Defying its nationalist fans, Budapest soccer club kicks out anti-Semitism
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'Fradi' honors Holocaust hero Toth who saved 100s of Jews

Defying its nationalist fans, Budapest soccer club kicks out anti-Semitism

A new government anti-Semitism education program hits the field at a match between local Ferencvaros Torna Club and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

  • Hungarian children standing with Maccabi TLV players in tribute to Holocaust hero István Tóth at Groupama Arena in Budapest, July 12 2018. (Courtesy/ World Jewish Congress)
    Hungarian children standing with Maccabi TLV players in tribute to Holocaust hero István Tóth at Groupama Arena in Budapest, July 12 2018. (Courtesy/ World Jewish Congress)
  • From left: MAZSIHISZ President Andras Heisler, Maccabi TLV CEO Ben Mansford, WJC Counter Anti-Semitism Coordinator Igor Ughazi, István Tóth (grandson of István Tóth), Ferencváros Torna Club President Gabor Kubatov at Groupama Arena in Budapest, July 12, 2018. (World Jewish Congress)
    From left: MAZSIHISZ President Andras Heisler, Maccabi TLV CEO Ben Mansford, WJC Counter Anti-Semitism Coordinator Igor Ughazi, István Tóth (grandson of István Tóth), Ferencváros Torna Club President Gabor Kubatov at Groupama Arena in Budapest, July 12, 2018. (World Jewish Congress)
  • Hungarian fans fill the stands at the 22,000 capacity Groupama Arena in Budapest during a soccer match between Ferencvaros Torna and Maccabi Tel Aviv, July 12, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    Hungarian fans fill the stands at the 22,000 capacity Groupama Arena in Budapest during a soccer match between Ferencvaros Torna and Maccabi Tel Aviv, July 12, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
  • Men in boots and fatigues outside Groupama Arena in Budapest, during a match between the Ferencvaros Torna and Maccabi Tel Aviv clubs, July 12, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    Men in boots and fatigues outside Groupama Arena in Budapest, during a match between the Ferencvaros Torna and Maccabi Tel Aviv clubs, July 12, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
  • Police arriving at Groupama Arena in Budapest ahead of a soccer match between Ferencvaros Torna and Maccabi Tel Aviv, July 12, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    Police arriving at Groupama Arena in Budapest ahead of a soccer match between Ferencvaros Torna and Maccabi Tel Aviv, July 12, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
  • A Maccabi Tel Aviv fan stands in front of Groupama Arena in Budapest on Thursday, July 12, 2018, before a first-round Euro League game with the Ferencvaros Torna club. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    A Maccabi Tel Aviv fan stands in front of Groupama Arena in Budapest on Thursday, July 12, 2018, before a first-round Euro League game with the Ferencvaros Torna club. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
  • Groupama Arena in Budapest, where the Ferencvaros Torna soccer club plays. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    Groupama Arena in Budapest, where the Ferencvaros Torna soccer club plays. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

BUDAPEST – Supporters of Hungary’s beloved Ferencvaros Torna Club (FTC) gathered Thursday for a Europa League qualifier soccer match against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv at Groupama Stadium in Budapest. Among the fans in lively green and white striped jerseys stood pockets of black-clad football hooligans drinking beer.

With shaved heads, shirts emblazoned with far-right symbols, and more than a few visible nationalist tattoos, they cut intimidating figures.

It was a bold move, then, that the Ferencvaros club, known locally as Fradi, chose to honor Holocaust-era hero Itsvan Toth before the game. But the decision was well thought through.

In 1944, Toth, a former footballer and coach for the club, saved hundreds of Jews  as a member of the Hungarian anti-fascist resistance. He was captured and executed in 1945.

A man with a tattoo across his back resembling the Reichsadler, the official symbol of Nazi Germany, outside of Groupama Arena in Budapest, after a match between the local Ferencvaros Torna club and Maccabi Tel Aviv. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

Thursday’s ceremony – the first of its kind – was an effort by the Hungarian government, in cooperation with the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (MAZSIHISZ), aimed at educating fans about anti-Semitism.

Soccer club FTC has gained notoriety in recent years for its significantly nationalistic fan base. The game’s dedication was part of a recent push by the Hungarian government to fight anti-Semitism. It came just after a July 3 declaration to that effect at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which was put forward by Hungary along with 21 other co-sponsors.

The event is also in line with the World Jewish Congress’ joint initiative with Chelsea Football Club to combat discrimination and anti-Semitism across the sports world.

In a small ceremony prior to the match, FTC President Gabor Kubatov, Maccbi Tel Aviv CEO Ben Mansford, MAZSIHIZS President Andras Heisler, and representatives of the World Jewish Congress spoke of the importance of remembering those who risked their lives for others and the need to combat anti-Semitism on and off the field.

From left: MAZSIHISZ President Andras Heisler, Maccabi TLV CEO Ben Mansford, WJC Counter Anti-Semitism Coordinator Igor Ughazi, István Tóth (grandson of István Tóth), Ferencváros Torna Club President Gabor Kubatov at Groupama Arena in Budapest, July 12, 2018. (World Jewish Congress)

“Our mutual heroes of the past are here with us in our hearts and minds to remind all of us that humanity and respect are the basic values we all share… By remembering István Tóth, we are honoring a celebrated sports figure, who stood up against violence, hatred and discrimination. His life and behavior is an example to follow in all places and times,” Jewish federation head Heisler said.

Following the dedication, players of both clubs were escorted onto the field by children wearing shirts stamped with Tóth’s likeness, a symbol of civil society’s commitment to honoring heroes of tolerance and combating discrimination.

Hungarian children standing with Maccabi TLV players in tribute to Holocaust hero István Tóth at Groupama Arena in Budapest, July 12 2018. (Courtesy/ World Jewish Congress)

Despite heightened security amid fears that the display would provoke a reaction from nationalistic fans, the commemoration, and the following game, proceeded smoothly.

First-time FTC spectator Gabor, who attended the game with a more avid fan, said that he was pleasantly surprised by the relatively calm atmosphere.

“I didn’t see or hear anything too racist, even though I heard the club is racist and I expected to,” Gabor told The Times of Israel as he stood in line for beer.

Police arriving at Groupama Arena in Budapest ahead of a soccer match between Ferencvaros Torna and Maccabi Tel Aviv, July 12, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

According to Gabor, fans on the team’s registry received telephone calls leading up to the game urging them to maintain an air of good sportsmanship and refrain from racist behavior.

Marcel, a software developer in his early 40s, said, “I love Fradi. There are some troublemakers, but most of the fans are nice. It’s a team with a very, very long history, and it’s not good to judge it only based on what’s happening yesterday and today.”

Throughout the game, which resulted in a 1-1 tie in 90 minutes plus five, several dozen Israelis waved flags and cheered from a sparsely-populated section cordoned off from the rest of the stadium’s fans. It is common during soccer games, during which fans can become highly charged, for opposing teams’ spectators to have a dedicated section and entrance of their own.

A Maccabi Tel Aviv fan stands in front of Groupama Arena in Budapest on Thursday, July 12, 2018, before a first-round Euro League game with the Ferencvaros Torna club. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

On their way into the stadium, fans of both teams were less than confident about the outcome of the match. The Times of Israel asked several groups of Israeli fans how they thought the game would play out. They all shared the same cautious sentiment.

“We hope they win,” they said.

During an intermission, The Times of Israel attempted to gauge the reaction of Hungarian fans to the pre-game ceremony honoring Toth, but it was unclear if the display had made an impression.

“The program is shit,” answered one respondent. Asked to explain why, he said, “Because our team is terrible. They’re probably going to lose.”

Hungarian fans fill the stands at the 22,000 capacity Groupama Arena in Budapest during a soccer match between Ferencvaros Torna and Maccabi Tel Aviv, July 12, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

But the WJC is optimistic that sport is an ideal channel to preach a message of inclusivity and tolerance.

“The most important component to fighting anti-Semitism is education,” said CEO of the WJC Robert Singer, “mainly the education of the next generation. It’s not only the statements from politicians that are important, but at the end of the day what will matter is the young people — the next generation of fans in different places.”

“Sport attracts many young people, and through sport you can get to wide audiences. What happened today is the first step in this direction in Hungary,” Singer said.

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