I judiciously avoid talking about football/soccer because I know nothing about it and have absolutely no interest in the game. I practically never look at the sports pages where articles occasionally appear on sports-related political news. As a result, I often miss the latest extravagances of the Orbán government, especially when it comes to football.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be a sports fan to know that Viktor Orbán was known already in his college days as a man interested in only two things: football and politics. Already during the first Orbán administration there was a tendency to emphasize projects that, according to the spin doctors, make people happy and proud. Oh, how much better Hungarians would feel if they just had a team like the “Mighty Magyars” of the 1950s. There was talk about putting lots of money into football and even about the Hungarian government’s intention to host the Olympic games. The government hired a firm to calculate the cost of such an undertaking but politics interfered: Viktor Orbán lost the elections and the idea mercifully died.
But, if I read Viktor Orbán’s mind correctly, his dream of having the Olympic games in Budapest is only being shelved for a few years while the Hungarian government, despite its current financial troubles, spends billions and billions to construct facilities that could eventually house the Olympic games.
Meanwhile ever since the 2010 elections we hear about larger and larger subsidies to various sports. One of the first government decisions was to allocate an additional one billion forints to the Hungarian Olympic Committee; a few months later it received another 700,000 forints. Viktor Orbán announced a few months after his inauguration that all investment in sports will be returned at least threefold. Hungary “will be a sports nation,” he proclaimed. He envisaged an immediate investment of 15 billion forints in sports. Not all sports, only the ones that attract large audiences. Sports that are popular: football, handball, basketball, water polo, and hockey. The Fidesz politician in charge of sports admitted that this investment was a drain on the budget but added optimistically that it “will be recouped in four or five years.” All in all, no one was surprised to hear in August 2010 that “the government considers sports to be of strategic importance.” By December the government decided to raise the amount of money earmarked for sports to 24 billion.
The Wall Street Journal reported that although Hungary hadn’t qualified for any major international tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the time had arrived, according to Sándor Csányi, the new president of the Hungarian Football Federation, for Hungary to be a real factor once again in the game of football. Csányi, accompanied by Viktor Orbán, gave a press conference at which they promised a revival of Hungarian football. It was at this press conference that the two men announced that a new stadium would be built to replace the run-down Puskás Stadium in Budapest (formerly known as Népstadion, People’s Stadium, but renamed Puskás Stadion on Fidesz insistence) in the hope of attracting major international events in Hungary. Orbán himself saw a 10-15-year plan for the revitalization of football that at the end “would elevate Hungarian football to the forefront of world soccer.”
By November 2010 the decision was made for the the central government to finance the construction of a new stadium in Debrecen that will cost ten billion forints and will seat 20,000 people. It will be a rather spectacular stadium if we can believe the plans.
This Monday the fate of the new “National Stadium” was also decided. Parliament voted on the law that would allow the construction of the jewel of all Hungarian stadiums. There was talk about naming it Ferenc Puskás Stadium, but according to the latest “the people” will decide on the name. Significantly, the bill talks about building the stadium as part of “the reconstruction of the Budapest Olympic Center (Budapesti Olimpiai Központ or BOK).” BOK is located in the vicinity of the current Puskás Stadium. The new stadium will seat 65,000 people and will be completed by 2016.
The details of the new stadium are not known, and therefore there is a lot of speculation about the exact location of the new structure. According to current plans it would be built between Syma Hall (Syma-csarnok) and the currently existing Puskás Stadium. But according to the media there is simply not enough space available between these two structures.
An even greater question is where the money will come from. Apparently in next year’s budget not a penny can be found for the project. And without any designated funds not even plans can be drawn up and paid for.
But never mind, according to László Vígh, the commissioner in charge of stadium buildings, there might be a change in next year’s budget that will take care of this small problem. As for how much it will cost, Vígh refuses to dwell on the details. He promises more information once plans are drawn up.
One of the best known (and most notorious) football clubs in Budapest is the Ferencváros or Fradi, which is headed nowadays by Gábor Kubatov, of the Kubatov list fame. Fradi fans are the ones who specialize in anti-Semitic slogans at games. Kubatov is infamous too. He was the man who boasted about Fidesz’s ability to identify all the people who vote for MSZP. The new Fradi chief also has grandiose plans for tearing down his present stadium and building a new one for 22,500 people. Of course, the Hungarian government will supply the money either in whole or in part. This stadium also looks fairly grand.
And there is still the “mini”-arena that is being built for the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy’s students and, naturally, for Viktor Orbán himself in Felcsút. Last December we learned that the Academy asked for four billion forints from the budget for the erection of a 3,500-seat stadium. Keep in mind that Felcsút where the academy is located has a population of 1,800. Shortly after the news of the generous subsidy was released, Népszabadság wrote an editorial in which the editors compared the relatively modest Viktor Orbán in 2000 who wanted to be sure that “we shouldn’t receive the largest subsidy” in Tokaj where the Orbáns and their business partners owned a vineyard with the situation now when among all the applicants for government subsidies, Orbán’s Academy received the largest amount. Zipp, an Internet paper, wrote an editorial about the Academy’s new stadium entitled “Felcsúti megalománia.” And pictures of Ceauşescu’s stadium, today in disrepair, in the dictator’s village were also displayed in Hungarian opposition papers.
I should add that Hungarian football is so bad that many local fans refuse to attend the matches. Only a few thousand people can be found at local games. And the quality of Hungarian football is not improving. What will happen to these huge stadiums? I fear that they not only will not bring money in but their maintenance will cost a great deal. Who will be financially responsible for them? The City of Budapest, close to bankruptcy? Or the terribly indebted Debrecen? It is true madness. And all this while the country is in terrible financial shape.