Globalization and small-country football

Exploring the development paths of Finland and Hungary

Misi Szerovay
Nov 25, 2018 · 9 min read
JJK Jyväskylä vs FC Honka in Harju Stadium in the Finnish Veikkausliiga (2011). Photo by Jussi Reinilä

Sport as a reflection of society?

As a former professional football player in Finland and Hungary, I have been passionately interested in the societal role of sports, especially football (soccer). When the end of my playing career was approaching, I started to ponder the following questions: What does football tell about society? Why not explore this area more in detail in a form of a PhD?

The final ‘product’ of the project, the doctoral dissertation, is accessible only to a limited readership as it is published by scientific journals and/or university libraries. They are also lengthy and full of academic jargon. I believe that making publicly funded research available to a wider audience is vital. Therefore, in the following paragraphs, I summarize the main findings of my exciting undertaking.

Diverse roots in football

The Hungarian national team, with an unbeaten record of 31 matches before the World Cup final in 1954, were clear favourites in Bern. Even though the Golden Team led by Ferenc Puskás lost 3–2 against West Germany in the soaking rain in a game remembered as the Miracle of Bern, the Mighty Magyars, as they were also known, were the defining team of the era.

In Hungary’s 1949-89 state socialist system, top-level sport was financed centrally and, as expected, delivered international success. The political regime used sport as a tool for legitimacy.

The Hungarian national team at the 1954 FIFA World Cup. Photo: FORTEPAN / Magyar Hírek Folyóirat

Meanwhile, Finland reached a respectable fourth place as early as at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Although having been successful in a number of sports, the Nordic climate presented a challenge to playing football, which meant Finland has not been a significant player in the men’s international game.

With its agricultural economic structure, less-developed urban society and a lack of quality facilities, the circumstances were far from perfect for the emergence of professional football in Finland. Similarly, the strong civic sector based on citizens’ voluntary activities hindered the development of a market-oriented environment for sport.

Why write a PhD on football and globalization?

The roots and routes of Finnish and Hungarian football can be seen as considerably different. Nevertheless, their recent performance in men’s football and the level of play in their highest division is rather similar.

  • At present, the UEFA rankings of its 56 member countries by country coefficient for the 2017–18 season, Finland is 40th and Hungary 37rd.
  • In the FIFA world rankings, the average position in the men’s ranking is 58th for Finland 52nd for Hungary for men, while for women Finland ranks 20th and Hungary 35th.

In autumn 2018 the men’s teams played two games against each other in League C of the UEFA Nations League: Finland won the first encounter in Tampere in September, but Hungary took the three points in Budapest in November. Eventually, Finland won the group and got promoted to League B as well as qualified for the Nation League play-offs.

Diverse roots and routes but similar level in football at present

I figured that the global game may serve a suitable lens through which we can learn about social change in the local as well as global context. I delved into the following questions:

In what way has men’s football changed in Hungary and Finland in the past decades? In what way have these countries been connected to the global football system?

In my PhD, completed at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, I examined the development paths of football in these countries and used the globalization of sport as a theoretical framework. I collected data via 36 semi-structured interviews with Hungarian and Finnish football practitioners. Informants included representatives of football associations, football academies and professional clubs.

Football traditions in Hungary

Hungary, a Central European country, is known for its significant football traditions in men’s football, with two silver medals at the FIFA World Cups (1938; 1954) and three gold medals at the Olympic Games (1952; 1964; 1968).

Football has been the country’s most popular sport and has played an essential role in the development of social identity. Hungary was part of the Eastern bloc until 1990 when economic and political transition begun. At the same time, the state ceased to fund football and other sports, which, in an environment with lack of capital, led to an overall decline of sport. Along with the transition to a free-market economy, a vacuum emerged in the football market, indicating a lack of information, professional knowledge, organization and, above all, money.

Even after the transition, sport still seems subject to political manipulation, especially since right-wing political leadership took charge in 2010. In 2016, the Magyars qualified for the UEFA Euro held in France, the first time reaching a major tournament since 1986, and reached the round of 16.

Hungarian football fans in Marseille during the UEFA Euro 2016 in France. Photo: 24.hu

The Finnish football environment

The Football Association of Finland decided to promote amateur football in the 1920s. This decision has crucially impacted the development path of football. The first Finnish professional player, Aulis Rytkönen, signed a contract with France’s Toulouse FC in 1952.

At present, football is the most played team sport when measured by the number of registered players. Nevertheless, this broad base of participants on the grassroots levels has not been converted into international success or clear growth in match attendance.

Finland has presented world class players such as Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypiä, who both won the Champions League with AFC Ajax and FC Liverpool, respectively, but the national team has so far failed to qualify for any major tournament. For now, the number one spectator sport remains ice hockey in the country.

Aulis Rytkönen (left) playing for Toulouse FC (France) in the 1950s. Photo by Savon Sanomat archives

After reviewing the background of Finland and Hungary, let’s have a look at the main findings of my research.

The 7 most important points of my PhD

Exploring the global dimension and the local context of Hungarian and Finnish football

1. The organization of youth football reveals a great deal about football and society. I asked the following questions:

  • Where do the funding for elite youth football come from in the 2010s?
  • What are the objectives of the clubs? Do they aim at elite development or sport for all?
  • What is the societal role of youth sport clubs?

The main differences turned out to be that Hungarian clubs can be perceived as, applying metaphors by Koski, production plants (focus on elite development) and Finnish clubs as supermarkets (activities provided for a variety of participants).

Production plant vs Supermarket

The main source of income for Finnish clubs is payments by households (= paid by parents) in the forms of club membership fees and monthly team fees. By contrast, Hungarian clubs earn as much as 80% of their revenues through a corporate tax scheme (= paid by taxpayers) and support from the Hungarian Football Federation.

I detected similarities too, in the operation of youth clubs as administrative and coaching staff has increasingly professionalized in both countries. Clubs have expanded their local and international networks and have imported knowledge from Western football countries.

2. Professionalization comes in many forms. Player statuses throughout the history of football varied broadly, including full professional, shamateur, semi-professional, part-time player, amateur player and so on. Being a shamateur, which was typical in the state socialist system, meant that formally amateur athletes were often employed by state-owned companies and were, in practice, professionals. As one of the interviewees put it:

I was registered as an employee at the mine in Komló, and later in Békéscsaba in a canned food company…but we can say I was a professional football player.

By contrast, Finnish players in the 1980s and 90s mostly spent the day in their workplace before going to football practice in the afternoon:

In those days if you were asked about your profession, no one said “I’m a football player.” I would have said I was an engineer.

Over the period since the 1980s, Hungarian players in the top division, today called OTP Bank Liga, shifted from shamateurs to professionals, whereas in Finland’s Veikkausliiga from amateurs to semi-professionals or professionals.

In addition, I found that player associations (the representative organization for players) reflect the development paths of football in the given country. To illustrate, the broad focus of players’ unions in Finland, including the top three men’s and top two women’s division suggest a rather inclusive environment in competitive football.

In contrast, the Hungarian players’ union encompasses men’s two highest division, focusing mainly on professional football. At the same time, the standardization of player contracts implies the legal dimension of professionalization.

3. Football stadiums may enable clubs and countries to connect to the global football network. For example, stadiums that fulfil UEFA regulations can host international games. We can observe increasing global control via regulations, which has resulted in the standardization of stadiums and match events.

In this section of the PhD, I explored the changing landscape of professional football stadiums via the case studies of the most successful clubs, Ferencvárosi TC from Budapest, Hungary, and HJK from Helsinki, Finland. In recent decades stadiums have appeared as multifunctional spaces. Other than being venues for football games, these facilities offer various business opportunities for a range of stakeholders. The function of football games has seen considerable changes.

Sky box in Groupama Arena, home of Ferencvárosi TC (Hungary). Photo by Mihaly Szerovay

Local specificities such as size of the stadium and the type of playing surface reflect differences as Finland has much harsher winters. To illustrate, Finnish stadiums are nowadays built with football turf (artificial grass). What is more, one of the newly built arenas stages biathlon competitions in winter.

Both countries have relied on imported knowledge when building new facilities. Nevertheless, the context of stadium development has been fairly different as Hungarian projects have been state-driven while in Finland the private sector has been increasingly involved.

4. We need to be critical towards the dream of becoming a pro football player. Youth players in both contexts need support and education to be more aware of the life of professional players and what sacrifices are currently needed to become a professional.

5. We have to ask critical questions from football practitioners and professionals.

  • What are the future development paths of these countries in football?
  • In what way can additional connection points to the global football systems be established?
  • What is the function of professional football in Hungary and Finland?
  • In what way can aiming for international success in football be justified? How should success be defined and measured?
  • How can a heavily state-financed system be maintained in the long run?

6. The global game offers various directions for future research. For example, we should conduct studies on the development and position of women’s football in different countries. Further research would also be interesting on the professionalization and pathways of individual players. These could provide information on the experiences and treatment of players.

Finland’s national team, nicknamed Helmarit (the Pearl Owls) playing against Serbia in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in Helsinki (2017). Photo: mtv.fi

In addition, acquiring additional knowledge on good governance related to the operation of youth and professional sport clubs, as well as on facility development are necessary.

7. Context matters. As shown above, understanding the diverse development paths in football requires examining the global and local interactions that have shaped the given country. Football may serve as a lens through which we may better grasp the different local contexts.

Accordingly, we need comparative studies to locate individual countries within the global football order. The outcomes of my research suggest that every aspect of football has reflected the strong civil society background in Finland and the state socialist past in Hungary.

Concluding remarks

Scholars pointed out that the professionalization of top-level sports have diminished the chances for small nations to compete at the international stage. Nevertheless, in a competitive global market, both Finland and Hungary have aimed to catch up to the Western, so-called core football countries. Evidence suggest that both countries have increasingly integrated in the global football system.

Despite a lack of success in men’s football on the international level, as the cases of Finland and Hungary examined in this study have shown, football can still play a significant societal role.

Cover of my PhD (click on the image to see the full text pdf)

Thank you for reading the summary of my PhD dissertation. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me here at Medium or on Twitter @misiszerovay.

I gratefully acknowledge the insightful comments from Krisztina Szerovay, Brian Crosby, Kola Adeosun & Melissa Carr, which helped me write this text.

Sport as a Lens

Exploring sport and physical activities as social phenomena

Misi Szerovay

Written by

Sport enthusiast | PhD | Senior lecturer in football | Former professional football player | Goalkeeper coach | Traveller | @misiszerovay

Sport as a Lens

Exploring sport and physical activities as social phenomena

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