LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Debrecen

Hungary’s second city no longer its football capital

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

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 early 2000s, seven-time 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 played 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 over the next decade, but few of the leading Champions League fixtures that followed them.

Games with Manchester United and the group stage home matches of 2009-10 were moved to the national stadium in Budapest, with Liverpool and Fiorentina among the visitors. It later came to light that certain DVSC players had been involved in a match-fixing scam, cheapening the club’s massive achievement in reaching the Champions League, and pleasing many football fans in liberal Budapest dismayed at the fortunes being pumped into provincial football stadiums.

While the opening fixture at the Nagyerdei, Hungary’s 2-2 draw with Denmark, attracted a full house of 20,000, the stadium has been nowhere near filled since, average gates hovering below 4,000. 

For one season, it even had to witness second-division football after Loki’s relegation in 2020, an event that led to disgraceful crowd scenes among supporters once used to success.

Their brief sojourn in NBII did throw DVSC and city rivals DEAC together, however, the university club promoted from NBIII at the same time that their illustrious neighbours were coming down. Attached to the prestigious college whose grandiose building centrepieces the park between the two grounds, DEAC finished rock bottom of the table just as DVSC claimed top spot. 

Surrounded by parkland, spas and quality hotels, in relative isolation during the pandemic, the Nagyerdei twice welcomed Qatar’s national side as a training base in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup. 

Hosting Ireland in March 2021, and later Serbia and Portugal, the stadium was decked out in the maroon flags of Qatar, as was the city centre that September, with a fan zone set up in the shadow of the huge Great Church that dominates the city centre. 

In the spring of 2023, the city was planning more football celebrations as Debrecen will be a major venue for Hungary’s hosting of the European U-17 Championship that May, both the Nagyerdei and the modest DEAC Stadion being commandeered for use. England and Scotland were among the teams scheduled to play at both.

Back at club level, Loki enjoyed a decent campaign in 2022-23, knocking on the door of Europe and giving returning hero Balázs Dzsudzsák, a three-time title winner from 2005, a memorable season in the sun at the age of 38. In October 2022, DVSC and DEAC came together once more, this time in the Hungarian Cup, an easy win for the former champions at the university ground.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Debrecen’s modest airport is 5km (three miles) south-west of town. Two DKV buses (Ft500) run to the city centre. Airport 1 goes direct to the main station, Nagyállomás (12min journey time). 

Airport 2 also calls at the station (7mins) but then runs on to the terminus at Doberdő utca (20mins), near the university and Nagyerdő park where you’ll find both stadiums. The previous stop, Kartács utca, is slightly closer to either.

A single ticket is Ft350/€1, available from a machine at the airport or, if arriving by train, from the hut across the tram tracks as you exit the station. On board, it’s Ft450/€1.20. A day pass is Ft1,200/€3.20.

From the station, regular tram 1/bus 1V run into town, about a 15min walk, then carry on to Nagyerdei park and the main stadium, another 15min walk. Aquaticum is the nearest stop from town. Coming back, walk down to Medgyessy sétány for the citybound service. The town centre is pedestrian-friendly and walkable.

Fönixtaxi (+36 52 444 444) charges around Ft4,000/€10.50 into town.

Civis Transzfer (+36 20 566 6555) charges Ft15,000-Ft20,000/€40-€53 per person for a shuttle bus from Budapest Airport, 240km/2hrs 20mins direct to Debrecen. Prices are also quoted from Vienna and Bratislava airports.

Two trains an hour run direct from Ferihegy station to Debrecen (Ft3,000-Ft4,000/€8-€10.50, 2hrs 10mins-2hrs 35mins journey time). Ferihegy vasútállomás stands opposite disused Terminal 1, five stops/12mins from Terminals 2A/B by regular bus 200E (Ft350/€1 ticket from the machine at the stop).

From main Nyugati station in central Budapest, frequent trains take 2hrs 30mins-3hrs 40mins to reach Debrecen (Ft2,500-Ft6,000/€6.60-€16).

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

This is very much a student town and lively in term-time. In summer, you’ll find busy terrace bars along focal Piac utca running from the main square. Nearby, pedestrianised Simonffy utca is also lined with terraces, leading to Hal köz átjáró, an enclosed square and Debrecen’s real drinking hub.

Debrecen is also a town that likes to go round the kit – they built this city on rock, the soundtrack to any night out a cacophony of drum solos and loud guitars. With a little forward planning, you can avoid the noise that will inevitably infringe upon your leisure time.

A prime spot on Piac utca is Pince, with a large screen set up outdoors for big-match transmission. On the same side, the traditional Árkád kávézó, while a café, acts as a bar after dark, with TV football and even pub quiz nights.

On nearby Csapó utca, Roncsbár was opened by stalwart DVSC defender and seven-time title winner Csaba Bernáth and a local rock group, its huge terrace with a ruin pub feel, ideal for live shows and match screenings.

Parallel to Csapó utca, on Rózsa utca, the STAY Beer Bar serves obscure brews amid funky industrial-style decor also featuring a big screen. At the end of the street, in a quiet square, the Hello Pub Romkocsma is a handy party spot though trying a bit too hard to be a ruin bar, as its name, romkocsma, suggests.

One street down, Kossuth Lajos utca, the Gösser Drink Bár welcomes pool players, diagonally opposite the classy Bakelit Music Café, a stylish, contemporary drinkery fashioned from a fin-de-siècle coffeehouse and a historic hotel. Retro Hungarian 45s (bakelit means ‘vinyl’) and vintage French advertising provide the backdrop for quality cocktails and well-chosen tunes. Open very late, too.

Back on Piac utca, Belga Pub & Restaurant offers Pauwel Kwak, Chimay Rouge and Floris Framboise in bottles, standard Benelux brews on draught and hefty main dishes. Its leafy terrace fills in summer, and it’s a hotel, too. 

On this same side of the street, Beer & Wurst on Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca also has a terrace, complementing an interior large enough to contain six screens for football and rows of sturdy tables awaiting Bavarian, Czech and Hungarian beers, along with meaty favourites from Central Europe.

One street down, pedestrianised Simonffy utca is always busy with drinkers, many heading for the excellent Maszek, part street bar, part restaurant and completely Debrecen in its cult décor. A few steps away is Hal köz, the city’s nightlife hub, where party spot SeVeN and the mini but mighty Mini Bar rub shoulders as revellers gather in the middle of this enclosed square.

Set apart on Simonffy utca, the keg-filled After Presszó is a Debrecen landmark, a rock hangout for the eternally thirsty. Further down Simonffy, in another little square, the wonderful Sheldon’s is taking Debrecen nightlife to the next level, with its range of Czech beers (Bakalář, Dudak), encyclopaedic selection of games and TV football near the busy bar counter. Quality music, too.

If it’s Guinness you’re after, you’ll find it at Play Pub on Szent Anna utca, although it operates more as a hotel bar in a quiet pension.

A couple of tram stops up from the main square towards the stadium, you hit the student bars of Péterfia utca, typified by the late-opening Ibolya Söröző, with its cheap beer and row of back-bar, match-tuned screens keeping the place as lively as any in town.

Another touchstone is the Péterfia Rock Söröző, as Debrecen as it gets, with its mural of guitar heroes centrepieced by a TV showing football action. Also along this stretch, the MOB Söröző is a pleasant place to watch the game, less rowdy than its nearby competitors, with a surprisingly extensive choice of drinks.

Further up, just past Bem tér, the long-established pirate-themed Calico Jack sets up a screen set up on the terrace for matches, while inside a mature crowd tucks into plentiful pub grub and Pilsner Urquell. Vast choice of spirits, too.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and city centre

The Debrecen tourist information office has a hotel database.

Spa hotels surround the stadium. Alongside the main tram junction from town,  the top-notch Divinus is the best hotel in town, expanding its spa centre in 2022, attached to a sauna park. Decent bar and restaurant, too. Slightly closer to the stadium, the Nagyerdö is a standard, three-star with a thermal pool and sauna.

On the other side of the main road, four-star Aquaticum makes great use of its surrounding pools and thermal waters, also open to the general public. The nearby Villa Hotel has a classic Hungarian restaurant attached, and can offer guests dressing gowns and slippers for use at the Aquaticum spa a short walk away.

For a taste of how Debrecen looked before the new stadium and contemporary hotels opened, pop into the Sport Hotel alongside the former ground on Oláh Gábor utca. It’s now a three-star, upgraded from a classic, Socialist-style communal lodging, where doubles are around Ft20,000/€53 a night depending on time of year. Its Viktória restaurant was the classic pre-match spot in the earlier 2000s. 

A short walk away, beside the Főnix Aréna sports hall, the modern Campus Hotel caters to students in term time but makes its singles and doubles open and affordable to all during the long summer break.

Equally affordable lodgings line each side of the tram-lined street towards Nagyerdei Park, Petérfia utca. You’re walking distance from town and within easy reach of the stadium. The Centrum and Petérfia lend a homely, friendly touch, with pleasant gardens, the Korona provides free parking and the sturdy Óbester offers old-school hospitality. The Némethy alongside is also a cosy home-from-home.

On the stadium side of town, just up from the Great Church, the four-star Lycium by the city’s new arts complex underwent a renovation over the winter of 2022-23. Nearby, the mid-range Centrum Hotel is a convenient find. 

Debrecen’s most famous hotel, the Aranybika dating back to 1915, now operates as a training centre for hospitality students. It’s worth a look in as it was built by Alfréd Hajós. Hungary’s first Olympic champion at the inaugural Games of 1896, who also won gold for architecture in Paris in 1924. 

A few buildings down, the Belga bar and restaurant contains a handful of boutique rooms. The other side of the main street, the Play Pub Panzió on Szent Anna utca has guest rooms ranged around a pleasant courtyard, with a terrace restaurant attached. 

For historic charm, you can’t beat the Régi Posta on Széchenyi utca. Its 300 years of hospitality include a visit by the king of Sweden in 1714.

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