Due to stage four matches as part of this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament, the Puskás Aréna has a history dating back to 1953 – but has always been linked with Hungary’s greatest ever footballer.
Travel anywhere in the world, mention Hungary and inevitably the first words any foreigner will associate with this nation are ‘goulash’ and ‘Puskás’. Much like Pelé and Brazil, Ferenc Puskás transcends genres and borders to such an extent, his very name has become synonymous with the country.
His name also graces Hungary’s national stadium, the Puskás Aréna, opened in 2019, and was used by its predecessor, the Puskás Ferenc Stadion. This venerable landmark had, in fact, been renamed in 2002. Originally it was the Népstadion and again, its key figure was Ferenc Puskás.
A rare case of a Communist-era name hanging over after the régime change
of 1989 – leading daily Népsport became Nemzeti Sport, for
example – the Népstadion, the ‘People’s Stadium’ was built for the people,
by the people.
Even Puskás himself, soon to be a huge world star after Hungary beat England at Wembley in November 1953, was photographed lugging a wheelbarrow of bricks across the building site between main Vorosilov (today Stefánia) út and the estuary of rail tracks serving Keleti station.
This is Istvánmező, a leafy, residential district dotted with elegant villas to the north, and Socialist-era apartment blocks nearer the stadium.
A ten-minute walk away is Városliget, City Park, where the main Hungarian
millennial celebrations took place from May 1896. The previous month, the first
modern Olympics had been a huge success in Greece, with several athletes crossing
the Atlantic from the States.
Budapest's Corinthia Hotel, then named the Royal, was opened shortly before in order to accommodate tourists coming for both events, including those passing through Hungary on their way to Athens in this age of steam and rail.
Catching on to this wave of global enthusiasm, Budapest tried to host the Games in 1916, then again in 1920, both bids falling victim to World War I.
The need for a national stadium was pressing, though, with the Hungarian
capital keen on staging major sporting events. In the early 1900s,
Hungary’s football team played its international fixtures at the Millenáris velodrome, alongside today’s Puskás Aréna. Crowd figures hovered around 10,000, healthy for the time but not the stuff Olympic Games are made of.
Suggestions for potential locations for the new stadium varied from Vérmező and Nádor-kert near Kopaszi-gát in Buda, to Aranyhegy in distant Óbuda and City Park in Pest. All fell on stony ground until another global conflict intervened.
In 1945, with so much of the city to rebuild, a budget was agreed for a national stadium as part of a three-year economic plan. Two years later, the project was given higher priority when a stand collapsed at Ferencváros during a game between Hungary and Austria. Although no-one was killed, it was obvious that Hungary still needed what England, Germany and France already had: a national stadium.
In half a century, sport had gone from the domain of the elite who could afford to travel for weeks at a time to compete in the Olympics, to catnip for the masses. Hungary’s new arena would be conceived to outshine its Western counterparts.
For this, the Communist authorities turned to Károly Dávid, who had also been working on the terminal for the new airport at Ferihegy, now considered ahead of its time. Dávid, from a long line of architects, had spent several months in the Paris studio of Le Corbusier.
Monumental yet graceful, with a working title of the Centennial Stadium (drawn up in 1948, a century after the Hungarian Uprising against Austria), the new arena would be oval in shape, ringed by 16 pillars that would lend the eventual Népstadion its signature look and hold the staircases leading up to the stands. Their lattice patterns, created by Tibor Fecskés, embellished their otherwise formulaic look.
The first five-year plan of the new Communist government was approved in
1949 and implemented from 1950, the Népstadion cutting a huge, stadium-sized hole
in the budget. The site was the former racecourse alongside Thököly út, whose
bricks could be reused and thus cut costs.
Groundwork had already begun for a 70,000-capacity stadium when the Party bosses convened, and insisted on it not only accommodating 100,000, but it being ready by 1952.
Neither proved possible and the budget soared from 45 million forints to 80, then 158 million – at a time when the average monthly salary was around 1,000 forints. In order to ease financial pressures on the planned economy, the Népstadion was created in two stages, first the lower level of 48,000 seats, then the upper of 52,000 a year later.
It was at this point that the volunteer workforce increased from a few
hundred to a thousand, and Puskás and his teammates joined in the propaganda campaign
to get the stadium ready.
Again, the politicians interfered, insisting on a more Socialist-Realist design, a compromise found with the reception building for Party dignitaries created in that style, and a series of statues depicting Communist heroics lining the grounds leading up to it.
The huge scoreboard clock, illuminated with 14,000 light bulbs, was installed, although the characteristic leaning floodlights, the so-called ‘Giraffes’, did not arrive until 1959. For its first six years, the Népstadion could only stage events in daylight. Apart from the seating area for VIPs and officials, there was no roof – everywhere else was open.
The scheduled grand opening of 4 April 1953, then a national holiday marking the Liberation of Hungary by Soviet troops, was pushed back to August.
As the day approached, five years since the initial work began, numeric assessments indicated the grandiose scale of the project. More than a million bricks had been used, enough to stretch to Paris and back if laid end to end. A hostel had even been added for athletes’ comfort.
At 9am on 20 August 1953, another national holiday but more Hungarian in nature (and one still celebrated today), trumpeters signalled the start of the opening ceremony. Thousands of athletes paraded Spartakiad-style, children grouped across the pitch to form the words A békéért harcolunk (‘WE FIGHT FOR PEACE’). Ten thousand doves were released.
In the VIP stand, Party leader Imre Nagy, having previously signed the order to arrest and brutally torture his predecessor, János Kádár, watched over proceedings from the best seat in the house. Just over three years hence, he would be the figurehead for Hungary’s anti-Soviet uprising. Within five, he would be executed, his body thrown into an unmarked grave.
Back on the pitch that sunny August state holiday in 1953, the club team
that Puskás played for, Honvéd, took on Moscow Spartak and won 3-2. Almost a
year later, England were the visitors, hoping to avenge that defeat at Wembley.
Puskás and his national teammates simply rolled over them, 7-1.
A month later, inexplicably, Hungary lost the World Cup final in Switzerland.
Although Puskás and the best Hungarian players stayed abroad after the
1956 Uprising, football was still a huge draw at home, the Népstadion hosting
double-headers between the biggest club teams before packed crowds.
Large-scale concerts were held, too, Louis Armstrong, Queen and the Rolling Stones all playing here.
By then, capacity for sports events had been reduced to below 40,000,
the seats, painted in the colours of the Hungarian flag, individual rather than
the communal benches of yesteryear.
In 2002, with Puskás already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, the stadium took his name.
Again, debate raged over what to do with the national stadium, its ageing condition and lack of roofing preventing it from hosting major international tournaments. Hungary made bids to stage football’s Euros in 2004, 2008 and 2012, all in vain. Confirmation of Budapest co-hosting the event in 2020 – since moved to 2021 – came in 2014, giving a green light to a rebuild.
An architect, György Skardelli, was chosen, whose concept was to build a
new stadium around the historic one, thus preserving its heritage and keeping
down costs. As this idea was quietly forgotten, so the budget rose, from a proposed
35 billion forints in 2011 to a promised 90-100 billion in 2014.
With many other new stadiums being built across Hungary, journalists began to question the wisdom of such a huge investment – one even recalculated the original cost of the Népstadion, 158 million forints, in today’s prices, coming up with 28 billion. The Puskás Aréna, as it came to be called, would eventually cost something around 190 billion forints, estimated at €545 million now.
The Népstadion/Puskás Ferenc Stadion was demolished in 2016, its concrete said to have been recycled for use in the new project. From the rubble, Skardelli, who had also designed the new Papp László Sportaréna, the former Sportcsarnok, next door, created a three-tiered arena of 67,000 capacity with no running track around the pitch. A shorter track was then installed at the top for athletes to train.
Around the mesh-like exterior, honouring the architectural heritage of yesteryear, staircase pillars in the same design of the early 1950s echo the Puskás era. A roof now covers all the seating, though the pitch is left open to the elements.
Ready by 2019, the new arena generated the same statistics frenzy as its predecessor in 1953. All tolled, 1,700 kilometres of cable were used, just over the distance between here and Paris. The three years of construction involved 15,000 workers, 150,000 tons of concrete, 19,000 tons of reinforced concrete and a 650-ton crane to lift and place the roof in three different sections.
All was lit up in red, white and green for the opening game in November
2019, Hungary’s opponents specifically chosen to be Uruguay, the team they had
met in an epic World Cup semi-final in 1954.
Soon afterwards came the shutdown, but the stadium continued to host key European fixtures – Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona, Juventus and Tottenham have all played here since the summer of 2020.
The biggest stars in the world game – Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé and Karim Benzema – should now be gracing the stadium from Tuesday, 15 June, onwards. The Puskás Aréna hosts four matches, involving Hungary, World Cup holders France and Euro holders Portugal, plus a knock-out tie potentially involving Holland.
Unlike the other ten stadiums co-hosting Euro 2020, from London to Baku, there will be a full house at the Puskás Aréna. While Hungarian ticket-holders must show their Immunity Certificates and ID in exchange for a wristband at checkpoints such as by the Fan Zone at City Park, foreign visitors must have taken a negative PCR test within 72 hours before entering Hungary, and their match ticket then serves as an Immunity Certificate for entry to the stadium, hotels, bars and restaurants.