How Ferencváros are inspiring older people in Hungary to get out and play
After exploring the success of Walking Football Club of the Year Soca Seniors in the UK, Jonathan Bennett takes a look at how the game is developing in Europe with a trip to the training ground of Budapest club Ferencváros, known to all as ‘Fradi’.
The FTC-MVM Sports Centre is situated in Népliget, the People’s Park just down the road from the Groupama Arena, and has been home to the Ferencváros Walking Football Team since 2020. The initiative is part of the club’s commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility, and is backed at the very top by club president Gábor Kubatov.
Indeed, there are a number of schemes in place at Ferencváros with the express purpose of supporting the local area, promoting a healthy lifestyle and reinforcing the community of Fradi supporters.
It is the first session of the spring season, and as everyone gathers by the dugouts and begins stretching, Péter Keresztes, international project manager at Ferencváros, receives a surprise birthday cake, along with one of the players. Péter talks to the participants about upcoming fixtures and tournaments, before the coaches set up a few warm-up drills.
In the meantime, project founder Bálint Máté arrives. As the 18 players divide into four teams and begun a round of three matches, Bálint suggests heading over to the bleachers on the opposite side to watch the action.
This is the slower, more senior group, with another younger crowd playing on Tuesday evenings. Nevertheless, the players are committed, talkative, determined. On more than one occasion, we hear coach-turned-referee shouting out “Séta, séta!” (‘Walk, walk!’) to an over-enthusiastic player. One striker in particular catches the eye; a woman with sharp toes and a deadly finish. More of her later.
Bálint explains how the club got started: “We first found out about the sport in 2015. We joined the European Football for Development Network (EFDN) and saw presentations about European Legends, EFDN’s first walking football project”.
Though Ferencváros were too late to join, they later began working with Lazio and Levski Sofia on a smaller initiative supported by Erasmus+. Soon, Fradi had their first team organised, featuring ten to 15 people, all aged 65 and over.
“Later, we were able to join the European Walking Football League (EWFL),” Máté explains. “The project is split into four delivery phases. You are meant to find 24 new players each time, but this is only the third phase and we already have 110 players, with more on the waiting list, so it’s been a huge success. It’s a great place to make friends, and I think it’s really beneficial for your mental and physical health.”
“There are lots of clubs involved: Real Betis, Leverkusen, Rangers, Newcastle, Benfica and others, and we’ve organised a few tournaments. The hardest thing is agreeing on the rules. The biggest debate is whether to have a goalkeeper or not. In Hungary, for example, we don’t have one, but in the UK they do. It feels a bit like a religious war at times!”
While Soca Seniors was built from scratch by its players, it is clear that the Ferencváros team is more of a top-down operation, boosted by state and EU funding. Yet there are also some encouraging organic offshoots. The Fradi players have been gathering during the off-season to practise on their own, while several other walking teams have sprung up around Hungary.
“A Scottish guy living in Debrecen heard about us and decided to set up a team,” explains Bálint. “There are new clubs in Hortobágy and Tatabánya, and the Hungarian Leisure Sport Association has expressed an interest. We have also spoken other professional clubs in Hungary, like Honvéd, MTK and Újpest, but they’re not quite open to the idea yet. I think some of them think it’s the same as the Old Boys and Masters leagues, which feature ex-pros, but the emphasis here is different.”
“With walking football, it’s all about having fun. We want to give people who have given up on doing sport the chance to play again, even if their mobility isn’t what it once was. Amateur clubs seem more attuned to this idea.”
When the games come to an end, Péter introduces us to Katica Matica, the goalscorer mentioned above, who explains how she came to join the team: “I used to play for Ferencváros Ladies, then worked here as a coach. Unfortunately, as a full-time employee I wasn’t allowed to join in the walking football, but as soon as I retired I applied to play”.
“I never miss a session. Even when I had a muscle strain, I still came to help out at training. The community is amazing and we meet up all the time. We go to women’s football games, hockey and water polo together as supporters, and we also go out for drinks or food together during the week – we’re a giant group of friends.”
“With nine women players in the ranks, there is talk of setting up an all-female game soon. Katica, however, is not so sure. “I hope we won’t have a women’s team, I prefer it if it’s mixed – it’s more exciting, more diverse. I’d like us to start a league soon, too.”
Katica also relishes the opportunity for European adventures: “For the recent Fradi-Leverkusen Europe League tie, we sent over a walking football team to play a group of German supporters before the match. I also played in the first big EWFL tournament, in Breda. That was fantastic, with lots of different teams and countries involved”.
Katica’s enthusiasm is infectious, and there is a glint in her eye as she suggests her one remaining wish: a competitive walking football derby against supporters from Újpest, Fradi’s fiercest rivals. The gauntlet has been laid.
The third edition of the Walking Football League Tournament will be held in Newcastle from May 30-June 1. For more information, click here. To read about the Ferencváros walking football team, check out the club’s excellent English-language website.