Everybody knows about Viktor Orbán's love of soccer and that he was certified as a player in the second-tier Hungarian soccer league. Opinions differ about how good a soccer player he was, but Hungarian soccer seems to be uppermost on his mind. As I mentioned a few days ago, according to his old college friend Gábor Fodor, later an SZDSZ politician, there were only two things that interested Orbán in those days: politics and soccer. I have the feeling that things haven't changed since. Another old story pops into my head. An acquaintance of Mrs. Orbán met her and a couple of the older girls at a concert or a theater performance. The acquaintance inquired about the whereabouts of Orbán. "Well, you know him. He and his [only] son are at home watching soccer." If I recall properly, it wasn't even an important game but obviously it was still preferable to a concert or a play.
There is an interesting article by Zsófia Mihancsik about Orbán and Hungarian soccer in www.galamus.hu. Those who read Hungarian should take a look at it. Mihancsik seems to know a lot about soccer and just as much about Viktor Orbán's psyche.
Orbán for a numbers of years now has been paying special attention not only to soccer but to sports in general. He gathered old athletic stars and courted them. Interestingly enough, these people who are old enough to have had their heyday in the Kádár or even the Rákosi regime became perhaps the most enthusiastic propagandists of the Hungarian right. I find this rather odd because these men and women had a most privileged life in the old regime. At one point they were the only ones who could travel and who didn't have to worry about their livelihood because the state provided them with phony jobs. Once they were too old to compete, they were taken care of financially; the state gave them plush jobs and high salaries. Yet these people flocked to Fidesz and could often be seen sitting right behind Viktor Orbán at mass meetings. The audience thus understood that famous swimmers, boxers, and soccer players are supporting Fidesz.
"Major" sports (especially soccer) victories can lift the general mood of the country. For instance, when the young Hungarian soccer players came in third in Egypt. Or after the Debrecen team defeated the Romanians and managed to squeeze into the League of Champions. (Mind you, I think once there they ended up last. Not winning one single game!)
Viktor Orbán wants to invest in this link between sports victories and national pride. He wants to show the Hungarian voters that he will deliver not only more jobs but more competitive sports teams. In the last month or so Orbán's references to soccer and sports in general have multiplied. He criticized the Dutch coach of the Hungarian National Soccer Association, Erwin Koeman. He said in an interview that "Hungarian soccer is not in good hands." Such a statement coming from a rather autocratic man who might be Hungary's next prime minister was not to be taken lightly. The president of the Hungarian Association, István Kisteleki, soon resigned in anticipation.
In this series of "I care about Hungarian sports, not like my opponents" actions the most ludicrous move was the following. Shortly before Christmas Orbán wrote an "open letter" to Pál Schmitt, president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee "and humbly asked for an interview." Such a meeting would give him the opportunity to find out more about the needs of Hungarian sports! What is ludicrous about this? Pál Schmitt not long ago was Orbán's deputy in Fidesz and still is a member of the Fidesz delegation in the European Parliament in Brussels. Surely, it would have been enough to pick up the telephone and say, "Hey, Pali, what's up?"
Well, Mr. Schmitt was kind enough to give Orbán some of his precious time and the meeting took place this morning. It wasn't a tête-à-tête as one can imagine. It was a fairly large meeting that included the heads of the various leagues, including Tamás Gyárfás, president of the Hungarian Swimming Association. You may recall that Gyárfás also used to be the producer of Nap-kelte, the TV show whose contract was abruptly cancelled by Magyar Televizíó (MTV). Fidesz boycotted the show in the last couple of years because Orbán was dissatisfied with its alleged partiality toward the left-liberal side.
According to Gyárfás's description, first Schmitt complained about the lack of money that prevents the Hungarians from preparing adequately for the next Olympic games. Already last year the leaders of Hungarian sports associations blamed the relatively lackluster performance of the Hungarians in Beijing on the lack of government support. After Schmitt came the leaders of the various sports who complained about the same thing. Then came Orbán with a short speech. The content of his speech was summarized in several newspapers. Here I'm using Népszabadság's description. According to Orbán "sports must be declared to be a strategic sector because otherwise Hungary will not be a country of successful people." It is "a national issue that Hungary must be among the top ten at the Olympics." In his opinion 1% of the budget must be spent on sports. The next government must once again think seriously about hosting a future Olympics.
What he means "by strategic sector" is hard to know. Normally economists talk about "strategic sectors" that might assist a country's economic growth. Surely he uses the word with some other meaning. Perhaps he simply means that sports should once again be very important and the government should do its best to foster its growth. That can bring back old and not very good memories. Hungary did very well in 1952 but at what cost and to what end? As for the "national issue" of being among the top ten medal winners at the next Olympics, that seems rather unlikely.
Which countries made up the top ten two years ago in Beijing? In this order: United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, Australia, Germany, France, South Korea, Italy, and Ukraine. Hungary was twenty-second with 10 medals while Italy (#9) had 28 and Ukraine (#10) 27. Historically Hungary's standing is high: #8 with 469 medals. A complete list can be found here. (A tip: one can change the order of the data by clicking on the total or on the individual medals.)
Getting to be among the top ten in 2012 sounds like another Orbán pipe dream, and the trouble is not a lack of money. There are only a few sports in which Hungarians excel at the moment and even with tons of money it would take time to have a new crop of Olympic hopefuls. Perhaps as many as ten to twelve years.
But Orbán doesn't actually have to deliver in 2012. It is enough to raise the issue. He and his campaign team think of every angle, including courting those for whom it is a question of national prestige to carry home a lot of medals and a national disgrace to be twenty-second in Beijing.
If the state were to subsidize sports to the tune of 1% of the budget this would mean giving five times more money than the central government is doling out at the moment. At a time of economic crisis I must say Hungary's standing in the next Olympics should be about the last item on everybody's mind.