LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Puskás Aréna

New stadium echoes golden era and ushers in a new one

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

The Puskás Aréna is the second iteration of Hungary’s national stadium.

The first and most iconic, the Népstadion (‘People’s Stadium’) not only hosted the great stars of the early 1950s, they helped build it – motivational photos show Puskás and co lugging wheelbarrows full of bricks with hundreds of other volunteers. The stadium opened on Hungary’s national day, August 20, in 1953, with an exhibition game between Honvéd and Moscow Spartak. Nine months later, many of the same Hungarian players trounced England here, 7-1.

Fast forward nearly 70 years and Hungary’s national team again filled the national arena for a major occasion, this time the first international football tournament to be held in Budapest. Postponed for a year, Euro 2020 saw four matches played at the new-build Puskás Aréna, opened shortly before the pandemic with a curtain-raising fixture against Uruguay in November 2019.

A year later, the stadium empty, the golden boy of Hungarian football, Dominik Szoboszlai, scampered through a scattering Iceland defence to cannon a fierce long-range shot off the post and into the net to send Hungary to the Euro 2020 finals the country had spent so many years trying to co-host. In the desperate last seconds of a qualifying play-off, his timing was impeccable – a minute later, the final whistle blew.

Although the Magyars had to wait more than 18 months to welcome European champions Portugal and world champions France in June 2021, a boisterous crowd limited to 56,000 hitting the roof when Attila Fiola gave the hosts the lead against the French, the Puskás Aréna had not been idle.

Pleasing UEFA by successfully staging the Super Cup between Bayern Munich and Seville, and European games involving Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City during the pandemic, Budapest was rewarded with hosting of the Europa League final in 2023. 

With a national arena of 67,000 capacity in the centre of town, a short walk from the city’s main train station and alongside its own metro station, in a capital brimming with excellent hotels, not to mention being home to a national team placed in Pot 1 for the Euro 2024 qualifying draw, Hungary should be able to look forward to welcoming top football teams for many years to come. Heritage, of course, is another factor.

Built by the people for the people (nép), the former Népstadion was named after Hungary’s most famous footballing son in 2002. It was Puskás who strode out onto its turf for its first major international in 1954, Hungary’s 7-1 demolition of England.

He and his team had been part of the volunteers who had helped build it from 1948 onwards. Its official opening was on August 20, 1953, Hungary’s national day, three months before its national side went to Wembley for the famous 6-3 win, again over England. 

When the Magic Magyars first set out on their unbeaten run, the nearby national Millenáris Stadium, built for the 1896 Hungarian Millennial celebrations, had long been surpassed by various club grounds as their main venue. Either side of World War I and II, the original Ferencváros stadium of Üllői út mainly did the honours, occasionally Hungária körút, where MTK played. 

Planned in the 1930s, shelved by the war, the open bowl of the Népstadion was still on the drawing board when Hungary beat Austria 2-0 at Üllői út in August 1945. Much of Budapest lay in rubble. So keen were players and spectators to enjoy normality that the two old rivals played the very next day, the national holiday of August 20. The line-ups were almost the same with one stellar exception: that was when Ferenc Puskás made his national debut, scoring after 12 minutes.

As the Magic Magyars were beginning to thump teams by five goals or more, it was usually at Újpest’s ground of Megyeri út. By the time Puskás and his men joined their fellow volunteers to carry bricks around this large patch of ground in east Pest, just inside the third of three concentric ring roads that serve as major arteries through the city, the players were already folk heroes.

Ten days before the Match of the Century at Wembley in November 1953, Hungary warmed up with a somewhat shaky 2-2 draw at home to Sweden, the crowd of 80,000 at the newly opened Népstadion heading home afterwards with serious doubts about the upcoming marquee fixture in London. Crafty Hungarian manager Gusztáv Sebes had the Sweden game played using heavier football imported from England to acclimatise his men to conditions over the Channel.

Perhaps the most vital preparation came shortly before the big day, with Sebes pulled a few strings with his old mates at the Renault car factory at Boulogne-Billancourt, just outside western Paris, for the works XI to take on the then Olympic champions of Hungary. It would prove to be a worthwhile detour.

Happy for the run-out after days of kicking about rain-sodden footballs with trepidation, Puskás and the boys notched up an 18-0 win without even breaking sweat, and the next day checked into the Cumberland Hotel by Hyde Park in London full of beans. The rest is history.

The Népstadion was not only the national arena for football and athletics, and concert stage for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson, but a venue for domestic league fixtures too. In the late 1960s and 1970s, double-headers filled the then 70,000-capacity ground.

With the national side currently enjoying a resurgence and Hungarian clubs now regulars in the group stages of European competition, there was talk of reviving the concept for the 2022-23 season but the Puskás Aréna is not a cheap date.

Three failed bids to co-host the Euros had done little to release funds for a new national stadium until the government gave the green light in 2013. Around the time of Hungary’s last game at the old Puskás Ferenc Stadion, a sad 2-0 pyrrhic victory over Andorra before 5,000 long-suffering spectators, a budget for the new arena was announced. The stadium would cost 60-80 billion Hungarian forints, 90 billion including the surrounding area and car park. A ring would be built between the new and old stadia, with space for halls for boxing, ice hockey and training facilities.

The original walls would remain in place and, as it turned out, the statue park created from the Socialist-Realist figures, sporting, military and industrial, erected in the Puskás era.

The old stadium was demolished in 2016, and the new 67,000-capacity Puskás Aréna built between 2017-19. Architect György Skardelli managed to echo as much of the original stadium as possible, a steel mesh replicating its monolithic exterior. Three tiers of seats ring the pitch in intimate fashion, each of around 20-25 rows for excellent sightlines and aesthetic uniformity.

The basic cost? 190 billion Hungarian forints, at the time €500 million-plus, now closer to €600 million. But for that, Hungary has made its way back onto the international stage, where it last stood in the early 1950s. And, as the advert goes, the payment for that is priceless – although many in Hungary grumble about the vast sums spent on sporting arenas when the country’s health system requires far greater investment.

Much of this was forgotten, of course, when unlikely hero Attila Fiola broke through against France at Euro 2020, hitting an opener on the stroke of half-time and sending the Puskás Aréna doolally, all but turning over a reporter’s pitchside desk as he lost himself in celebration. The goal, after all, had been a long time coming.

getting there

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

Puskás Ferenc Stadion is still the name of the stop for the stadium on the red M2 metro line, one up from main Keleti station, four from the central hub of Deák Ferenc tér. 

The stadium also has a stop of the same name on frequent tram 1 that also calls at Ferencváros (Népliget) and MTK (Hidegkuti Nándor Stadion).

From Keleti station, it’s a 8-10min walk, either up Thököly út and veer right or along Kerepesi út and veer left.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

For major international fixtures involving Hungary, matches sell out fast. There is only one online resource, at the MLSZ-affiliated meccsjegy, which has an outlet at INTERTICKET (1139 Budapest, Váci út 99, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, 3 days before match 9am-6pm, match day from 9am), near Forgách utca metro station on the blue M3 line. This has its own online outlet at jegy.hu.

You can contact the office by email at mlsz@interticket.hu or use the chat function at meccsjegy.

You can also try local ticket distributors Eventim, who can be contacted at info@tex.hu.

For games less in demand, such as the Hungarian Cup final and national games against lesser opposition, tickets should be available at the windows on the Dózsa György út side of the stadium, near the Papp László Budapest Sportaréna.

For a typical international, there are four price categories: Ft20,000/€46 for the best seats over the halfway line on either side, Ft15,000/€35 for seats either side, Ft10,000/€23 for those around the corners and Ft5,000//€12 behind the goals.

sport Museum

Explore the game inside and out

The temporary exhibition From the Pékerdő to the Puskás Aréna showing at the Hungarian Olympic & Sport Museum (Fri 10am-2pm, Sat noon-4pm) tells the story of Hungarian football from the first match on November 1, 1896 – at Pékerdő, by today’s MTK stadium – to the present day.

Even if the exhibition has finished, another sport-related one should be showing. You can find the museum at the corner of Kerepesi út and Hungária körút, between one of the metro exits and the Papp László Budapest Sportaréna.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for away fans and casual visitors

If you’re walking up from Keleti, then the Stadion Söröző is a popular pre-match spot at the junction of Thököly and Dózsa György út. Note the classic images of Hungary-England games from the 1950s.

On the other, Hungária körút side of the arena, the Félidő (‘Half-Time’) Söröző at the corner of Kerepesi út attracts regulars with its affordable Hungarian beers. It also has seats outside. 

Round the corner on Hungária körút, alongside the tram stop for the number 1, the Stefano Pizzeria is far more than just a cheap restaurant where Hungarians can commit all kinds of culinary crimes on pizza (ketchup?! sweetcorn?!?), but a lived-in bar covered in retro football pennants from across the former Eastern bloc. Or, at least, it was, until someone had the bright idea to modernise. Now its fate hangs in the balance.

Further round, where Hungária körút meets leafy, residential Stefánia út, the Ypsilon (‘Y’)  is a smart café-restaurant-club with a lovely terrace and Bitburger beer on the drinks menu. 

Further down Stefánia at No.29, another terrace awaits at the timeless Tücsök sörkert, with an interior of vintage Hungarian beer posters. Although a longer walk to the stadium, its homely, local atmosphere merits a visit – this is authentic Hungary, best celebrated with a reasonable selection of wine and the clear, flavoured spirit, pálinka.

If you just need a quiet drink and working WiFi, then the bar at the Danubius Hotel Arena should suffice, sport action shown on TV.

Within the arena complex at the neighbouring BOK events centre, Bistrodium, the former Planet Sport, serves workers on weekdays lunchtimes but may open on match days. If so, its first-floor terrace overlooking the sculpture park and stadium should come into its own. If you’re visiting the stadium by day, then you can also find a drink at the Rampart Büfé, by the playground on the Stefánia út side of the arena.

The kiosks inside the stadium are cash-free but happy to dispense half-litres of Heineken – there’s a deposit on glasses (repohár) that you need to take back.

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