The international media noticed that Vladimir Putin and his sports minister warmly greeted the controversial reelection of Sepp Blatter as president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). They missed a short Hungarian-language message from Viktor Orbán on Facebook. The Hungarian prime minister wished Blatter, who was reelected for the fourth time as president of the powerful and corruption-riddled FIFA, “continued good work.” Blatter’s success was short-lived. Five days later he announced his resignation, which will take effect at an extraordinary congress, probably in December. The reason for Blatter’s change of heart is that he is being investigated by U.S. prosecutors and the FBI.
Viktor Orbán’s congratulatory note was especially curious because Sándor Csányi, president of the Magyar Labdarugó Szövetség/Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ), had earlier made it clear that Blatter would not get his vote. Why would Orbán go out of his way to make his strong support of Blatter public?
Blatter and Orbán go back a long way. I traced their cooperation to 2006, when the idea of establishing a FIFA award honoring Ferenc Puskás first came up. Apparently, the original idea wasn’t Orbán’s, but when he heard about it he moved into high gear with the help of Mrs. Puskás, who is apparently a personal friend of Blatter. The initial idea was completely reworked until, in 2009, the first Puskás Award was given to the player, male or female, judged to have scored the most aesthetically significant or “the most beautiful” goal of the year.
The Puskás Academy was heavily involved in the negotiations right up until the time, on October 20, 2009, the contract between FIFA and Mrs. Puskás, who has the right to the use of the Puskás name, was signed. It was signed in Felcsút by the great Sepp Blatter himself. Nemzeti Sport, Orbán favorite sports paper, proudly announced that Blatter’s presence was no ordinary event. Normally, such contracts are signed by one of his subordinates. Of course, Viktor Orbán, the founder of the Puskás Academy, also delivered a speech in which he declared that “this event is like a goal that delivers the victory.” Blatter received the flag of the Puskás Academy as a memento. The first time the award was presented was on December 21, 2009, at the FIFA World Player of the Year Gala, to which Viktor Orbán was invited. From this time on, Orbán has traveled to Zurich every year to be present at the award ceremony.
In 2011, when Hungary held the presidency of the European Union, Orbán took advantage of his position and visited practically all the countries of the Union. He also made an official visit to FIFA, at Blatter’s invitation, during which “he held talks” with Blatter about “the differences of opinion between FIFA and the European Union.” He promised the FIFA president that he would do his best to convince the EU to change some of the rules concerning the employment contracts of football players. At that point Blatter was seeking reelection but Orbán refused to commit himself one way or the other because, as he put it, “it is better that politics holds its distance from professional football.” He added, however, that “the world of football is not ready to have its leadership move outside of Europe.” Blatter’s challenger was Mohamed Bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation.
In 2012 Orbán convinced Blatter to hold FIFA’s 64th congress in Budapest. Hungary had hosted this event only twice before in the 108-year history of FIFA: in 1909 and in 1930. Sándor Csányi, Orbán’s appointment really, had just become president of MLSZ, and in his speech he talked about the fantastic achievements of the previous two years of Hungarian football. “Yearly, we build 200 football fields, 1,000 amateur clubs receive financial help, and the number of amateur football players has grown by 20%.” Blatter, for his part, thanked the Hungarians for making the congress a great success. A bit later Orbán received a thank you note from Blatter in which he praised Orbán’s speech at the opening of the congress. Blatter especially liked Orbán’s remark that “fair play is strength, not weakness.”
Orbán’s close relationship with Blatter has had its advantages. For example, he receives invitations from FIFA to attend the world championships, where he can watch the games from the VIP section. He hasn’t missed one since 1998. Although he has to pay for his airfare, all other expenses are covered by FIFA. In Brazil his son, Gáspár, even accompanied him and sat next to him in the VIP section, right beneath Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel.
Hungary will host the 2020 European Championship at the rebuilt Puskás Stadium in Budapest. The stadium will look impressive, as the pictures in an English-language article in portfolio.hu amply demonstrate. The stadium, according to Orbán, will be part of a larger center for Olympic sports. Yes, in the last few months the idea of bidding for the Olympic games in 2024 has resurfaced. In 2017 Hungary will host the world championship organized by FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation), which is responsible for administering international competitions in aquatics. That event will cost Hungarian taxpayers 45 billion forints. Many Hungarians ardently hope that Budapest will not win the right to hold the Olympic Games in Budapest because that will truly be beyond the financial capabilities of the country. As it is, the 2017 FINA world championship was awarded to Hungary unexpectedly. The original winner, Guadalajara in Mexico, withdrew in the last moment. The reason: the price of oil fell and they could no longer afford it. The president of FINA praised Hungary and Orbán “as friends in a difficult moment.”
Orbán’s lofty ideas about sports and fair play sound less than genuine in view of his own political career and personal life. “Sports give a chance for us to understand how to win in a fair way and how to accept defeat with some respect!”
I’m almost certain that Orbán has his heart set on hosting one of the future World Cups. Most likely he believed that Blatter’s presidency would give him an edge. And that extra advantage is needed since Hungary’s ranking in the world of football is very low: forty-third out of fifty. It will be interesting to watch how Orbán navigates a newly reformed and reconstructed FIFA.