The life, death and resurrection of Budapesti Atlétikai Klub, the Hungarian team reborn after 70 years … with a story to tell

The life, death and resurrection of Budapesti Atlétikai Klub, the Hungarian team reborn after 70 years … with a story to tell

On the opening day of the 2018/19 season, there was a new, yet faintly familiar, name on the fixture list for the BLSZ III, the sixth tier of the Hungarian league. Budapesti Atlétikai Klub, or BAK, had been missing from competitive football for more than 70 years, since the club folded in 1947, just as the communist era was beginning in Hungary.

For two decades before that, BAK (pronounced ‘bock’) had been struggling financially, doing everything they could to keep their heads above water. Once cup finalists, they had fallen out of the top division in the early 1920s and never truly recovered, despite desperate mergers with other struggling clubs. Eventually, two years after the end of the Second World War, their plight overcame them. BAK finally gave up the ghost. 

It was a sad way for it all to end – with a whimper – a far cry from their early 20th-century heydey when the blue-and-blacks had threatened to compete with the big boys. 

Established in 1900 by disillusioned members of MTK Budapest who were fed up of waiting for their renowned sports club to form a football team, BAK were founder members of the Hungarian Football League, entering the second division of the two-tier system that began in 1901.

Initially, there were five clubs in the top-flight – the elite – and eight more in the league below – the pretenders. BAK were among the pretenders for the first few seasons and had to endure the sight of MTK – the club from which their founders had broken three years earlier – gain immediate entry to the top flight upon deciding to start a football team in 1903. It must have bruised the egos of the dissidents in black and blue, but they kept improving and, in 1905, BAK won all 16 of their league games to achieve promotion. 

Now established as a serious club, they spent the next 15 years in the top flight, peaking in the early 1910s when they finished third in the league and reached the Hungarian Cup final in 1912 and 1913 respectively.

In those days they could count two of the best-known footballers in Central Europe among their number. The first was the versatile Jenő Károly, a Hungarian international who could play as a centre-half or a centre-forward, spending nine years at BAK. Károly had earned fame when he scored 11 times in one game while playing for MTK, which unsurprisingly remains a Hungarian record. After he hung up his boots, he moved to Italy where he became the first manager of Juventus, tragically dying of a heart attack just days before his team won their second Scudetto in 1926. 

Károly’s performances helped steer BAK to their highest-ever finish in 1912, and that third-place ranking may have been the bait needed to tempt another national team star, Alfréd Schaffer, to the club that summer. 

Schaffer was the country’s most prolific goalscorer and is remembered to this day as one of the best strikers in the history of Hungarian football. He scored 17 goals in 15 appearances for Hungary and was twice the top scorer in European club football at the peak of his powers in the late 1910s – but on his way to the top, he played for BAK. He even scored their only cup final goal, although it wasn’t enough to prevent them from losing 2-1 to favourites Ferencváros in the 1913 showpiece.

In the end, BAK proved unable to take the next step up the ladder and the nearly men of 1912 and 1913 turned out to be their greatest team. It was all downhill from there. Relegated in 1921, they never returned to the top flight and died a slow death – one of the victims of the professionalisation of the sport, as the wealthy clubs left the others behind. BAK were eventually dissolved in 1947, destined to become just another failed football club on the scrapheap of history.

The story might have ended ther, were it not for a chance occurrence 70 years later, after everyone involved with the original club had almost certainly passed away. In 2017, Bertalan Molnar, a marketing director and football history enthusiast from the Zugló district where BAK had once played, stumbled across their story and felt the hand of destiny on his shoulder. “I was always interested in the history of Hungarian football and found the story of the club in a Hungarian online football almanac,” said Molnar. “The club operated in the downtown of Budapest, where I live.”

His interest piqued, Molnar did a quick search for more information about the club and discovered a biography of another famous former BAK player, Ernő Egri Erbstein, who had gone on to become one of the most influential figures in the development of modern football. 

Now, at this point, the writer of this piece becomes entangled in the story and must emerge from between the lines, as it was my book that Molnar stumbled across that fateful day. Like Molnar, I had initially chanced upon a passing mention of Egri Erbstein, in my case while reading Calcio, John Foot’s extensive history of Italian football, in 2008. The brief outline of his life contained within that book was enough to inspire me to tell the full story, and over the next six years, I pieced it all together.

Egri Erbstein was a fairly unremarkable player, but he had a mind for football like few others and he became one of the greatest coaches of his generation – a pioneering tactician and supreme man-manager who introduced revolutionary systems of play and coaching techniques that changed the game forever. 

Read  |  Erbstein, Grande Torino and the Superga Air Disaster

A Hungarian of Jewish origin, he achieved fame in Italy in the 1930s when he took little-known Lucchese from the regional leagues to seventh place in Serie A in the space of four years. However, he was forced to flee Fascist Italy in 1938 when Benito Mussolini passed the Manifesto of Race, which effectively prohibited foreign Jews from living and working there. 

He and his family eventually returned to Budapest, where they miraculously survived the Hungarian Holocaust in 1944 through a mixture of ingenuity, resourcefulness and sheer good fortune. Yet Egri Erbstein never lost his passion for football, and he returned to the country that had once spurned him after the war to manage the greatest club side in Italian football history, Il Grande Torino. 

His Torino team were not just popular with their own fans, they became a symbol of hope for post-war Italy, where good news was in short supply. They played a thrilling brand of football that brought the crowds through the turnstiles and they captured the hearts of people up and down the peninsula. Spurred on by their incomparable inside-left and captain Valentino Mazzola, Torino won the league championship five years in a row, scoring a record 125 goals in one campaign. But on the verge of confirming that fifth successive title, the team was lost in a tragedy that shook the whole of Italy. 

On 4 May 1949, the plane carrying the Torino squad home from a friendly against Benfica in Lisbon crashed into the embankment wall of the basilica at the top of the Superga hill overlooking the city of Turin. All 31 people on board were killed, including 18 members of the squad and their coaching staff, among them Egri Erbstein, the architect of that great team. 

Upon reading this story, Molnar was struck by the fact that Erbstein had spent the bulk of his playing career at what would have been his local team, BAK. Indeed, he had first pulled on the blue and black-striped shirt during what must have felt like the longest and hottest of summers. In 1916, at the age of 18, Erbstein earned his school-leaving certificate, made his first-team debut in the Hungarian football league and then signed up to serve as an officer for the fading Habsburg Empire in the First World War.

When he returned from the front as a war hero, he pulled on the blue and black stripes in more troubled times for the club, enduring their spiralling fall from Hungary’s top tier into the anonymity of the second division. In 1923, he decided to seek a new challenge, tempted by the wealth of opportunities on offer in Italian football, but he had cut his teeth at BAK, and that fact stuck with Molnar long after he put the book down.

“The story of Erbstein was breath-taking,” he told me, “and I decided the best way to pay respect to his legacy was to establish BAK again. Together with my friends, we recreated the club and we decided that we wanted to do it differently. We wanted to show how you can run an amateur club with a professional approach.”

Read  |  Corinthian Football Club: the legendary 19th-century globetrotters

Molnar and his friends went through the official channels to gain permission to use the name, identity and history of Budapesti Atlétikai Klub, and then they found a ready-made team, with a place in the league, to adopt. 

Respect was a club founded by a group of talented footballers in the amateur leagues in Budapest – among their number were sports journalists, actors and community football coaches. They played in the heart of Budapest, in front of a handful of spectators, on a 3G artificial pitch, but they earned promotion from the seventh and lowest level of the Hungarian league system in 2017/18. Soon after, they were approached by Molnar, who offered them the opportunity to become BAK. 

The Respect players – several of them football writers with a keen interest in the history of the game – jumped at the chance. They happily changed their team colours to the traditional blue and black stripes of BAK and created a new club crest, featuring a pretty serious looking ram, owing to the fact that ‘bak’ is also the Hungarian word for a male sheep. Budapesti Atlétikai Klub were officially back in the football pyramid again, 71 years since their last competitive game, and the new management team had big plans.

They immediately set up a Blind Football team, only the second in Hungary, and then put plans in place for a youth system rooted in the local community. Molnar contacted me to explain the renascent club’s next objective, and it was a big one: an international tournament in memory of Egri Erbstein to mark the 70th anniversary of the Superga air disaster.

He had a task for me: find a suitable club to compete in this tournament, one that shared BAK’s outlook, perhaps a historic club with an air of faded glory, who could form lasting ties and, most importantly, would be able to make it to Budapest for a weekend in June 2019. As luck would have it, there was a club fitting that description just down the road from my home. 

Corinthian-Casuals currently play in the Bostik Premier Division, the seventh tier of English football, but over a century ago, they made a lasting impact on the development of the game in Hungary 

In 1904, the Corinthians – one of two amateur clubs that eventually merged to form Corinthian-Casuals – made Budapest the first stop on their maiden tour of Europe, and they made quite an impression, defeating three local sides by an aggregate score of 27-0. At the time, the London side were probably the best team in England; they had beaten FA Cup holders Bury 10-3 in the Sheriff of London Shield (a forerunner of the Community Shield that pitted the top amateur side in the country against the best professionals), and their visit to Europe was big news.

Read  |  When Corinthians Paulista met Corinthian-Casuals in one of football’s great relationships

The Corinthians helped to boost the growth of the game in every country they visited, and they did so by inspiring passion for the sport with their dominant displays of technical, attacking football, based on a passing game. Despite the ease with which they won their exhibition matches in Hungary, they were so taken by the enthusiasm of their opponents that they decided to present them with a lasting gift. 

When they returned to London, the players had a solid silver trophy minted for the amateur teams of Hungary, which they asked their friends at Casuals FC to hand over during their own visit to Budapest the following year. We often refer to English insularity when it comes to football, but both the Corinthians and the Casuals were desperate to see their sport become the world’s game – it was their mission. They must have been delighted as the Corinthian Cup became a regular part of the Hungarian football calendar in the years that followed. 

If Molnar and his friends needed further proof that this was a match made in heaven for their club, they found it in the history books, where it was revealed to them that the first fixture in the inaugural Corinthian Cup, in 1906, was contested by Ferencváros … and BAK.

The symmetry was almost too perfect. I informed officials at Corinthian-Casuals and they were delighted at the prospect of a return to Hungary. For them, it represented an opportunity to reconnect with their glorious past, just as they had done when visiting Brazil to play their ‘brothers in football’, Corinthians Paulista, in 2015.  

In November 2018, I accompanied Corinthian-Casuals’ community and public affairs director, John Forrest, to Budapest for a meeting with the BAK management. Over dinner in a restaurant in the heart of Zugló, he and Molnar struck up an immediate friendship and began to make plans for the English club’s participation in the new tournament.

In the weeks to come, the English club’s fans and members raised more than £12,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to pay for their team to travel to Hungary. Almost 113 years after BAK had played in the first Corinthian Cup tie, the club that gave the trophy its name was returning to Budapest. In a nod to the cyclical nature of the story, the south London club’s directors decided that they would bring a new Corinthian Cup with them, to be presented to the winners of the tournament. 

It represented everything Molnar had hoped for – a brand new competition that reflected fondly on a glorious shared past and looked hopefully to the future. Two more historic amateur clubs from Budapest, Testvériség SE and BEAC, have also signed up for the tournament, and a date has been set. The inaugural Egri Erbstein Tournament will take place on the weekend of June 15-16 at the Szőnyi úti Stadion in Zugló, the district that the original BAK once called home. It seems a fitting place for the club to celebrate its resurrection.

By Dominic Bliss @theinsidelefty

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