By JAMES MONTAGUE
BUDAPEST — There are many ghosts that walk the streets of Hungary’s capital, but none is more alive than that of Ferenc Puskas.
The name Puskas adorns street signs, a metro station and Hungary’s national stadium. A statue stands in Budapest’s third district, honoring the soccer player who from 1945 to 1956 scored 84 international goals in 85 matches.
Hungary and Puskas reached the 1954 World Cup final, won the gold medal at the 1952 Olympic Games, went unbeaten in 31 matches and memorably traveled to Wembley Stadium to beat England, 6-3, only the second time England had lost on home soil since the birth of a game it had invented. The name Puskas is regularly spoken in the same breath as the names Pelé and Maradona.
But for the next 30 years, Hungary delivered ever-diminishing returns in international soccer. Puskas, known as the Galloping Major because he played for Hungary’s army club, and the legacy of his Magical Magyars have weighed heavily on the shoulders of every team that came next.
“This is history: we know the Hungarian team was the best in the world,” said Sandor Egervari, the 63-year-old coach of the current national team. “That is important to us. But the 1950s and ’60s is the past. In the past 20 years, football has gone really down, and only now has it tried to get up again.”
Hungary has a chance Friday, in a crucial 2014 World Cup qualifier, to take an important step toward its first major international tournament in 27 years when it travels to neighboring Romania for the so-called Danube Derby. Hungary is in second place behind the Netherlands with four games left in Group D, enough for a playoff place but only a single point ahead of Romania.
Both teams desperately need a victory Friday in a rivalry match with a politically charged backdrop and a colored recent history.
“The game is important for us because, as you say in football language, it is kind of a 6-point game,” Egervari said.
He added: “It is also important because of the two nations’ historic past. It was full of problems. We know that the atmosphere in Bucharest will be very special.”
The end of World War I and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire redrew many of Europe’s borders. Hungary lost 75 percent of its territory and two-thirds of its population to neighboring countries, leaving large pockets of Hungarian-speaking former subjects in Slovakia, Serbia and what is now Ukraine.
But it was the awarding of Transylvania to Romania, a move Romanians see as righting a historical wrong, that proved to be the most contentious.
The issue lay largely dormant during much of Hungary’s communist rule. But the election of the conservative Fidesz party in 2010, led by the current prime minister, Viktor Orban, and the subsequent rise of ultra-right-wing nationalist political parties like Jobbik, reignited the issue after a citizenship law was passed granting all Hungarians, wherever they were, a passport and with it full voting rights.
The policy angered neighboring governments, especially those with significant Hungarian-speaking populations, many of which were seeking greater autonomy and closer ties with Budapest. As many as one and a half million Hungarian speakers live in Romania.
Relations between Romania and Hungary “were O.K., especially when there was a Socialist government in Budapest, but the real troubles started with Fidesz,” said Dan Oprescu, an expert in Romanian and Hungarian relations for the Romanian government.
“Football is the most popular game in Romania and Hungary, so the game on Friday will be an opportunity for extremists from both sides to manifest themselves,” he added.
The lead-up to the match has been marred by a series of incidents at soccer games. Three Hungarian league teams were fined a total of 1.2 million forints ($5,200) for anti-Romanian and anti-Slovakian chants by their fans, and in a warm-up match against the Czech Republic in August, Hungarian fans chanted “Transylvania is Hungarian!” and promised to mount an “invasion” of Romania before Friday’s game. The fans also flew the Szekely flag, the flag of a historically Hungarian-dominated area in Romania that many Hungarians would like to see gain autonomy from Bucharest.
“Such words should be condemned; they do not belong on a football pitch,” Romania’s foreign minister, Titus Corlatean, told the news channel Antena 3, trying to take the sting out of the match. “Let’s not hide behind the finger here; extremist attitudes exist everywhere; they happen in Romania as well.
“The best answer will be to beat the Hungarians at football.”
The teams have met once before during this qualification campaign. That game, a 2-2 tie in March, was played in a nearly empty stadium after FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, imposed a one-match ban on spectators as punishment for anti-Semitic chanting and banners when Israel played an exhibition in Budapest last summer.
“The right wing is so strong now, there are ultra-right-wing parties like Jobbik and they get into the stadiums,” said Szabo Szilard, 38, a sports journalist for Hungary’s Kossuth Radio. “Because of 100 or 200 stupid people, Hungarian sport can be damaged. That is what politicians, sportsmen, everyone wants — we want to get them out of the stadium.”
The rise of nationalist groups like Jobbik is seen by many as a source of rising tension. Jobbik is Hungary’s third-largest political party, having won close to a million votes in the last parliamentary election. It has been accused of following a radical agenda that includes anti-Semitic policies, which the party denies.
“I’d love to live in a world, I dream about a world where Hungary regains the territory we have lost, and I think every Hungarian should think that way,” Marton Gyongyosi, a member of parliament and a foreign affairs spokesman for Jobbik, said in an interview in his parliamentary offices overlooking the Danube. On one chair sat a book about the workings of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency.
“Reality is a different question,” he added. “We always have to cook with what we have.”
He denied that the rise of his party had been responsible for the recent deterioration of relations between Romania and Hungary, or for the intolerance seen in his country’s soccer stadiums.
“In this case there will be a football match that is only partly about sport,” he said. “It is about history and politics. It is not only winning a football match. It is also about beating Romania. If anyone expects the Romanian and Hungarian supporters to watch the match with their popcorn and their Coca-Cola in silence, then they don’t know what football is all about.”
On Friday night more than 50,000 Romanian supporters, and up to 5,000 Hungarians, will cram into the Arena Nationala in Bucharest to watch a game that could decide the World Cup fate of both teams.
“It will be hostile,” said Hungary’s goalkeeper, Adam Bogdan, 25. “It is no secret that we don’t have the best relationships between the two countries.”
His generation of international players has no memory of the national team’s competing in international tournaments; Hungary has not qualified for a World Cup in three decades, or for the European championship in four. For Bogdan and his teammates, the legacy of Puskas and the Magical Magyars has been an inspiration and a burden.
“We haven’t been to a World Cup since 1986 — I was born in 1987 — so I don’t remember anything growing up,” Bogdan said. “I was watching different teams in the World Cup, supporting different teams like England. This match means everything for football fans in Hungary.”
For Egervari, the coach, Friday is a chance to try to right the failures of the past while avoiding the political arguments of today.
“We don’t care about the political situation — it is not war,” he said as he ushered his players toward one of the team’s final training sessions. “It’s just football.”
Alina Totti contributed reporting.