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The Euros haven’t started, but Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is already a winner

The far-Right Fidesz government has invested heavily in football to consolidate its power. But is change on the way?

David Goldblatt
11 June 2021, 12.00am
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán supports his national team in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers
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Laszlo Balogh/Reuters/Alamy

Whatever the score, when Hungary play Portugal on 15 June in their opening match of Euro 2020, the game will mark a significant moment in the story of prime minister Viktor Orbán’s close relationship with football. Over the past decade, the far-Right populist leader and his party Fidesz have used the game to consolidate their power in Hungary.

In Budapest, the new Puskás Aréna national stadium, built on the site of the communist-era Népstadion, and costing nearly half a billion euros, will host the national team’s first games at the tournament. With an eye on next year’s elections, where he faces a more united opposition than in previous years, Orbán will be hoping that the team rises to the occasion, and that the spectacle justifies the costs of the vast football project on which his government has embarked.

The national stadium is just the most expensive of the more than two dozen new stadiums that have been built in Hungary since 2010; one for every team in the top two divisions of the nation’s football. Much of the programme has been funded by the notorious TAO scheme, in which absurdly generous tax breaks were available to businesses that anonymously donated money to sports clubs. Some of the construction contracts involved went to close associates of the prime minister.

Cultural capital

Fidesz have entirely colonised Hungarian football, much as they have done in other cultural realms – such as the media, where the government and allied holding companies control more than half of domestic outlets. Fidesz politicians and their associates ran ten of the 12 clubs in Hungary’s top division this season. Next year, with the promotion of Debrecen, which is owned by the Fidesz-controlled local municipality, it will be 11.

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The government has also provided money for football academies and training facilities, not just in Hungary but in neighbouring countries as part of a foreign policy initiative to attract the support of Hungarian-speaking minorities. To this end, Lőrinc Mészáros, Hungary’s richest person and an Orbán ally, has bought a majority stake in the Croatian club NK Osijek. Orbán, meanwhile, has used public money to create a football academy in Romania.

One indication of the distorting effect this has had on Hungarian football came towards the end of last season, when Attila Kuttor, coach of Mezőkövesd, was given a fine of around €5,000 by the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ), for suggesting in a post-match interview that the referee had been biased against his team. Kuttor claimed that the referee had wanted another team, Puskás Akadémia, to come third in the rankings and qualify for the Europa League.

Whatever the truth of Kuttor’s claims, it is remarkable that Puskás Akadémia, based in a village of around 1,500 people, should be the third-best in the country. Then again, it is owned by Mészáros and sits next to Orbán’s dacha: the club has received more TAO money than any other and boasts a stadium of global architectural merit, which can seat the whole village more than twice over.

All this investment comes wrapped up in an aggressive populist nationalism, with Orbán declaring his intention to “make Hungarian football great again”. An organised far-Right presence among the national team’s following has been allowed to grow, and made its voice heard this week when they booed Irish players taking a knee. Yet for all the money spent, the returns have been poor. Hungary qualified for the expanded Euros in 2016, but the academies have produced few players of note, match attendances remain pitiful and the best of the nation’s players – like many younger and skilled Hungarians – live abroad.

Puskás Akadémia boasts a stadium that can seat the whole village more than twice over

Unsurprisingly, football has become a political battleground. When Hungary beat Turkey last November, to win their group in UEFA’s Nations League, Fidesz politicians took the opportunity to berate their opponents. “So then: the bellyachers and those perpetually dissatisfied,” the foreign minister Péter Szijjártó posted on social media, “those who constantly cry ‘why do we need stadiums?’ Step forward now and tell us why it is not good.” András Fekete-Győr, leader of the centrist party Momentum, replied: “We’re celebrating together for the sports wins, but for the hundreds of billions you steal with your pals, only you do.”

Footballers have been drawn into other disputes, too. Late last year, the government altered Hungary’s constitution to make it impossible for unmarried and LGBT couples to adopt children. When Péter Gulácsi, goalkeeper for the national team , criticised the changes – “I stand for rainbow families!” he posted on Facebook – he was met with a barrage of criticism online, where tens of thousands of comments questioned his patriotism, and from government-friendly media.

Gulácsi, who plays at club level for RB Leipzig in Germany, was afforded some protection by exile. That wasn’t the case for János Hrutka, a former footballer-turned-commentator. Hrutka was fired from his job on the Orbán-linked Spíler TV after he defended Gulácsi, while the sports press was suddenly filled with stories criticising his record on the pitch.

Stark contrasts

Orbán has long learnt to live with the dismay of exiles and is impervious to accusations of cronyism and corruption, which have yet to harm his standing with Fidesz’s rural and small-town base. But the prime minister’s bluster can’t deal with a pandemic that has made the privileges accorded to football seem absurd. It is impossible not to contrast the generosity of the stadium program with Hungary’s terrible death rate, and the severe underfunding of the country’s health system. These stark facts do seem to be eating into Orbán’s support, with the latest polls giving the united opposition parties a five-point lead over the prime minister.

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Similarly, the government’s decision – alone among Euro 2020 hosts – to permit a full stadium of over 60,000 people is set against enduring limits on public protest. Recently, only 500 people were initially allowed to demonstrate against a widely unpopular plan to spend €1.5bn on a Chinese university in Budapest.

Nobody expects the Euros to deliver a Hungarian football triumph. In the midst of a pandemic it feels glib to use the familiar cliché, but Hungary is in the ‘group of death’, facing Portugal (the cup holders), France (the World Cup holders) and Germany. Dominik Szoboszlai, the team’s brightest prospect, has had to miss out due to a groin strain.

Nor may the tournament provide the government with a hoped-for boost – but rest assured that Orbán, who has attended every World Cup final since 1998, will be at every game. If there is even the slightest opportunity for political gain, he will take it. Football might yet be an asset, rather than a liability.

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