BUDAPEST (Reuters) - For fans of Hungarian club Ferencvaros (FTC), their recent success has been both long-awaited satisfaction on the pitch and a chance to forget the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic woes.
For the first time in 16 years for a Hungarian side, the club advanced to the group stage of the Champions League, beating Celtic and Dinamo Zagreb along the way and landing in a group including giants like Barcelona and Juventus.
To witness two of the game's greats, Juventus' Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona's Lionel Messi, play in Budapest is more than a little satisfying to fans long deprived of the successes common in Hungary until the 1980s.
"This has been a screwed-up year, and FTC in the Champions League is the one bright spot for us right now," Szebasztian Huber, editor of the club's largest fan page ulloi129.hu, told Reuters.
Hungary's recent coronavirus infection rates and death tolls have grown to record highs as premier Viktor Orban has vowed to keep the country open for as long as possible.
That has also meant fans are allowed to attend soccer games with no attendance restrictions - although rules on protective masks and sanitation are in place - making FTC, the country's most popular club by far, a test case of sorts.
The club has the largest crowds, including 17,000 fans filling its arena to near capacity in a recent national match. The Champions League game against Dinamo Kyiv also drew thousands of supporters, despite UEFA attendance restrictions.
Wednesday's match against Juventus will be held in the 67,000-seat Puskas Arena, where UEFA rules still allow 22,000 fans on site, the second big match in that arena after a successful test run in September.
"WHERE WE BELONG"
Revelling in the opportunity, fans are choosing to ignore the pandemic and recall former glories, such as when FTC beat Juventus in the final of the 1965 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, predecessor of the modern-day Europa League.
"A lot of people take this as the return to where we belonged in the 1960s and 70s," said Huber, who has attended all recent games, even ones closed to the public.
He said crowds are younger as fans over 50-years-old tend to stay home. People stick with close groups of friends and mingle far less than normally, seeking out emptier seating areas.
"But once the match begins you drop all that," Huber said. "When you have so little to feel good about, you make the most of every minute you get."
There are still some strict rules in place with the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ) even threatening clubs with penalties. But while it tightened testing and safety protocols, MLSZ also said clubs were not allowed to cancel games.
Ferencvaros said they would redouble efforts to enforce the rules after fans were shown removing their masks during a league game.
"We exerted an enormous effort at that game already," the club said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions. "We learned our lessons, though, and we will try to do an even better job, enforcing proper mask use, for instance."
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Christian Radnedge)