Ferencvaros, like Hungarian football more widely, are basking in a golden age. Unprecedented success domestically and in Europe over the last few years they owe to a Ukrainian. Success in the years to come — including their future in this season’s Europa League ahead of Thursday’s play-off against Shamrock Rovers — is dependent upon a Russian. In the backyard of the military conflict that has plunged eastern Europe into crisis, that binary is difficult to ignore.
Former Tottenham Hotspur and Ukraine striker Sergei Rebrov marshalled Hungary’s perennial champions to new heights during his three-year reign, which ended in 2021. Under him, Fradi — as they are known to supporters — made a clean sweep of league titles and made serious headway, by the country’s standards, in the Champions League, reaching the group stage where they enjoyed memorable nights against Barcelona and Juventus.
Speculation and intrigue surrounded Rebrov’s sudden departure last summer. The official line was that he had outgrown the club and was ready for new challenges. Rumours persist that he had grown unhappy with the club’s habit of giving in to pressure from hardcore supporters that demanded more native Hungarians in the squad, at the expense of “mercenaries” from abroad. After a flurry of transfers was completed without his approval, Rebrov’s patience was spent and the manager quit.
Fradi fans have a way of making themselves heard. Rebrov’s successor, former Borussia Dortmund boss Peter Stoger, was made persona non grata before he had stepped a boot in Budapest, owing to the seemingly innocuous detail that his former side, Austria Vienna, wore the same purple and white strip as Ferencvaros’s arch rivals Ujpest. Under Stoger, the champions lost the steely discipline that had underscored Rebrov’s success and within six months he was sacked.
“Thing didn’t go well in last season’s Europa League under Stoger,” says Budapest-based journalist Aron Aranyossy. “In the league, they disappointed too. He allowed his players to be more expressive, but the shape just crumbled under that model. They became easy to play against. The feeling was he had lost control of the club. Even before he was announced there was a banner from fans that said: ‘Purple swine, we don’t want you.’ They [the fans] had decided before he even arrived.”
Stoger’s replacement was another coach of pedigree. Stanislav Cherchesov became known globally as Russia’s coach during their successful 2018 World Cup campaign. A more steely, dictatorial operator than the laissez-faire Austrian, he had won over Hungarian supporters by mocking Cristiano Ronaldo’s mini-protest against Coca-Cola in Budapest during Euro 2020. Six months after being appointed, he reinforced his popularity by racking up Fradi’s fourth consecutive Nemzeti Bajnokság title. Yet the story doesn’t have an entirely happy ending.
Part of Rebrov’s legacy had been the acquisition of the talented defensive midfielder, and Ukraine international, Igor Kharatin and his international team-mate, the midfielder Oleksandr Zubkov. Kharatin departed for Legia Warsaw in 2021, leaving Zubkov as the only Ukrainian in the squad by the time Cherchesov arrived last December, two months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Under Cherchesov, the formerly influential Zubkov’s form deserted him. Injury played a part, but it quickly became clear that his time in Hungary was over. He departed to return to Ukraine and Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer.
“Zubkov wasn’t the same player after Cherchesov came,” says Aranyossy. “He had a bad injury which he didn’t really recover from. When you’re in that position, then suddenly there is a war in your country and the new manager coming in happens to be Russian, it doesn’t help things. It’s not that the new manager came and so all the Ukrainians left. Zubkov was injured and out of form, it wasn’t Cherchesov’s fault. But I am sure that it did not help him to get settled back into the team.
“Cherchesov is different to Stoger. He’s very rigid with the players. He’s hard, and he expects a lot physically. It was an appointment to show people that the club was ready to restore order. Either you get behind this coach or you’re out.”
It’s a style that has quickly won the respect of Ferencvaros’s ultra-demanding fans. Despite the affection they feel for the departed Rebrov, Cherchesov has united the support against an ugly political backdrop.
“Cherchesov has his work cut out for him after Rebrov’s unprecedented success, but his past makes him an exciting prospect,” says Fradi supporter Daniel Kovacs. “He failed in Europe with Legia Warsaw last season, but confidence in him here is undiminished.
“The war in Ukraine is particularly difficult for us. It’s taking place in our neighbourhood and we have a large Hungarian minority living in Ukraine.
“We may have a Russian coach, but Zubkov celebrated on the pitch with a Ukrainian flag last season and our fans applauded him. Ferencvaros has provided training opportunities and programmes for 100 Ukrainian refugee children since the start of the war.
“I fear that in matches against Western clubs, the media will put pressure on us to fire the coach. I think that is a nonsense. Innocent sportsmen should not be punished on the basis of their national origin. They are not to blame for this. It is no solution.”