May 1 2014 saw the opening ceremony of the most significant new football stadium to be built in Hungary for decades. It didn’t take place in Budapest, but in Hungary’s second city, nearly ten times smaller than the capital.
Debrecen is home to the country’s most successful club of the last decade, 2014 champions DVSC (‘Debreceni Vasutas Sport Club’). Powerbase of ruling political party Fidesz, Debrecen is the provincial showcase of football-mad prime minister Viktor Orbán’s project to build new stadiums across Hungary.
Also part of the Hungary’s failed bid to co-host Euro 2012, Debrecen’s new arena remained an idea to be acted upon until the Fidesz government approved funding in 2010, with a view to completion for DVSC’s 110th anniversary in 2012.
A HUF12.5 billion (€40 million) investment in a Hungarian game characterised by poor attendances and little European progress, the Nagyerdei (‘Big Forest’) Stadion replaces the former ground of the same name in a wooded sports and leisure complex near Debrecen’s famous university just north of the town centre.
Virulently anti-Communist Fidesz chose May Day to show off the achievement of creating Hungary’s finest football stadium outside of Budapest.
The original Nagyerdei had been opened in 1934 for Debrecen’s then main club Bocskai FC, before their Mitropa Cup game with Bologna. Local rivals Debreceni Vasutas remained at their long-term home of Vágóhíd utca, formerly shared with Bocskai, near the town’s main train station. Formed as a sports club for railway workers in 1902, Vasutas (‘Railwaymen’) were left in the Bocskai’s shadow after Debrecen’s first professional club were founded in 1926.
Taking the best players from Vasutas and other Debrecen clubs DKASE and DTE, Bocskai (originally Bocskay) became the first provincial club to win the Hungarian Cup in 1930. The blue-and-yellows also took third place in the Hungarian league in 1934, the same year as the club provided five players for the Hungarian squad that reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup. One of them, prolific forward Jenö Vincze, a former Vasutas man, also played in the 1938 World Cup Final.
Two years later, Bocskai’s outgoings were such that the club was forced to fold. Debrecen, national capital for the second time in 1944, was left with one main club, Vasutas.
Undergoing a number of name changes under Communism – even Lokomotiv in 1949 – Vasutas gained the nickname ‘Loki’ for easy reference. Only making occasional and inconsistent appearances in the top flight after the war, the Loki team which gained promotion in 1993 featured players who would become emblematic over the next 20 years.
Locally born forwards Tamás Sándor and Tibor Dombi both would later have spells abroad but return to become part of the club’s set-up. Dombi featured in the Hungarian Cup win of 1999, but both would feature in the first title win of 2004-05.
With long-term top-flight status seemingly assured, Loki had moved in 1993 to a modest ground in the Nagyerdei sports complex. Referred to as Oláh Gábor utcai stadion, its street name, the ground was expanded to 9,000 capacity after the title win of 2005.
It would witness seven title-winning campaigns in all over the next decade, but few of the leading Champions League fixtures afterwards. Games with Manchester United and the group stage home matches of 2009-10 were moved to the national stadium in Budapest. A 2-2 draw with Denmark in May saw a full house of 20,000 – the trick is now to keep it filled.
Debrecen’s modest airport is 5km (three miles) south-west of town. A DKV bus (Ft500) connects with the daily incoming and outgoing flight, stopping at the train and bus stations, the city centre and two hotels by the stadium. A Fönixtaxi (+36 52 444 444) charges Ft2,500-3,000 into town.
Civis Transzfer (+36 20 566 6555) charges Ft10,500/Ft17,000 return for a shuttle bus from and to Liszt Ferenc international airport 20km outside Budapest, 240km/2hr 30min from Debrecen. A direct train (Ft4,195, 2hr25min) runs hourly from Ferihegy station opposite disused Terminal 1, five stops/12min from Terminal 2 by regular bus 200E www.bkk.hu.
In Debrecen, city transport consists of two tramlines, buses and trolleybuses. A ticket is Ft300 from a newsstand, Ft400 on board. A day ticket is Ft1,200 but the town centre is pedestrian-friendly and walkable.
The Debrecen tourist information office has no details of hotels.
Hotels surround the new stadium. Beside the Viktória restaurant, alongside the former ground on Oláh Gábor utca, the Sport Hotel is a three-star, recently upgraded from a classic, Socialist-style communal lodging, where doubles are Ft14,500-17,500 a night depending on time of year.
Near each other on the junction by the main tramstop, the Hunguest Hotel Nagyerdö is a standard, three-star domestic chain while the Divinus is the best hotel in town, a five-star spa and conference job with a cosmopolitan restaurant.
On the other side of the main road, four-star Aquaticum makes best use of its surrounding pools and thermal waters. The nearby Villa Hotel has more modest sauna facilities. There are also several student-oriented hostels in the vicinity.
Debrecen is very much a student town and lively in term-time. In summer, you’ll find busy terrace bars open either side of focal Piac utca near the main square.
One such is the Pince, with a big screen set up outdoors for match transmission. Nearby No.1 Bisztró provides a touch of class though without the kind of big-game focus that ensures below-street-level Stars music and sports pub its popularity. The Belga Pub & Restaurant opposite is one of several such establishments in the Hungarian-speaking world.
Slightly off the beaten track, Adam’s Pub on the ring road is bound to show matches, while pirate-themed Calico Jack, halfway between town and the stadium is a decent choice, a screen set up on the terrace for matches.
Finally, alongside Petöfi tér opposite the train station, the upper-floor Petöfi Presszó is a classic spit-and-sawdust local with plenty of football talk, a DVSC souvenir machine and a terrace for that arrival/departure beer in celebration.