Saving Hungarian village football

How a unique travelogue turned into a mission

An exhibition and literary event in Budapest show the roots of the rural game in Hungary

Walk around the dark-wood gallery of the Hadik, one of Budapest’s most revered literary cafés, and a colourful world opens up of hidden pitches, raggedy goal nets and beer-bellied bruisers in bright red football shirts.

Welcome to the world of Hungarian village football, captured by one intrepid reporter, Péter Csillag, and a pool of top sports photographers in a project called Hátsó füves or ‘Backyard Goals’.

It’s a window into a hidden Hungary few foreign residents, and certainly no tourists, ever see. “We try to capture real village life,” explains Csillag, staff writer at Hungary’s revered daily Nemzeti Sport. “Football is the perfect way to engage with the local community.”

As well a gorgeous, English-friendly photo album, this grassroots initiative has given rise to a series of photo exhibitions around Hungary. Currently, until mid-January, it can be seen upstairs at the historic Hadik, which anchors a stretch of trendy cafés on Bartók Béla út behind the Gellért Hotel. This Sunday afternoon, December 10, a Hungarian literary salon unfolds around the display, piano player and all.

Zalaszentjakab/Miklós Szabó (Hátsó füves, Nemzeti Sport)

The venture, which began in blazing Hungarian summers during the fallow years between major football finals, has also inspired two further offshoots to these rural wanderings. First, there is the Hátsó füves Football Rescue Tour, born out of the original exhibition at the Ferenc Kazinczy Museum in Sátoralaújhely, a small town by the Slovak border.

Zempléni Főnix, the Phoenix of Zemplén, set out in 2022 to revive eight defunct village football teams amid this landscape of rolling hills and lazy rivers.

As Csillag puts it, “Since the year 2000, the number of senior men’s teams around Hungary has decreased by a quarter due to the decline of traditional village football life”.

This trend is not restricted to Hungary, of course – in fact, it’s tied in with the growing exodus of young people to cities and Europe’s ageing population. In whole swathes of Spain and Italy, smaller communities are dying out, encouraging some councils to sell empty properties for buttons.

Recsk/Hédi Tumbász (Hátsó füves, Nemzeti Sport)

While Csillag is not naïve enough to think he can even begin to reverse this tendency, he, more than anyone, is familiar with the fact that almost every Hungarian village still has “a church, a pub and a football pitch”.

“In order to stimulate conversation around the background and explanation of this process,” he writes, referring to rural depopulation, “a regional movement was started to preserve the dormant football communities in the area, and to preserve the identity-strengthening and cohesive values inherent in football, based on the Hátsó füves exhibition in Sátoraljaújhely.

“Zempléni Főnix spread its wings to bring life to the football pitches of the wonderful Zemplén countryside. Their opponents are teams that no longer exist on paper, village ensembles which, considering their traditions, rich history, and the thousands of experiences associated with them, are very much alive in the memories of the locals. The football community gathers again for one match, and the atmosphere of old football celebrations is brought back to life.”

Kálló/Zsolt Reviczky (Hátsó füves, Nemzeti Sport)

“In Hercegkút, Bodrogolaszi, Tolcsva, Makkoshotyka, Hollóháza, Füzér, Mikóháza and Olaszliszka,” – dots on the map many Hungarians could not locate – “we had the opportunity to discover the stunning beauty of the Zemplén landscape, the fairy-tale football pitches of hidden villages, and live out an authentic football experience. The series ended that July, with a festive closing event in Sátoraljaújhely, and with the hope and promise of continuation”.

This year, not only did this rescue project reach far more communities, but major names in Hungarian football became involved, as patrons and as participants, with no thought of financial reward. These have included former Honvéd and Hungary star István Pisont, Zoltán Gera of Fulham and WBA fame, and notable former national managers János Csank, Imre Gellei and Sándor Egervári. Here, at least the love of the game has not been tarnished.

As regions in southern Hungary such as Zala and Baranya were marking out the long faint touchlines and putting up the goal nets, UEFA was bestowing Hátsó füves with its silver award in the grassroots initiatives category.

Alsószölnök/Miklós Szabó (Hátsó füves, Nemzeti Sport)

The other aspect of Csillag’s dive into the deeper layers of the Hungarian game is Unknown Football History, where he picks up on an unusual event from yesteryear and interviews the protagonists. 

These invariably involve the pre-1989 goings-on behind the Iron Curtain, such as a notoriously fixed match in Pécs, but also straddle the grey area between Socialism and the embrace of the West.

“Change of régime with a sewing needle” uses archive photos to show how just before an international with West Germany in 1990, players in the Hungarian national women’s team literally had to unpick the old Communist-era badge off their shirts and sew on new ones without the hammer and sickle. Presumably the men’s team might have struggled with their backstitches and zigzags…

Péter Csillag at the Hátsó füves exhibition/Peterjon Cresswell

The images that most stick in the mind, however, remain the recent rural ones currently on view at the Hadik café, the heart of the whole Hátsó füves project. Many were taken by István ‘Pista’ Mirkó, the award-winning photographer who has accompanied Csillag on two wheels and four since 2015.

“Everyone will be there on a match day,” he says, “the local priest, postman and grocer, players’ parents, wives and girlfriends, gathered around the touchline for 90 minutes.”

“I would take in the surroundings, the church steeple, the row of hills, the woods. We would spend several days on-site, getting to know the villagers and listening to their stories. Afterwards, there might be a big cauldron of post-match goulash. Everything is very communal.”

 An afternoon of freedom, a roar of freedom” – Football & Literature Before the Turn of the Century at the Hadik café (1111 Budapest, Bartók Béla út 36), from 3pm, Sunday December 10; Hátsó füves Facebook page.