Tokmac Nguen has become an icon on and off the field. His actions of defiance and political activism have made him a hero.
In June under the floodlights of the Pancho Arena, a small crowd of 600 watched on from the stands. Their echoes reverberated around the elaborately designed arches of the stadium situated just a hair’s-breadth away from Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s home.
They watched on as Tokmac Nguen made one of his quintessential runs. An ingenious flick to beat his man, a rapid burst of speed to slalom past his opponents and the cool calm finish slotted into the far corner of the net.
Nguen’s goal was the type which ‘you had to take your hat off to’ as the common adage goes. Even the small crowd of largely opposition supporters reluctantly applauded the effort.
A hostile setting
The setting for Tokmac Nguen’s brilliance, the Pancho Arena, belongs to Puskas Akademia, a team inexorably linked with Hungary‘s ruling party, Fidesz.
Viktor Orban co-founded the club back in 2007 and since then the small club based in Orban’s home village of Felcsut has thrived becoming an elite team who have made it as far as the Europa League qualifiers last year.
A party which resits migration and liberal policies, Tokmac Nguen’s presence on the field stood in some way against their moral code.
When Tokmac Nguen ran off to celebrate the reverberating claps of the 600 people in attendance quickly faded into ominous silence. The Norwegian winger of South Sudanese descent revealed a simple message under his shirt – Justice for Floyd.
For a crowd so aligned with Hungary’s ruling party, who merely days prior had condemned the protest for George Floyd as ‘aggressive and violent’ acts made by ‘extremist leftist movements’ the sight of Nguen’s message was unseemly.
Around the world, many had taken similar acts of devotion for the unjust murder and police brutality suffered by George Floyd days prior.
In the Bundesliga, Jadon Sancho had revealed a similar shirt with the same words of support. Th Premier League players demonstrated their support by kneeling prior to the kick-off of every match.
In Hungary, Tokmac’s act was one of the firsts and the last. The Ferencvaros winger would be reprimanded for his action with a warning by Hungary’s football association, MLSZ, who cited that Tokmac Nguen wore a ‘prohibited inscription’ on his shirt and the organisation warned that similar acts would be punished with more severity.
The MLSZ’s action was in defiance against FIFA’s encouragement for associations to ‘practise common sense’ and to consider not sanctioning players for showing their support of George Floyd.
Breaking down barriers
For Tokmac, like many others in the past, the advice would have been to ‘keep his mouth shut’ and accept the warning.
But the Norwegian bravely defied that advice and stood by his actions.
Speaking in the aftermath to BBC World Tokmac Nguen said the following:
“It was a very important message and I’m standing by it because this is something that I really stand by and this is something that I really take personally.
I don’t feel it’s right that just because I play football, I can’t say what I feel.
You’re supposed to only play football. You’re supposed to do your job on the field.
They don’t want you to have an opinion because of the politics.”
In recent years, Tokmac’s club, Ferencvaros, have been embroiled in racist controversy of their own. In 2014, the club were forced to play UEFA qualifiers behind closed doors as a punishment for their supporters’ racist actions in a game against Croatian outfit Rijeka.
Last year in a cup game against Bekescsaba, the supporters of the club’s opposition were reprimanded by the MLSZ for racist chants.
In an environment like that, Tokmac Nguen’s actions were valiant to say the least.
For a fanbase with a rich history of racism and violence, which must be noted the club’s board have worked tirelessly to combat and eliminate, Tokmac Nguen’s actions could have become a key catalyst.
In recent years, a player who so strongly stood in support of anti-racism may have been booed by the club’s strong ultra group.
Comments and chants of racism directed towards the club’s own players were not uncommon dating back to as recently as the early 2010s.
It has gradually decreased, with the work of Fradi’s boardroom but its remnants still linger.
There are small flickers however that the club’s insidious past may be thwarted from happening ever again.
Tokmac Nguen is the primary example.
A role model
Despite being reprimanded by the MLSZ and Tokmac’s actions going viral in Hungary and around the world there were no racist remarks or boos directed towards Tokmac in his next game for the club.
It was as if he had done nothing at all. And the calm neutrality is a step in the right direction.
After all, Tokmac Nguen is adored by the supporters of Fradi. He is the darling of Ferencvaros with his very own nickname ‘tokmag’ which translates to pumpkinseed and is an affectionate term due to his name sounding phonetically similar.
The concept of the fans attacking their very own jewel seems illogical. If anything the fans rallied behind their star player and his popularity has grown in the months which have proceeded since.
Tokmac is thus slowly dismantling barriers at the club.
The mere absence of criticism for Tokmac’s activism by the club’s ultras and supporters may seem like a small gesture, but in a country like Hungary it’s a significant step.
And the fact that Tokmac’s actions did nothing to tarnish his reputation and ‘fan favourite status’ is another indication of Ferencvaros heading in the right direction.
The club will be desperate to keep hold of their prized asset as a result.
Though they are unlikely to succeed if the Norwegian continues to perform.
Tokmac Nguen has sparkled in this year’s Champions League group stages.
He opened with a stunning display against Barcelona, where he forced Pique to get sent off with a clever run and won a penalty (Never mind the spectacular goal he scored which was narrowly chalked off for offside.)
He followed that up with a deft finish against Dinamo Kiev, which secured a spectacular 2-2 draw and kept the club within touching distance of 3rd place.
Consequently, some of Europe’s bigger names are bound to take notice and they could pounce in January.
Nonetheless, even if he departs for pastures new, despite his brief time at the club, Tokmac Nguen has left an indelible mark. His political statement and endearing character on and off the pitch has notably silenced a racist culture.
His impact at Ferencvaros could prove to be a profound turning point in the future of Hungarian football and Tokmac may forever be remembered as a trailblazer.
One will certainly hope so.