent party thought itself powerful enough to control the physical energies and symbolic forces mobilised by football”. Ambitious enough already, this project was complicated further by the fact that the regime appeared unable to make up its mind about the identities that it wished to impose over the ones it was attempting to bury.

So, no doubt conscious that ÉDOSZ was as uninspiring a name as could be imagined, the authorities once more re-christened the former Fradi after the semi-season that followed the momentous changes of 1949/50. That abbreviated championship in the autumn of 1950 was itself the result of another ruling by the new OTSB, who decreed that the football season should no longer start in the autumn of one year and finish in the spring of the next – as was the norm in Europe but should begin and end within a single year, as it did in the Soviet Union. This change, like a country shifting from the Julian to Gregorian calendar, necessitated the mini season of 1950, won by the champions Honvéd. When the full 1951 season arrived, ÉDOSZ had become Budapesti Kinizsi (like Dózsa, whose name now adorned the Újpest team, Kinizsi was a fifteenth-century Hungarian hero of whom the Communists approved). To some degree, it was to be expected that the former Fradi and its fans, who were under the suspicion of the regime for their nationalist connotations, would be subject to radical transformation. Yet it was once again MTK who fared the worst in the upheaval; this time inadvertently.

In years to come, after the restoration, Ferencváros fans would wear their club’s maltreatment as a badge of honour. No such emotional catharsis was available to MTK who, after spending 1950 as Textiles, were turned in 1951 into the club of the dreaded and detested secret police: the ÁVH (Államvédelmi Hatóság – State Security Authority). Under this sordid new sponsorship, the former MTK became Budapesti Bástya (Bastion), finishing that 1951 season as champions. Two years later, the club was, absurdly, renamed yet again as Budapesti Vörös Lobogó (Red Flag), condemned to sounding more like a socialist newspaper than a football club. So poisonous was the link with the ÁVH that this proved to be the Stalinist- era transition with the most enduring and deleterious effects. It sucked away the opportunities for emotional, joyous connections between supporter and club that make football a cultural phenomenon, leaving MTK, even today, a club with a great heritage and often a good team, but few fans.

In the end, the top-down transformation of Hungarian football between 1949 and 1953 did not leave a taste of idealism, misguided or otherwise, but of wanton and arbitrary coercion, poorly thought-through and speedily executed. This characterised Hungarian Stalinisation and there were, naturally, far more horrifying manifestations. In this period, the ÁVH collected information on a million Hungarians – a remarkable 10 per cent of the total population – while 400,000 were imprisoned. But, as had transpired in the Soviet Union, the terror that had initially been focused on suppressing the opponents of Communism was soon turned inwards against loyal and talented Communists, making the regime’s rule all the more terrifyingly unpredictable – there was no course of action that guaranteed safety.

This was the context of the show trial, which the Hungarian leader Mátyás Rákosi eagerly adopted from Stalin’s model of power consolidation. It was on 30 May 1949 that the most famous, and ultimately infamous, of these processes began with the arrest of László Rajk. Occupying the crucial position of Minister of Interior until shortly before his arrest, Rajk had taken a leading role in the strangulation of non-Communist Hungary. He also had a deep and colourful Communist résumé that included service in the Spanish Civil War and persecution under both the Horthy and Arrow Cross regimes. But after his arrest, the task of inventing a new identity and biography for Rajk, with the close involvement of Soviet experts in this methodology, began. Instead of a committed Communist, Rajk was transformed by his accusers into an inveterate traitor and opponent of the cause. According to his new life-story, as quite literally scripted for the ensuing trial, Rajk’s anti-Communism had begun in 1931 and culminated in an elaborate Titoist and pro-American spy-ring. Rajk was hanged as a stranger to himself, on Saturday, 15 October.

Eventually, Stalin’s death in March 1953 gave life in Hungary to a painfully fragile process of de-Stalinisation that saw a first Nagy premiership (terminated after less than two years) and tentative attempts at revising the fictitious accusations and convictions of the previous four years. With Stalin and Stalinism increasingly discredited, the Rajk case became the one that many in the regime most wished to forget, as well as a vulnerability that could be utilised by critics. That vulnerability was given a potent and eventually unavoidable face when, in June 1954, five years after her arrest along with her husband, László Rajk’s widow, Júlia, was released from prison. But she was released as someone else. Capriciously deprived of her dead husband’s name, she officially emerged from jail as Júlia Györk.

It may seem inappropriate to compare this with the re-assignation of football clubs; but the same logic, the same astonishing confidence, and the same bet with and against history was at work in both acts of peremptory chutzpah. They were both test-cases of a decisive question: did this regime really have the power, as it appeared, to overrule precious details of life – however rooted these meanings were – and irretrievably make them be something else by the sheer application of force and will? Was this how the world now worked?

Unfortunately for the regime’s hardliners, Júlia was unwilling to submit to either the degrading or erasure of her past life. As her biographer, Andrea Pető, explains, Júlia’s “fight to win back her name was part of the struggle to rehabilitate László Rajk”. To put it another way, she insisted that what she knew about her identity and past was more important than what the party-state, who closely guarded its self-appointed monopoly on the “truth”, proclaimed it to be. Progress was slow, but received an external boost in February 1956 when Khrushchev exposed many of Stalin’s fabrication-fuelled excesses in the so-called Secret Speech, which was then, in early summer, widely disseminated in Hungary.

The seminal moment in which the regime was fatally undermined came seventeen days before the uprising’s beginning when Rajk was ceremonially reinterred (along with three others) as a martyr, not a traitor. Even when it had conceded the necessity of a partial rehabilitation and reburial of its highest profile victim, the Party wished to limit the ceremony to invited bigwigs and family. But the widow insisted that if the public were not free to attend, then neither would she. To restore her husband, she insisted, there should be a show burial commensurate with the show trial that had condemned him. It was the Party leaders that blinked on the night before the burial – and at least two hundred thousand people flocked to the cemetery the following morning. The next day’s papers overflowed with the national spectacle of re-remembrance; in them, pictured and named with her son, was Júlia Rajk.

Among the bouquets that were brought to the graveside by the people of Budapest that momentous morning was a recurring message: “we shall not forget”. It was a fitting slogan for the moment. But there are different kinds of forgetting. It was one thing for the party-state to demand that social democrats, nationalists, Christians, football fans, and indeed every conceivable category of Hungarians, forget and replace things they had known and cherished with new names and identities. But there are also, of course, things that people wish to forget about their life in order to free themselves for new beginnings and identities. And the need and urge to do just that was as strong for Hungarians in the 30 years before Communism as it was in any time and place before or since.

Speaking about the vulnerability of a former underground Communist to accusations of secretive plotting, even under a Communist regime, historian István Rév concluded that “all his previous acts could be presented under a new description”. A person who had idealistically chosen to enter “into the world of the dark, could be suspected of having remained there; his life on the surface serving only as the cover of his real, illegal activities”. Past secret lives of one’s choosing exposed one to future secret lives of another’s choosing. Similarly, in the context of a nation in which identities and names had already been scrambled by a mixture of upheaval, choice and survival strategies, it was unusually conceivable and pertinent for the new Communist regime in Hungary to impose its own new set of identities in the “zero hour” of post-war Europe.

The shifting parameters and meanings of ethnicities and nationalities was the forge of many new identities. Consider, for example, the leaders of the Communist Party themselves. Mátyás Rákosi, his successor Ernő Gerő, and the executed László Rajk were all born in Hungary. Yet in adulthood, after the First World War, their home towns were in Hungary no longer, but instead in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Romania respectively. Gerő’s and Rajk’s towns of birth also had their names changed to reflect the ethnicity of the nation-states to which they now belonged. The strange disorientation that this gave these men who regarded themselves as Hungarian, but suddenly were no longer “from” Hungary, was mirrored in the country as a whole, which just as suddenly went from being a multi-ethnic kingdom to a far more homogeneous nation-state which regarded its true borders as exceeding its political ones. This same transition was doubly difficult for these three, and many like them, because as Jews (Rákosi and Gerő) and a Transylvanian Saxon (Rajk), their Hungarian-ness was put in doubt by the more stringently ethnic criteria that this situation had encouraged. All three adapted by changing their own names to more “Magyar-sounding” monikers: they had been born as Mátyás Rosenfeld, Ernő Singer and László Reich.

The man who succeeded Rajk as Interior Minister and eventually led Hungary for more than thirty years, János Kádár, was still known by his real name of János Csermanek as late as 1945. Kádár had been born in the Hungarian crown’s Croatian port city of Fiume, which itself passed through many hands and is now Rijeka. And it was not just Hungarians born in the since amputated regions of the old kingdom who found themselves faced with the urge to grant themselves a new identity that chimed more with a changed nation’s mood. Just as Budapest had a large, old Jewish community (which had emerged from the Holocaust in Hungary in greater proportions than their decimated equivalents in the rest of the country), it also had long been home to ethnic Germans, particularly Swabians. They, too, often gained new names. One of them was a footballer from Kispest named Ferenc Purczeld, whose father, when the player was still a boy, changed the family name to Puskás.

As the crucial month of November 1956 began, both these men, Kádár and Puskás, departed Hungary and journeyed into very different places in Hungarian history. Puskás left with his teammates for Vienna on 2 November (the MTK squad also went to Vienna on the same day) to begin a tour of Germany, Belgium and France in the run-up to the Bilbao tie. The greatest of all Hungarian footballers would not set foot in his country again for twenty-five years. Meanwhile, late on the previous evening to Puskás’ departure, Kádár left Budapest in the opposite direction, flying to Moscow at the invitation of Soviet ambassador Andropov. Kádár would return rather sooner – three days later, as the Soviet-installed head of a new provisional Hungarian government.

Of all the Communist Party grandees who got involved in football, Kádár had probably the most authentic connection. As a young man in Budapest, he had been a member of the ironworkers’ union and even played for the youth team of Vasas (at centre-half). His genuine working class connections in Budapest made Kádár a popular figure in the Party, but, after replacing Rajk, he was Rákosi’s next victim. Escaping with only life imprisonment in December 1952, Kádár did not, however, have long to wait before the onset of de-Stalinisation and his release in the summer of 1954. As part of his rehabilitation into the Party leadership, he was appointed president of the club he had once dreamed of playing for in the first division. And when the uprising began, Kádár was perfectly positioned; neither an inveterate reformer nor a discredited hardliner, he was appointed as the Party’s First Secretary on 25 October when, after a massacre of demonstrators, the Hungarian Politburo panicked and removed the tone-deaf Ernő Gerő.

In the days that followed, as they scrambled to keep up with and modulate popular demands, Kádár and Nagy were the only Communists in the country who seemed to retain any serious credibility. On 30 October (the day on which the coalition cabinet was announced), Kádár headed into the streets with Ferenc Münnich, the current Interior Minister and former President of Fradi, to negotiate with leaders of the armed groups at Corvin and into Ferencváros. Kádár was particularly impressed by his conversation with the Tűzoltó Street fighting group in the 9th district and István Angyal, its leader. Angyal had been one of the many Hungarian Jews who had been deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and, while he was one of the few who returned, his mother and sister had not. Now, faced with Kádár, Angyal insisted that his group were not reactionaries but real revolutionaries, with many of them displaying their membership cards to the Party leader.

These were the sort of men with whom Kádár had to build a new legitimacy. But the scale and nature of that task was clarified on the 31st, with another dramatic act of renaming. In a desperate attempt at renewal, the Party (MDP), so thoroughly discredited by its exposed immersion in deceitful and self-serving terror, was dissolved, and a new Communist Party was launched in its place – the MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt: Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party). It was in fact not the first time that Kádár had both dissolved and reformed the Party – as central committee secretary of the tiny wartime Party he had also done so as a tactical ploy – and, astonishingly, the MSZMP became the fifth iteration of the Communist Party within Hungary in just 13 years.

But these hopeful and peaceful hours in Budapest, as the Soviets withdrew on the 31st and reformations and restorations continued across the nation, constituted a false dawn. Even as Fradi supporters rejoiced at their stadium on 1 November, ten miles to the south-east the Red Army was seizing control of Ferihegy airport. When it became clear that the Soviets, rather than accepting Hungary’s retreat from orthodox Communist rule, were preparing a new and decisive intervention in Hungarian affairs, Imre Nagy finally aligned himself fully with a central popular demand of the uprising. At 7:50 p.m., the Prime Minister told the nation that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and appealing to the UN for assistance. But as Kádár’s pre-recorded message regarding the new Communist Party was also broadcast later that same night, the man himself was on his way to Moscow.

Over the next few days, former Presidents of Vasas (Kádár) and Fradi (Münnich) negotiated the shape of a new Soviet-imposed Hungarian government. And after the Red Army launched the overwhelming military operation on 4 November that crushed the popular uprising and made Kádár the head of a new “revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government”, the momentary dream of a restored multi- party democracy disappeared. Strangely, as this took place, Hungary’s greatest sportsmen and women were, almost to a person, elsewhere. The Olympic team’s three-week odyssey to the Melbourne Olympics was underway and it would be a fortnight before they discovered what had transpired back home. Meanwhile, its top footballers, as we have seen, were already scattering across Europe on various European tours. But just as football had been a microcosm of the recovered identities and restored meanings of the uprising, it also demonstrated the ambivalent way in which one-party rule would be restored.

After a few weeks’ lull, the new government did indeed launch a brutal repression of those who had been and remained in open defiance of the party-state. And this went hand-in-hand with an imperious re-writing of the history of the uprising – turning it retrospectively into a foreign-directed right-wing counter-revolution that was underlined by the trial and execution of Imre Nagy in June 1958. Nevertheless, the Kádár-led party-state was not a neo-Stalinist regime hankering after the methods of the Rákosi era. Kádár, after all, had been brutally tortured and imprisoned under that modus vivendi, and he always maintained that the Party’s mistakes and excesses of the pre-1956 era had been a crucial cause of the uprising.

While the Stalinist leaders of the late forties and early fifties had sought to politicise and micro-manage every aspect of national life, Kádár felt his way to an opposite accommodation with society; if people kept away from politics, then politics would be kept away from them. But this was not immediately apparent, and Kádár did not crystallise it with the memorable maxim, “those who are not against us are with us”, until 1961. But far sooner football demonstrated the hopeful, yet contradictory, contours of this new bargain. Instead of being condemned to return to the arbitrarily imposed identities of the 1949/50 takeover, Hungarian football’s revolutionary restoration was partially retained.

The protection of what had been regained in the uprising was aided when, on 10 November, the OTSB recommended its own dissolution to the cabinet. It was a self- denying ordinance that the government was only too happy to oblige, as it transferred national oversight of sport back to minor ministries. A week later, bolstered by the demise of the OTSB, the Hungarian FA (MLSZ: Magyar Labdarúgó Szövetség), announced the resumption in 1957 of a standard autumn/spring season, jettisoning the shadowing of the Soviet season that the OTSB had previously introduced, while making a point of insisting that it would be deciding football matters independently.

The Olympics, which opened on 22 November, hogged the sporting headlines at the end of the year, as the Hungarian team captured nine gold medals. But at the same time, and just as significantly, MTK joined their ancient rivals Fradi in final liberation from the takeover of 1950. At the close of their English tour after games against Sunderland, Portsmouth, Tottenham, Manchester City, Brighton and Wolves – the club, having played the whole tour as MTK, was officially restored to that former name and freed from the unwanted embrace of the ÁVH. Those final two games, against Brighton (8 December) and Wolves (11 December) even raised money for the Hungarian Relief Fund (the latter amassing the princely sum of £2,312 and 2 shillings for the cause). Meanwhile, on tour in Yugoslavia, Ferencváros played its first game as FTC and in green-and-white since 1949, taking on Vojvodina. But amidst the catharsis of familiar names and identities restored, there was lingering discord.

Újpest was unable to free itself from the grip of the police and the Ministry of Interior and, as a result, was prevented from remaining Újpest TE, as the club had resumed calling itself during the uprising. While Újpest was not forced to return to a de-localised name – under the OTSB’s domination all Budapest teams were prefixed by Budapesti – they gained a hybrid title, Újpesti Dózsa. Honvéd, however, had not been altered in the uprising. The Ministry of Defence’s absorption of Kispesti AC had preceded the OTSB’s establishment, and it was a far different proposition to break away from the Army, to which most families were connected, than it was from a union or from the marginalised and despised secret police. And yet, for Honvéd and its players, these post-uprising weeks were even more dramatic.

While other teams played only friendlies, Honvéd could focus on European Cup matches. After they had lost 3–2 in the first leg in Bilbao on 22 November, the second leg was originally supposed to take place on 2 December in Valencia, with matters still too unsettled in Hungary for football. It was delayed, however, and in the meantime the Hungarian champions won games at both Barcelona and Milan. Despite this good form, when the return fixture was finally played in Brussels on 20 December, Honvéd could only manage a 3–3 draw, going out of the competition. Still unwilling to return to Budapest, the Honvéd team decided to continue their touring with a trip to South America. And this is the context of the following defections of Puskás, along with fellow members of the Aranycsapat, and former Fradi players, Kocsis and Czibor.

Puskás’ defection is probably the aspect that, outside of Hungary, is the most known connection between the 1956 uprising and football. And yet, the story has become garbled beyond recognition. It is frequently spoken of as a consequence of the fact that Honvéd were away from Hungary for the Bilbao tie, and that absence is also often regarded as fortuitous. But, firstly, as we have seen, MTK had left Hungary on the same day that Honvéd did, and both MTK and Ferencváros were also still travelling and playing abroad at the time Honvéd played their second leg; yet no MTK or Fradi players defected. Secondly, it should also be pointed out that it was surely no fortuitous coincidence that Honvéd were out of the country by the time the Soviets seized control on 4 November. Honvéd did not have a scheduled game until a friendly with Essen in Germany on 7 November, yet the team departed Hungary for Vienna on 2 November, the day after the club’s Ministry of Defence overlords became well aware that the Soviets were planning a second, larger military intervention.

This certainly does not make the three defectors villains or render their decision any less understandable; two hundred thousand Hungarians made the same one at this time. But their choice was neither an inevitable consequence of being abroad nor forced upon them. In early December, Puskás was assuring a Hungarian journalist in a telephone interview that Honvéd’s players would indeed return, as other greats like MTK’s Hidegkuti and Honvéd’s Bozsik did. The decisive trigger was when the MLSZ and FIFA refused to authorise Honvéd’s South American tour. It was led by the legendary Béla Guttmann – who had previously been the manager of Kispest, Újpest and Vasas, and would later both win the European Cup for, and then successfully curse, Benfica. Guttmann characteristically even stayed and coached in Brazil when the Honvéd tour was over, while the players returned to Europe under the threat of sanctions for their unofficial matches. Even after deciding not to go back to Hungary, the three players had to wait, following a FIFA ban, before restarting their careers at Real Madrid and Barcelona.

It was, therefore, a strange return to football normality in Hungary, as spring brought the bookend of 1950’s autumn half-season. This time the shortened schedule was needed to restore football to its former routine. Four months earlier, Honvéd had been top with four weeks to go before the uprising had caused the 1956 season’s cancellation. Now, with its team denuded, Honvéd floundered in the spring season, winning just one out of eleven games. It was a first division that combined, on the one hand, restored identities of legendary clubs that had regained them in the uprising and retained them after its defeat, with, on the other hand, enduring consequences of early Communist rule and strained compromises between the old and new regimes. It was, in other words, a football scene that mirrored the nation of 1957.

The speed and eagerness with which Hungarian clubs sought to return to their old identities, with all the loyalties and connections they represented, demonstrated the power of these emotional and social meanings. And it was just as clearly a mark of the utter failure of the Party to co-opt and utilise the power of football for its own purposes. The Party abandoned the micro-management of football, paralleling its wider realisation after 1956 that, while its authority was still non- negotiable, it could and would not protect and justify it through the politicisation of society or the ideological mobilisation of the people.

Beneath a coerced veneer, deeper and stronger connections between people and place, religion, community, history and national culture endured. The uprising could not have manifested the Party’s characteristic failure to bury memory and meaning beneath imposed replacements in football unless that failure pre-existed the uprising. Hungarian football was incredibly popular in the early fifties and as long as old names and identities could not be trumpeted, it was possible for the regime to imagine that this was their success. But as Hadas comments, within the safety in numbers of large football crowds, “it is easy to see that the fans had the opportunity to attribute their more traditional local, ideological or symbolical meanings to the teams”. Football had never belonged to the Party, despite what its leaders may have imagined: Fradi could not remain Kinizsi anymore than Júlia Rajk could remain Júlia Györk.




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