Although a 5–1 drubbing at the Camp Nou was hardly the start they expected, Ferencváros have returned to the European elite of the Champions League group stage after a quarter of a century in the wilderness. One of the grand old names of Hungarian football, famous for propelling Flórián Albert to greatness in the 1960s, Ferencváros are also well-remembered on the other side of the Atlantic after their iconic South American tour of 1929.
After the First World War, it wasn’t unusual for European clubs to spend the off-season touring the footballing hotbeds of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. However, as a decade passed there was resistance, especially in Argentina, about the utility of these European visitors in terms of teaching anything new and entertaining the South American sporting public.
British tourists such as Third Lanark, Motherwell and Chelsea were particularly singled out for criticism, whilst Spanish clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Español also disappointed.
In 1924, La Argentina derided the visiting Plymouth side as “showing nothing new in relation to previous visits”, before considering the Devon team as “the poorest professional team that has visited us”. A similar conclusion was reached by River Plate Magazine five years later when Chelsea visited, arguing, “Argentine football has achieved its maximum efficiency, to compare it with that played by the European professionals to assimilate their techniques and methods is absurd.”
The 14-game visit of Ferencváros later that year proved paradigm-shifting, offering a genuine opportunity for the transnational exchange of footballing ideas between the Río de la Plata and Danubian regions.
The Budapest side, managed by István Tóth, arrived in South America with outstanding credentials, finishing runners-up in the 1929 Hungarian championship, having won the league for the previous three seasons, and destroying Rapid Vienna 7-1 on their way to winning the 1928 Mitropa Cup. They were replete with Hungarian internationals such as József Takács, Gabór Obitz and Martón Bukovi and were worthy exponents of the Danubian school of football.
Their first port of call after arriving on board the Julius Caesar was São Paulo, where a local select XI was beaten 2-1, before continuing to Rio de Janeiro for a series of four matches.
In terms of results, the games played in Rio suggested a lack of success, drawing 1-1 with America and 3-3 against a Rio XI, before losing 2-0 against the national team and 5-2 against Palestra Italia (now known as Palmeiras). Yet, Ferencváros were well received by the Brazilian public, with 50,000 attending the opening game. In the local press, Jornal do Brasil claimed that they were “the best to team to have come to Brazil in recent years”, and eulogised the Hungarians’ “great technique and harmony of team play” with “short, precise passes”.
After moving down the Atlantic coast to the Río de la Plata, Ferencváros continued to catch the public imagination. The Argentine press had closely monitored the development of Danubian football during the 1920s, with La Nación’s Vienna-based correspondent, Adolfo Engels, keeping the newspaper’s readers up to date with the latest footballing events in Central Europe.
In 1928, Engels reported on the desire of Austria’s captain, Hugo Meisl, for Uruguay or Argentina to come to Vienna after watching their performances at that year’s Amsterdam Olympics. In Montevideo, two-time Olympic champions Uruguay were beaten 3-2 as well as a Montevideo XI by four goals to one, before the national team avenged their opening defeat by beating Ferencváros 3-0.
Whilst the arrival of Ferencváros to Buenos Aires was met with great anticipation in the press, this was not initially reflected at the box office with just 5,000 in attendance at their first fixture in Argentina against River Plate, something described by La Nación as “an injustice of indifference”.
But the Hungarians soon allayed the doubters, beating River 4-3 with a thrilling display of attacking football. La Nación opined, “Ferencváros obtained a double victory, since they beat a strong rival and conquered the unanimous sympathy of the crowd,” whilst La Argentina purred, “The Hungarian team showed the class of game that they play in Central Europe.”
After re-crossing the Río de la Plata to play Uruguayan champions Peñarol, where they went down 2-1 in a game refereed by an official of the home side, Ferencváros regained their winning touch when returning to Argentina, beating Racing 2-1 after József Turay scored twice in the opening 20 minutes.
By the time Ferencváros met Argentina’s national team on 10 August, there was a great clamour to see the Hungarians, resplendent in their green and white shirts. As one of the local players, Carlos Spadaro, later recalled: “Ferencváros of Hungary is the best team that I have seen in my life. They played from the first [whistle] and we could not contain them with the speed that they reached. Each one knew what they had to do whilst a teammate had the ball. They played from memory. I believe that they left many teachings for our football.”
Despite losing to the Argentines thanks to two goals in the last ten minutes, the quality of the match contrasted with another tour match between Independiente and Torino that acted as a curtain-raiser to the fixture, which was described as “mediocre”.
The Hungarians’ final match on Argentine soil saw Ferencváros return to winning ways with a second 2-1 victory over Racing, displaying a “singular mobility to their play that their opponents could not follow”, according to La Nación. On their way home, the Budapest team made a return visit to São Paulo, where a local select side avenged their earlier defeat by winning 2-1.
The impressively named journalist Dinty Moore reflected in La Nación on the impact of Ferencváros’ visit, noting that the Hungarians played “in the same style” as teams from the Río de la Plata. He argued that Ferencváros were “not coldly efficient like the English, nor impetuous like the Spanish” but by contrast played “something that is more agreeable to us”. He added, “something of ours comes in the game of the Hungarians”.
Meanwhile, La Argentina concluded that the “Green Ballet” deserved the applause of local fans because of the quality of the play, “not seen for many years on Argentine fields”.
It was hoped that the match-up between Danubian and Rioplatense football would be continued at a national team level at the inaugural World Cup a year later in Montevideo, with Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia pitting their wits against Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
However, despite a dominant European influence within FIFA, the central Europeans instead focused their efforts on the Cup of Nations, a forerunner of the European Cup held in Geneva at the same time as the World Cup which was won by another Hungarian side, Újpest Dozsa.
By Mark Orton @MarkAOrton