INTERVIEW: JUDIT BERKESI

'A HUGE STEP'

Final ambassador Judit Berkesi believes this will be a historic night for Hungarian women’s football

Judit Berkesi fell in love with football as a little girl after being taken by her dad to watch the Hungarian national team play. Her grandfather would delight her with tales of Ferenc Puskás and the legendary Hungary team that won gold at the 1952 Olympics and reached the 1954 FIFA World Cup final.  “I learned their names before I went to school and I learned them by heart,” she says. “Ferenc Puskás is an idol here in Hungary and he was my idol too.” 

Her passion has never waned. She surprised her dad by insisting on taking up the game as a teenager, and was soon good enough to break into the team of László Kórház SC, helping the former nine-time champions reach the Hungarian Women’s Cup final in 2005. Since retiring as a player, she has stayed as close as she can to the game, first reporting on it, then breaking new ground by becoming Hungary’s only female football commentator.

Little wonder, then, that she is relishing the prospect of Budapest hosting this year’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final – a chance to change attitudes and put women’s football in the spotlight.

“Football is the most popular sport in Hungary,” Berkesi says. “Everyone talks about it. But football in Hungary means men’s football. I think this final will help us draw attention to women’s football too. It will show that football means men’s and women’s football. This is a really, really big goal for us.

“We – women’s football – deserve this. It is a huge step,” she adds. “Don’t forget that Hungary has only one player to have won the Champions’ League final [in the modern era] and that player is a she: Zsanett Jakabfi. In my experience, a lot of people in Hungary are interested in women’s football. They are asking me about players, about the competitions, about the Champions League. Now is the time for them to get to know women’s football better.”

"This final will help us draw attention to women's football in Hungary. This is a really big goal for us"

Berkesi was in Kyiv to report on last year’s final and is convinced that fans in Budapest are now in for something special. There was a Hungarian flavour to that match as Jakabfi’s Wolfsburg were ultimately defeated by the Lyon side of Dzsenifer Marozsán – who was born in Budapest though moved to Germany as a child. 

“She is from Hungary but plays for the German national team,” Berkesi says. “We are really proud of her. There were two Hungarian girls involved and it was incredible to see them live.

“The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing, with maybe 15,000 people there. The final teams played a high-level game. It was incredible and I was impressed. I am expecting the same here in Hungary too. We can expect the same numbers and I hope we will have a full house.”

It is all a far cry from when Berkesi herself took up the game some 20 years ago. “Nobody knew about women’s football. Nobody was asking about women’s football. It was really, really tough.” 

It was often hard just to find a local women’s club to join because there were so few of them. Once over this hurdle, women had to train in men’s kits because women’s were simply unavailable. 

“That’s not a joke. That was real,” she says. “I was lucky because I grew up in Budapest, which was the centre of women’s football in Hungary. But I heard a lot of girls outside Budapest had to travel long distances to find a team. It was a big problem and a reason why girls stopped playing – or didn’t even begin.” 

Now the landscape has changed thanks to a development programme implemented by the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ), which has focused on player recruitment, youth development, upgrading infrastructure and financing. The MLSZ has also been working with UEFA on a pilot regional development project focused on Under-14s and Under-15s, with a view

"We are on a good path. Many of the players are professional and don't have to work at the same time as playing football anymore"

to creating more structured talent pipelines. On top of funding, UEFA has provided a technical expert to help improve player pathways and set up competitions for young girls.

“Twenty years ago, Hungarian women’s football was invisible,” Berkesi says. “There was nothing – now there are many more opportunities. We are on a good path. Many of the players are professional and don’t have to work at the same time as playing football any more. In the first division, we have eight teams and they are not only from Budapest. And our youth programme is really important because we follow the best players from when they are 13 or 14 years old.”

Berkesi is a member of the MLSZ’s women’s committee and her role is to increase coverage of the sport in the media. “And, of course,” she adds, “it’s really important that we make live broadcasts.” With Berkesi at the microphone, Hungarians will be hearing a lot more about women’s football in the years ahead. 

MY BUDAPEST

Judit Berkesi’s tips for time out in the capital

Budapest is Berkesi’s home town and she urges fans to make the most of their time in the city. Top of her list is a night-time stroll along the Danube when Buda Castle and the Hungarian Parliament building are lit up. “Budapest is the most beautiful city in the world,” she says. “The view from the bank at night is amazing with the lights.”

You can take the funicular up to Buda Castle and enjoy a jaunt through the peaceful main square, but, for Berkesi, Pest is the place to be. “I grew up in downtown Budapest and it’s my favourite part. Just walking around the city is really nice. This is where the life is. There are so many shops, bars and restaurants. The nightlife is special. Budapest never sleeps – or I should say Pest never sleeps. Bars, music, local jazz and discos, classical music too. Every day you’ll find something.”

As for food, Berkesi recommends halászlé, “a very spicy but very tasty fish soup. And the goulash, a pork soup.” Follow that up with gundel palacsinta, “a special thin Hungarian pancake filled with chocolate and walnuts”.

No trip to Budapest would be complete without a visit to one of its renowned spas, with Berkesi opting for the Rudas Thermal Bath. “It has a great outdoor pool on the roof with a great view of parliament and the Freedom Bridge.”

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