Vasárnapi Hírek commissioned Publicus Research to conduct a survey of Hungarians’ interest in football and their willingness to attend games. The results, as you will see, must be discouraging for Viktor Orbán, who hopes for, and spends vast sums to achieve, a revival of interest in the game. As we all know, because of Orbán’s football mania an incredibly expensive program of stadium building has been underway.
Originally I was overly ambitious and planned to have a complete list of new or completely refurbished stadiums, their capacity and cost. I’m sure this could be done, but not in the time I have today. Therefore you’ll have to be satisfied with a list that is most likely far from complete.
So, let’s start at the beginning. Although people are apt to forget life under the first Orbán government, the stadium mania started then. In 2000 the government embarked on a stadium reconstruction program, which over the next three years was supposed to include the renovation of 38 football stadiums at a cost of 12.7 billion forints. Compared to what’s going on today, this was a pittance. By 2003 only four stadiums had been completed and 19 were partially refurbished.
In 2013, the second Orbán government launched a new stadium construction program. By then the construction of the stadiums of Ferencváros, Debrecen, and Felcsút had pretty well been completed, so the government expanded its horizons. Under the new program Honvéd (Budapest), Győr, Újpest, Pécs, Vasas (Budapest), Zalaegerszeg, Kaposvár, Kecskemét, MTK (Budapest), Paks, Pápa, Békéscsaba, Mezőkövesd, Siófok, Dunaáujváros, Gyirmút, Ajka, Balmazújváros, Cegléd, Kozármislény, Sopron, Szolnok, Tatabánya, Szigetszentmiklós, and Kisvárda will all have nice new stadiums. At that time we were told that the list may get longer. And indeed, if I recall, I read somewhere recently that Szeged will also get a stadium.
By January 2015 the government had spent almost 500 million euros on stadium construction. And by October of this year Népszava reported that “a new wave of stadium building is coming.” The paper estimated the cost of the 20 or so stadiums at 160-180 billion forints.
By that time several stadiums had been finished: Groupama Stadium (23,700 seats) at a cost of 14.7 billion forints; Nagyerdei Stadion, Debrecen (20,340 seats) at a cost of 12.5 billion; and the Pancho Arena in Felcsút (3,500 seats) at a cost of 3.8 billion forints. And the new ones are coming fast and furious: by the spring of 2017 six more stadiums will be ready for the nonexistent fans. Some of the stadiums mentioned here are rather large, with a seating capacity of 20,000 or more, while others are more modest but still not modest enough for the average number of fans who show up at National Championship 1 (NB1) games, about 2,000. And these are the best teams.
The figures are impressive or outrageous, depending on one’s outlook. We ought to keep in mind that for years the Orbán government has been spending more money on sports than on Hungarian higher education, and most of this money is spent on football.
On December 12 Vasárnapi Hírek published a summary of Publicus’s findings. The headline read: “Total lack of interest in Hungarian football.” Not only have the billions spent on stadium construction had no appreciable impact on the quality of Hungarian football, but the poll indicates that all this construction has also failed to translate into any political advantage for Fidesz and the government. Eighty percent of Hungarians polled over the age of 18 think that much less should be spent on stadiums. Seventy-five percent think that the government spends far too much on professional football and the teams that make up the NB1, over and above the expenses for stadium construction. Even Fidesz voters oppose the lavish spending on football.
The majority of the people who consider Viktor Orbán’s financial support of the sport to be extravagant would like to see the money spent instead on healthcare (54%), the elimination of poverty and hunger (29%), education (21%), and the creation of jobs (13%). In addition, from the “savings,” 7% think that the pay of state employees should be raised, while 6% would improve the country’s infrastructure. The rest would rather spend the money on other sports.
The news that the Hungarian national team will be able to participate in the European Championship next year as a result of winning two matches against Norway reached almost everybody polled, but only every twentieth person thinks that the Hungarian government’s support of football had something to do with it. Thirty-two percent believe that it was the quality of the players that made the difference; 20% think that it was due to luck, and 20% believe that the quality of the new coaches had something to do with the wins.
Currently only 8% of the adult population attend football matches with any regularity, and in the future even fewer plan to do so, only 6%. Sixty-one percent neither follow the NB1 championship games now nor plan to do so in the future. Twenty-five percent follow the games on television, but one-third of these are interested only in the results and the news summaries.
And now a few words about the “capacity utilization” of these new stadiums. In Debrecen, with a seating capacity of 20,000, there are normally 3-4,000 fans. In the Groupama Aréna (FTC), with a seating capacity of 22,000, on a good day there are 6-8,000 people. Next year MTK will have a new 5,000-seat stadium; their matches are normally attended by a few hundred fans. The same is true of the matches of Vasas, Honvéd, and the Puskás Academy.
At the same time, there are sizable cost overruns at the stadiums under construction. According to the latest report, the stadium in Szombathely (Haladás) will cost 14 billion instead of 10 and the arena in Diósgyőr will cost 9 billion instead of the estimated 6.
It is hard to believe that Viktor Orbán is so blind when it comes to football that he really believes that building twenty or so brand new stadiums in smallish provincial towns will make a difference in either the quality of Hungarian football or the numbers of fans. Instead, it seems more plausible to assume that he is spending these vast sums of money with an eye to eventually hosting the EUFA finals or World Cup games. (Of course, he would have to further enlarge stadiums to pull this off.) I’m sure he would regard this as the culmination of his political career, topped only by having the Hungarian team in the finals–the EUFA finals or, if he’s really hallucinating, the World Cup.
Three years ago Sándor Csányi, president of the MLSZ (Magyar Labdarugó Szövetség), announced the more modest goal of hosting games during the 2020 UEFA. He made this announcement in the presence of Viktor Orbán and Michel Platini, then head of European soccer’s governing body. (Platini is currently under investigation in connection with the FIFA scandal of last summer and in October was suspended from his post.) In 2014 Budapest was one of eight cities selected to host games during the round of sixteen and group stage. As a result, the New Puskás Stadium must be built, and that will cost 165 billion forints.
Altogether this is the mad scheme of a man who is crazy about football. A whole country is paying for his abnormal attachment to a sport in which he couldn’t excel.