Lost in…Felcsút (Pancho Aréna)

Puskás Akadémia FC v Mezőkövesd Zsóry FC

Pancho Aréna / Nemzeti Bajnokság I / 19th May 2018

“It looks a huge chalet.”

“It looks like a palace.”

“It looks like a cathedral.”

As me and Craig got closer and closer to the Pancho Aréna, in the countryside surrounding Budapest, not once did we say that  it looked like a football stadium. Take away the actual football pitch within the stadium and you could be fooled into thinking its built for something far more grandiose than the more visceral, frantic realms of a football match. It’s thanks to the joys of football that this place exists though and more specifically its thanks to one huge football fan wanting to glorify the sport in Hungary; that fan happens to be the current Hungarian Prime Minister too.

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En route to watching the Puskás Akadémia lads.

Viktor Orbán is a whirlwind of a politician whose influence is ever-increasing beyond his own nation. He’s recently won re-election in Hungary focusing on one policy: immigration – more specifically, thwarting it. The military-esque fence that encloses the south border of Hungary is Orbán’s work. But if there is one thing Orbán loves more than his anti-immigration rhetoric, it is probably football. The man is an obsessive. It is of no coincidence that over the past few years Hungary has splurged all sorts of silly money on redeveloping old stadiums or usually just building new arenas from scratch. MTK Budapest, Debrecen, Mezőkövesd and Ferencváros have all had state-funded new stadiums built recently and there have been many others cropping up too. Undoubtedly though, the most (in)famous new build in Hungary has to be the Pancho Arena – widely touted as one of those ‘must-visit’ stadiums for its palatial feel and its all round weirdness. It is an architectural triumphant, but strangely sits 40km west of Budapest in the most rural of villages. I say ‘strangely’ but there is one chief reason why this stadium sits in such rustic environs: this is where a young Orbán grew up.

Orbán moved to the small village of Felcsút when he was a child and spent a lot of his childhood working the farmland there. The village is a tiny enclave surrounded by field after field after field. The population is currently around 1,600; the new football stadium there holds close to 4,000. Out there in the sticks you will find Viktor Orbán’s residential estate and just metres away, almost in his back garden, you will the Pancho Aréna, glistening like nothing else for miles around. Orbán once played for the local village team as a semi-pro, but the ‘new’ local team we’d be seeing today was a long way from the former, more humble team that used to play in the village, long before the construction of the Pancho Aréna.

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Looking very serious outside the Pancho Aréna.

My trip to the Pancho Aréna had been a long time coming. I had planned to go over a year before, but Craig insisted that I couldn’t go along until he could join me, as he wanted to see Orbán’s footballing palace for himself too. So finally, in the final weeks of the football season in May, we planned a weekend in Budapest to finally visit the Pancho Aréna (as well as celebrate my last weekend in my 20s).

Anyone who has read my blogs before will know that I bloody love Budapest. In fact, it is very possibly my favourite city. Having made a few visits to the Hungarian capital in the past 2 years means I know my way around fairly well. Having left work in Trnava at 3pm on Friday, we arrived into Budapest not long after 7pm. A Friday night out on the town was enjoyed, before we then headed for morning drinks down by the banks of the Danube on the Saturday morning. It was here we would undertake the task of working out how the hell to get to and from  Felcsút.

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Relaxing with a beverage by the Danube.

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Craig’s happy to be there too.

As we headed towards the Danube, I had insisted on returning to the superb Jónás Craft Beer House for some more of their fine ales, but we were to be distracted en route. It was close to midday and the sun was blazing down, so we decided to have our first drinks of the day sitting in the deckchairs in the beer garden of Esetleg Bár, right next to the Danube. The beer may have been the fairly average local Dreher, but the view ahead of us was magnificent. After then visiting Jónás’, we enjoyed the more familiar realms of the streets of Pest, before heading into the unknown of the villages outside this awesome city.

There are several ways to get to the Pancho Aréna via public transport; we had opted for the ‘train followed by local bus’ route. This idea eventually would bring problems, yet everything worked out excellently in the end. Let me explain…

Felcsút currently has no train station (although Orbán is planning to fix that) and so the nearest train station to the stadium is in the small village of Bicske, 7km north-east of Felcsút. Bicske, with its 12,000 population, is almost like a thriving metropolis compared to the diminutive Felcsút. Plan A was to get off the train at Bicske and hop on a local bus to the stadium with the fall back plan, Plan B, being to get off the train at Bicske and walk the hour or so to the stadium.

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Budapest-Déli.

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Train station gyros.

Now in Budapest-Déli station, on the Buda side of the city, and with train ticket in hand, I thought I better get some food in me to fuel me if we needed to undertake the long(ish) walk later. A typical Budapest gyro was purchased and then we were soon undertaking the 35 minute train journey out of the city.

The city soon disappeared behind us and it became apparent very quickly that we were truly heading out into truly bucolic surroundings. There was absolute nothingness, aside from the odd little village or farm here and there. No doubt, it all had a certain beauty to it.

After 35 minutes of farmland, we alighted at Bicske and realised that there was no bus stop to take us to our final destination – our error soon became apparent . Who knew that a small village like Bicske would have two train stations?! We had alighted, wrongly, at the brilliantly named Bicske alsó. Which ‘also’ proved a problem, as by the time we made it to the ‘main’ Bicske station, there were to be no buses to Felcsút. We were walking.

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Craig leads the way through the countryside.

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There was a lot of this…

Many of my colleagues at the moment are obsessed with Fitbits and how many steps they are doing a day. Fair to say, Craig was probably slightly less enamoured with the idea of walking through the countryside, so my motivation came with me repeatedly, and probably irritatingly, encouraging, “Just think of the steps…” Soon, I think we both realised that it wasn’t too bad at all and it was nice walking down the country roads after spending the past 18 hours in the more hectic climes of a capital city.

The one thing that was baffling us along the walk was the fact that there were flat fields for miles and miles, yet we could see no sign of an incongruous football stadium anywhere. Finally, after about half an hour, the road climbed up slightly and when we reached the summit we found ourselves looking down on Felcsút; not that we could see the village really, thanks to the most out-of-place structure you would ever see in your life. Even from atop this hill, the Pancho Aréna looked magnificent.

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Anyone have any idea where this football stadium is?

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Oh, there it is.

Thanks to the stadium now being in our crosshairs and the fact that we were heading downhill, we were picking up the pace now and soon we found ourselves on the cusp of the village, where we saw a bus full of football fans – today’s away fans from Mezőkövesd. We followed their bus down a dusty pathway, only realising later that we had followed a sign that read in Hungarian, ‘Away fans’. Not that it mattered.

First of all, I should say that the area around the stadium is far more than just the Pancho Aréna and the whole setup is still a work in progress. All around the stadium are neat and tidy training pitches, which were being tended to by several groundsmen as we walked past. I would like to think that maybe these were the men of the same families who once tended the farmland around the village and now found their families serving a new trade of ground care.

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Getting closer.

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One of the many training grounds with the new fancy building behind it.

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Towards the entrance.

Next door to the Pancho Aréna and at the hub of the several football pitches is another large, glistening structure…well almost glistening as it still seems to be under construction. Again, it looked out-of-place and the large building is in the same mould and design as the stadium next to it. I may be wrong, but I guessed that this was some sort of football education residency centre, like Hungary’s own St. George’s Park.

Having navigated our way through the various football pitches, we found ourselves outside the Pancho ticket office. A ticket for today’s game would cost the equivalent of about 6-7€. Of course, sorting out a ticket took longer than usual as we had to have our passport details etched onto the tickets since we are of course troublesome foreigners. Whilst our ticket was being sorted, a middle-aged away fan was being pushed away from the stadium entrance by security. He pleaded and pleaded and the issue seemed to be something to do with the two yellow and blue (the club colours of Mezőkövesd) folded up in their plastic bags. Our tickets were sorted and we wouldn’t find out about whether this guy made it into the stadium until we were at our seats.

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Today’s fixture.

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First glimpse into the Pancho Aréna.

So into the Pancho Aréna we went and my word am I going to struggle to explain how incredible this place is. Despite the stadium holding less than 4,000 fans, it still feels remarkably vast. No doubt this is due to the high roof. It is certainly the roof that is the stadium’s distinguishing feature thanks to the wooden, cantilever architecture. This is what gave this place its almost ecclesiastical feel, which was then countered by the modern setup of tbe place. I’ve never been to a stadium that just felt so strange and almost abnormal, yet it all added up to its brilliance. It made me question the usual norms of a football stadium and why so many follow such ‘norms’.

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It’s different.

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Lots of wood in that roof…

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..lots of it.

Sitting there in the stadium though, you do also feel a strange sense of unease, as you consider what is the purpose of this stadium? How was it built? And perhaps more pertinently, why was it built? You can read several articles about the site and there is always a lingering sense of murkiness in them. Which I suppose brings us on nicely to the team we’d be watching…

Maybe some of you by now have wondered why it is called the Pancho Aréna…and, no, it isn’t named after that daft, little Welshman from Swansea who made his name battering his body in the Welsh Jackass-clone, Dirty Sanchez. For those who don’t know, ‘Pancho’ was the nickname given to the legendary Ferenc Puskás during his time at Real Madrid in the 1950s and 60s. The stadium apparently even houses a vast collection of Puskás memorabilia and artefacts, even though it is unlikely that the ‘Galloping Major’ ever stepped foot in the village. It would be  Puskás’ name that would be gracing the name of the home team we would be watching on this Saturday afternoon:  Puskás Akadémia FC.

It’s hard to explain Puskás FC, but essentially they are (or at least were) the youth team of Videoton FC – a club that hail from the city of Székesfehérvár (60km south of Budapest) and who went on to win the Hungarian league this season. In fact, Videoton won the league this season whilst calling the Pancho Aréna their home, as they also have a new stadium project underway back in Szekesfehervar.  Back to Puskás FC, they were formed to produce talent for Videoton, but since their formation in 2007 they seem to have taken on a life of their own and climbed up to the top league themselves. Not that they seem to have any sort of fanbase with the average attendance at the Pancho Aréna this season being just over 1000 (the average was 3100 when Pancho opened back in 2014 and below 1000 last season). Essentially, Pancho Aréna seems to be the glitziest of meeting rooms for Orbán to show off to his high power pals and the oil rich oligarchs. Although as noted in a Guardian article earlier this year, once the football kicks off, Orbán has no time for business and becomes consumed in watching the match. And after getting a beer from the kiosk below the stand, it was time for us to watch a match too.

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The teams come out.

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The away fans (featuring Two Flag Terry in the bottom right corner).

We were in the corner of the ground and directly opposite the away fans, who had brought a decent number from Mezőkövesd; they were loud too. Undoubtedly, the most eye-catching fan though was the gentleman we saw outside the stadium being harangued by security; he was now in full flow, exuberantly waving his two flags proudly. Me and Craig christened him ‘Two Flag Terry’.

There was barely a cheer for the Puskás FC players as their names were read out, whilst every Mezőkövesd was greeted with cheers and flag waving from the corner. As the teams lined up on the pitch, the sky suddenly darkened and the wind swept through the gaps separating the seating from the high wooden roof. It wasn’t long before the rain was hammering down and a gang of tracksuited youth footballers in the lower stand ran for cover next to us. It soon became clear from the badge on their tracksuits that these were of the Racing Genk academy in Belgium (they were participating in, and then eventually winning, the annual  Puskás-Suzuki Cup U17 tournament that was taking place at the stadium that week).

I thought the stormy weather might be an omen for a bad game, but it was indeed a good one. A key factor in this was probably Mezőkövesd’s desperation to win to ensure they’d be in the top flight next season. It showed too as they were undoubtedly the more dogged team in the opening exchanges.

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Match action.

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Match action.

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Match action.

Mezőkövesd had threatened a couple of times and had their deserved opener in the 10th minute. A long freekick was curled into the box and with one great touch, the Mezőkövesd  attacker stopped the ball and then curled it in the bottom corner from 6 yards with his second touch. The Mezőkövesd fans celebrated, whilst Two Flag Terry was now even passing his flags around the away end barrier for a gang of local youths to wave. They duly obliged.

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Two Flag Terry shares out his flags to some local youths.

The half continued with the away team looking more dangerous, but there was something more wondrous to look at than the football on show. The rain had subsided and we had ourselves a double rainbow over this beautiful stadium. Lovely stuff.

Mezőkövesd eventually grabbed their deserved 2nd in the 39th minute. A counter attack led to the ball going out to the edge of the box, where a left-footer was curled into the bottom corner. By now we were midway through a wander of the stadium and found ourselves right behind the goal with a perfect view of this clinical finish.

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Rainbow over Pancho Aréna.

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Match action.

Half-time: Puskás Akadémia FC 0 – 2 Mezőkövesd Zsóry FC.

There wasn’t much in the shape of food available at half-time apart from some salty, pretzel-shaped bread things with bits of cheese on them. Admittedly, they were surprisingly good and also could be used for comedy purposes such as 1) pretending you are wearing Elton John-style oversized glasses and 2) that you were steering a go-kart. Both scenarios were played out whilst we waited for the second half to start. I even spotted one of the Genk coaches adopt the go-kart charade with his giant pretzel much to his pals’ amusement.

Puskás were to play in the Hungarian Cup final in the following week and they would need to play a hell of a lot better than they did in the first half to have a chance of claiming silverware on the following Wednesday. They did indeed step up in the second half on this Saturday afternoon (not that it helped them in this game or the cup final a few days later, which they lost on penalties to Újpest).

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Match action.

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Match action.

The game was fairly balanced and it felt like the next goal would decide the fate of the game. Not that the Genk lads were too bothered, as they spent the remainder of the second half taking selfies and trying to get the attention of the official pitchside home photographer to take photos of them in the stand. Although, as mentioned earlier, they seemingly had nothing to learn from the teams on show in the Hungarian top flight, as they won the youth tournament anyway.

In the 80th minute, Puskás grabbed a goal with an absolute thunderbolt. From over 30 yards out János Hegedűs smashed an absolute rocket past the keeper (who perhaps could have done better as the ball curled so much it went right down the middle of the goal). There would be no last-ditch comeback for the home team though and Mezőkövesd deserved their win.

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Match action.

 

Full-time: Puskás Akadémia FC 1 – 2 Mezőkövesd Zsóry FC.

The final whistle was the cue for people in the away dugout to sprint onto the pitch in jubilation, as Mezőkövesd secured their place in the top flight for next season. We liked their fans – particularly Two Flag Terry -0 so we were happy for them too. We weren’t hanging around though – we took our last looks at the beautiful innards of the Pancho Aréna and headed for the exit. Would we ever be at a stadium like this again? Who knows. We had a train to catch and another walk through the countryside ahead of us.

Luckily, the rain had completely subsided by the time we began our walk back to Bicske and instead we were left with that beautiful post-storm smell (I learned the name for this smell recently and I’m now annoyed that I’ve forgotten it!) Not just that, we were treated to some lovely scenes of the sunsetting over the fields too.

In desperation not to be stranded in Bicske for another couple of hours, we really had walked very quickly back and made it to the main Bicske station in plenty of time. Not that it was a station you’d really want to hang around at for too long if necessary. It felt virtually derelict. Thankfully it wasn’t long until our train was pulling up and we were on our way back to civilisation in the big city.

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Craing enjoying the walk back…

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…and seemingly enjoying his visit to the ‘beautiful’ Bicske station too.

 

As mentioned earlier, there is something that feels wrong about the Pancho Aréna, but ultimately it is a tremendous football stadium – largely thanks to it being like nothing I’ve ever been to before. Slightly more unnerving for me is the fact that I find myself saying that Orban’s creation is probably one of the best stadiums I’ve ever been to. If you are in the Budapest (then lucky one) I’d recommend heading out there for a game.

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Thumbs up for Pancho.

Highlights: Budapest (again), what a stadium, relatively cheap, decent game.

Low Points: difficult to get to by public transport, makes you think ‘is this stadium necessary?’

See all my photos from Budapest and the Pancho Aréna here.

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