Football: In search of the heart of Europe: Foreign Fields: From Bekescsaba to Bruges, Simon O'Hagan discovers a game rich in diversity

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ABAG of szotyi could last you a long time. Szotyi is a Hungar ian peanut, similar to a pistachio, and it is what you buy when you go to watch Bekescsaba play football, as you might panini porchetta in Milan or braadwurst in Bruges.

In the sunlit avenue just outside the Bekescsaba ground last Tuesday afternoon, a middle-aged woman in a worn grey cardigan was doing a good trade in szotyi, scooping bag- fulls of the stuff out of a shallow crate and selling it to supporters like so much bird seed. It cost 20 forints a go, or about 12p.

It was an occasion that called for a lot of szotyi-chewing, in that there was more for the locals to contemplate than there was to cheer. By the end of the match, the concrete steps beneath the seats in what passes for Bekescaba's main stand were strewn with discarded szotyi shells, crushed underfoot like dreams of European glory. And most people still looked to have enough szotyi left to last them the rest of the season.

Bekescsaba is a small town that lies on the Great Plain of south-eastern Hungary, about 10 miles from the Romanian border. It has wide streets, not much traffic, a huge Lutheran-style church, and willow trees that overhang the river you cross to get to the ground. It is a peaceful place with a canning factory and a printing works and young people deciding whether to escape to the brighter lights of Budapest, two and a half hours away by train.

It is by no means an outpost of Europe, as the continent is somewhat loosely defined by its governing body of football. Of the 112 teams competing in Uefa matches last week, those from Funchal in Madeira and Volgograd in Russia - 3,000 miles apart - would be among a number who could make that claim, not to mention the Israelis of Maccabi Tel Aviv, who in fact come from another continent altogether. Indeed, the map of Europe that Uefa use on their official flags does not even stretch to any of these far-flung places.

But for remoteness and obscurity, Bekescsaba can compete with the best of them, as it were, and a Uefa Cup first round second leg match which they went into trailing 6-1 against the less than high-profile Tekstilchik Kamychine of Russia seemed as good a starting-point as any for a journey to the heart of European football.

The ground having no floodlights, the match kicked off at 2.30, in front of about 1,000 people. While retaining a certain charm, mainly because of the proximity of the trees, Bekescsaba would not rank highly among the great stadiums of the world, having nothing to speak of at either end, a stretch of low open terracing on one side, and a solitary, small covered stand on the other with moulded plastic seats in the same lilac as the team's colours. A GM Vauxhall Conference club would be proud of it.

In the non-atmosphere of a meaningless encounter, everybody seemed determined to do things properly, both teams coming on for the warm-up, then retreating, before making their formal entrance in strict crocodile. The entertainment they served up wasn't at all bad, though for the most part it was watched in a ruminative silence broken only by the chanting of a group of 30 or so away supporters. Eventually, the Hungarians had something to cheer when Bekescsaba scored from a penalty 10 minutes from time to win the match 1-0, giving the Muscovites an aggregate victory by 6-2.

Hungarian football was once among the best in the world. But it has been in decline for so long that you wonder if it will ever recover. A visit to Bekescsaba does not inspire much hope. I asked someone who the most famous Hungarian sportsmen were, and he mentioned a recently retired swimmer, and a canoeist. No footballers.

The Bekescsaba manager, Josef Pazstor, a former Hungarian international, stood on the edge of the pitch after the match and tried to explain what has gone wrong. But his sagging features seemed to tell the story more eloquently. Money, of course, was at the root of it. Post-Communist Hungary - not that it was ever as Communist as the other Iron Curtain countries - is a happier but not much wealthier place. A weak national league - in which Bekescsaba come fourth behind the Budapest trio of Ferencvaros, Honved and Ujpest Dozsa - was limiting players' scope for development.

Some modest sponsorship had come Bekescaba's way from Germany, but as it was their most expensive player cost only pounds 50,000. For bargains they go abroad, and had a Romanian and a Ukrainian in their team to show for their enterprise. But any form of extravagance is out.

For Bekescsaba, cut off even within their own country, constantly reminded of the modesty of their means, the game seemed to be more a matter of pride than glory, which as with any footballing town the world over was a way of reinforcing its own image of itself.

Leaving for the station with the two language students who had interpreted for me, both of them committed Bekescsaba supporters, I mentioned I had heard that the town was famous for its sausages. 'Ah, the 'Csaba sausage,' one of them said, sounding older and wiser than his 19 years. 'A very fine sausage.'

But then his friend turned and said, 'But do you know what Bekescsaba is most famous for? Its football team.'

Here are some of the things the San Siro stadium has that Bekescsaba's doesn't: seating for 83,000; a roof of translucent, vaulted panels; 11 giant cylindrical towers lined with 300-metre long ramps via which the spectators leave the ground. And it's got floodlights.

A trip to see Milan, Italian champions, European champions, one of the greatest club sides ever, is to be reminded that their status derives as much from where they play as who plays for them. In a way, all the more so at a match like Wednesday night's against Salzburg in the Champions' League, when the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, as it is officially called, was only a quarter full. But by Milan standards, this was small Peroni.

An architectural wonder which it seems not sacreligeous at all to compare with Il Duomo - Milan's cathedral - the San Siro is part of the tradition by which power is expressed through buildings. And that power belongs to Silvio Berlusconi, the father of modern Milan whose sphere of influence in Italian life can now no longer be measured.

In the programme for the match was a list of Milan's honours. It started with the 14 Italian League titles they had won. Next came not the Italian Cup, nor any of the European competitions, but something called the Trofei 'Luigi Berlusconi' - a concoction named after the Italian prime minister's father, of which, remarkably, Milan have won all three editions since it was created as long ago as 1992.

While there are aspects of the Milan phenomenon which remain troubling, the sour taste on Wednesday came when the Salzburg goalkeeper, Otto Konrad, was apparently felled by a water bottle thrown from the crowd immediately after Giovanni Stroppa had given Milan a 40th-minute lead. Had Konrad really been struck? Did it really cause him to be substituted half an hour later?

Two sumptious goals by Marco Simone took Milan to a 3-0 victory that went some of the way to putting right their opening defeat in the competition aginst Ajax, but at the post-match press conference the result was overshadowed by the Konrad controversy. Fabio Capello, the Milan coach, sat unmoved in the face of some heated Austrian questioning, however, and it was hard to see beyond the impregnability of the richest club in the world.

Outside, the food-stalls were packing up and the replica shirt dealers were piling their goods back into boxes. Stray Salzburg supporters wandered across the deserted coach park. Behind them stood the citadel of the stadium, as if recently arrived from outer space, its towers like giant shock absorbers. An expression I had come cross in Hungary came to mind. 'The best is the enemy of the good . . .'

Sligo Rovers understand something that Bekescsaba don't - that you've got to have floodlights to get on in Europe.

It was having lights installed and playing matches on Friday nights last season that enabled Gerard Houlihan to turn out for the League of Ireland side and still play Gaelic Football for Armagh at the weekend. And in Bruges on Thursday, Houlihan played his part as Sligo went out of the Cup-Winners' Cup with honour intact, beaten only 3-1 - 5-2 on aggregate - by one of Europe's most consistent teams.

No doubt every one of the 1,000- plus players who took part in European competition last week has his own story to tell, of how he arrived at where he is now and what it means to him to be there. But none, surely, quite as odd as Houlihan's. A 29- year-old sports development officer in Armagh, Houlihan is a strapping centre forward who, surprisingly, finds the twisting and turning demanded by Association football make it a more demanding game for him than the Gaelic version.

So much so that for the rest of the season he is giving up both. 'The problem is it's a two-hour journey from my home to Sligo, on bad roads. My body needs a break.' But it wasn't going to get it until Houlihan, one of four part-timers in the Sligo team, had pitted himself against Bruges in a match which seemed to leave everybody happy.

The Bruges ground feels very British, even more so the terraced streets around it, and there was something familiar about the football as well. When Bruges went ahead, somewhat fortuitously, after only five minutes, a thrashing looked on the cards. But Sligo got one back, courtesy of some slack defending, Bruges became frustrated, and 1-1 in injury time at the end of the first half was beginning to look very interesting. That was when Bruges got a penalty, and from then on it was all Mexican waves and Irish pride.

The drinking gestures that the Sligo players made to their little band of supporters at the end was the sort of thing Uefa probably wouldn't approve of, but said much about the relationship between the people who play and the people who watch. And Sligo so endeared themselves to the home supporters that Belgian voices were chanting their name in approval.

'We can hold our heads high,' said the Sligo manager afterwards. 'I thought we did magnificently.' This is the voice of Lawrie Sanchez, formerly of Wimbledon and Swindon, scorer of the winning goal in the 1988 Cup Final, now cutting his managerial teeth in the north-west of Ireland and enjoying the fact that when he lies on his sofa he's got a view of the Atlantic Ocean, and that he can tell his friends that when they ring him up in the middle of a traffic jam on the M25.

Sanchez won three caps for Northern Ireland, courtesy of an Irish-born mother, but says that the call from Sligo came out of the blue. With Swindon relegated, he was a free agent who knew he wanted to try his hand at managing. It seemed a good opportunity, he said, and you can see him making a go of it. 'We've got some good young players and I think with a bit more organisation we could do well.'

Suddenly Europe doesn't seem such a very big place after all.

(Photographs omitted)