LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Siófok

Life’s a beach at Balaton – with football a sideshow

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

The liveliest spot on the shores of Hungary’s holiday getaway of Lake Balaton, Siófok is also the only one of some two dozen waterfront resorts whose football team has competed at the highest domestic level for significant periods of time.

For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, BFC Siófok were a presence, albeit a lowly one, in top-flight NBI. Since then, football at Balaton has been in a strange juxtaposition. While the lake itself is essentially privatised, awash with gleaming marinas and typified by pay-for beaches, its football grounds are as shabby as Siófok’s Revész Géza utcai stadion, a short walk from the train station.

Across the rest of Hungary and beyond into Hungarian-speaking pockets of Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and Croatia, massive funding has financed the construction of some 30 spanking new or completely rebuilt arenas, in destinations as random as Kisvárda, Zalaegerszeg and Szombathely. Not here.

In a way, however, for those who want to get a feel of what the Hungarian football experience was like 30 years ago, Siófok (‘Shee-oh-fok’) offers a handy example. An hour or so from Budapest by regular train, brimming with hotels, bars and restaurants, not to mention the nightlife for which it is famous, Siófok should attract more floating fans than it does.  

Germans, who still flock to Balaton in serious numbers, the lake being the one destination where friends and family from East and West could meet every summer pre-1989, tend to ignore match days, partly because they don’t know they’re going on. The Brits who go to Balaton prefer the genteel wine retreats of the north shore or the DJ festivals further along the south shore at Zamárdi. And Hungarians have long given up on seeing lower-flight football in quaint, retro stadiums because they’re not quaint and retro to them, and they’ve got malls to spend their money on.

Where football is concerned, Siófok had its heyday in the 1980s. In these years before the fall of the Wall, Hungary was relatively free and fun, nowhere more free and fun than Lake Balaton. Back then, the team was called Siófoki Bányász, one of countless miners’ clubs across Eastern Europe, and wore a proletarian red in various combinations, not the sickly yellow of today.

The day after the traditional May Day celebrations in 1984, a bumper crowd of 8,000 gathered at the Revész Géza utcai stadion to witness the giantkilling by second-tier Siófok of Ferencváros 4-2 after extra-time. 

Newspaper reports record interviews with buoyant club members in the dressing room afterwards, none more buoyant than club vice-president János Szigeti, who declared, “Bring on the Cup Winners’ Cup! Then at least they’d speed up the process of building a stadium…”

But even after the ironically nicknamed San Sió had staged another cup triumph over Siófok’s more prominent miners’ club counterparts from Tatabánya, little was done. After the surprise 2-1 defeat of Rába ETO from Győr, Siófok actually lifted the trophy in nearby Székesfehérvár, which would host the subsequent European fixture three months later against AEL Larissa.

Floodlights had been brought in by the time the ground staged a short series of pre-season internationals in the mid-1990s, the Hungarian FA correctly guessing that if the entire city of Budapest ups sticks and heads to Balaton in August – which it does – then why not bring football to holidaying masses? 

However, after Israel, UAE and Malta had been persuaded play Hungary at a ground little changed since 1964, let alone since those prescient comments of 1984, the concept was dropped.

The modest renovations of 2009 arrived just before what would be Siófok’s last campaign in the top flight to date. The club also put together a first cup run since 1984, but this time only 1,000 gathered for the visit of Honvéd in the first leg of the semi-final. The eventual 4-3 aggregate defeat provided little reason for anyone from Siófok to push for a new stadium – although Honvéd’s relegation in 2023 sees the storied Budapest side revisit Lake Balaton for a league fixture in 2023-24.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Budapest Airport is 135km (84 miles) east of Siófok. With hardly any direct trains from nearby Ferihegy station to Balaton, take the 100E Airport Express (Ft2,200/€5.65) from outside Arrivals to Deák Ferenc tér (every 8-15mins, 45min journey time) in town, change onto red metro M2 and head to Déli pályaudvar (single ticket Ft350/€0.90, journey time 6mins) at the end of the line. This is the city’s main train station for Lake Balaton – regular rail services to Siófok (Ft2,000-Ft2,500/€5.10-€6.40) take 1hr 20mins.

Siófok station sits parallel to the stadium a 7-8min walk away – exit left out of the building. The waterfront and strip of bars and restaurants are an equally short stroll at right-angles to the station, just behind it. 

Services by national company Volánbusz run along this main road if you need to get to the other side of Siófok – otherwise, everything’s walkable. Local firm Siófok Taxi (+36 30 209 0000) quote Ft40,000/€100 from Budapest Airport.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Bars line Siófok’s main drag parallel to the waterfront, Petőfi sétány, with the huge Plázs leisure complex and party zone stretching between there and the lake. It’s all pretty commercial – gone are the wild days of Flört and the Palace Dance Club setting the benchmark for nightlife in Hungary.

Prime spot for watching sport on the strip is Yolo (‘You Only Live Once’), although the bar at the Renegade Hotel over the road would also be suitable, and has a pool table inside.

For something more discerning, the evening-only Lógó Üveg by the water tower serves draught Bitburger, Erdinger and Köstritzer beneath dangling bottles, a reference to the name of this cultish drinkery. They also put up a big screen for major football events.

If you’ve just arrived by train, the Lokomotív Bistro is one of the best station bars you’ll find in Hungary, done out like an old train carriage, a rare spot that serves sought-after Italian beer Moretti, albeit in bottled form, as well as Peroni and acclaimed craft beer from Balaton, Hedon. Note also the lovely old Hungarian beer ads. Further round the concourse, Admirál is more a standard Hungarian bar, with pool and table football.

Nearby, at Fő utca 89 in the direction of the stadium, cosy Hörpincs displays its outstanding collection of rare football pennants – Defensor of Uruguay, 1950s’ Honvéd, pre-1989 Siófoki Bányász in red and black – right over the bar, complementing a rack of shirts in the next room. There’s just enough space to stand back and admire this treasure as you sip your wallet-friendly domestic beer.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and city centre

Hello Siófok has a database of the many local lodging options.

Behind the West Stand of the stadium, the seasonal Oleander Garten comprises modest guestrooms upstairs, a shared bathroom and a handy pre-match bar/restaurant at street level. Open June-August only.

Between the stadium and the station, the family-owned Janus spa hotel lays justifiable claim to being Hungary’s first boutique hotel, in a house designed by the nation’s most famous modern architect, Imre Makovecz. Opened in 1993, it’s certainly a cut above for Siófok, tastefully decorated, with an aroma cabin and Cleopatra spa awaiting in the basement.

Along Petőfi sétány tucked in from the waterfront, much of the local hotel stock does little to dispel the illusion that you have walked into the 1980s, best exemplified by the partner Hotels Europa and Hungária, which share a private beach and offer Balaton views from the hundreds of rooms reaching several storeys up. Both open May-September.

The three-star Lidó is in similar vein, again with a private beach, and also open May-September. Next door, the Balaton operates year-round, so handy for the football season, heating the pool between autumn and spring. A recent overhaul means that the 130 rooms have a contemporary feel and are equipped with LED smart TVs.

Nearer the nightlife zone, the Siófok Holiday also looks all the better for a 2020 revamp. Across the street, a cheapie with an outdoor pool, the Beach Hotel also offers free parking. On the same side, the Corso feels wantonly retro – it was only built in 2012. You couldn’t be closer to the bar action, if that’s what you’re after. Close by, the

Renegade comprises 24 mid-range guest rooms, two suites and a communal jacuzzi, along with substantial free parking space. Plus it’s open year-round.

AWAY DAYS