Tag Archives: European Football Championship

Hungarian success didn’t change opinion of Orbán’s football mania

The Hungarian performance at the European Football Championship created a political controversy at home. Critics of the Orbán regime feared that since Orbán’s name is so closely associated with the game, the relatively good performance, especially in light of the past performance of the national team, would bring added popularity to the regime. Opinion pieces at home and abroad pointed out the political dividend of the fantastic enthusiasm that took hold of the population, especially after the first two games against Iceland and Portugal. Many of the critics bemoaned the likelihood that, with the Hungarian team’s marked improvement, the population would more readily endorse Viktor Orbán’s gigantic spending on football. Perhaps the enthusiastic fans will find Orbán’s unnatural preoccupation with the sport justified. Viktor Orbán himself certainly thought there was a connection between his extravagant spending on the sport and the initial success of the national team when on his Facebook page he said: “You see!” (Na, ugye!) By the way, for Orbán the game is a deadly serious affair, as the picture taken of him during the Austrian-Hungarian game shows.

For Viktor Orbán football is not a game

For Viktor Orbán football is not a game / Getty Images

Some of my friends, who certainly cannot be called supporters of the Orbán government, were furious with those commentators who shared their worries over the political fallout of the Hungarian football success. They foresaw the inevitable reaction from the other side. Indeed, the right-wing media called them traitors to the national cause, spoilers of a giant national celebration. For instance, Tivadar Farkasházy, an avid football fan and humorist, had an interview last fall on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd in which he said “Of course, I always root for the Hungarians. On the other hand, I have another self. When we lose I console myself that we managed to create a bad day for Viktor Orbán.” This statement was subsequently completely distorted, as a result of which someone spat into his face on the street. Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap published long articles about the disloyal left, which cannot be happy over the fantastic performance of the national team. Magyar Idők called it a hate campaign against Orbán and Hungarian football success.

The government, of course, did its best to make the team’s achievement its own. The initially spontaneous celebrations eventually deteriorated to official ones where the number of people coming out for the team was anything but spectacular. While the state radio and television station talked about 20,000 fans gathering on Heroes’ Square, more modest estimates judged the size of the crowd to be about 5,000. As the Hungarian saying goes, “Every wonder lasts only three days.”

And the football wonder is definitely over. As Publicus Institute’s latest poll shows, Hungarians are not so naïve as to think that the couple of decent showings of the national football team had anything to do with the billions of forints of taxpayer money Orbán spent on his hobby. Or that the half-empty football stadiums have anything to do with the quality of Hungarian football. Reaction to Orbán’s football extravagance is as negative after the European Football Championship as it was before. Eighty-three percent of the adult population still think that Viktor Orbán should spend less or a great deal less on building stadiums. People believe that the money allocated to stadium construction should instead be spent on healthcare, education, the elimination of poverty, employment opportunities, and higher wages in the public sphere, in that order.

There is, however, a change from the December 2015 poll with regard to government support of professional football and NB1 players of the National Championship. Although 63% of those asked would like to see less money spent on football players, eight months ago this figure was 72%. But when the respondents were asked the cause of Hungary’s success, only 10% pointed to the financial assistance the government/Viktor Orbán gave to the national team. Most (42%) said the players themselves and hard work were the source of the good performance. Almost as many (41%) named the two coaches, Pál Dárdai and Bernd Storck, who had coached the team over the last twelve months. So, those who thought that Orbán would reap great political benefits from the performance of the national football team were mistaken.

The future of Hungarian football will most likely depend on those youngsters who are currently enrolled in the 15 football academies. Three years ago MLSZ (Hungarian Football Association) hired an internationally well-respected Belgian company, Double Pass, to evaluate the performance of these academies. Double Pass’s first assessment was published in 2014, and it was described at the time as devastating. Everywhere Double Pass looked it found major deficiencies. The best of the lot, Debrecen’s academy, got a grade of 66%. The Felcsút Academy, which received an incredible amount of financial assistance from pro-Fidesz oligarchs, ended up #9. At that time Orbán boasted that the Puskás Academy was one of the top ten in Europe.

Now, two years later, Double Pass has released its final report, and the results are no better. Népszabadság called the report “Awakening from the EC dream,” emphasizing the poor quality of the players being trained in these academies. Double Pass analyzed strategy, infrastructure, coaching, the study of games, etc. and still found Debrecen to be the best. The richly endowed Felcsút, which just last year received 11 billion from tax-free contributions to sports, mostly football, and which is getting a new indoor football field for six billion forints, did move up in the rankings. Instead being ninth, it is now sixth out of fifteen. The whole report is available online. A good summary appeared in HVG.

One of the criticisms of Double Pass was that the owners of the academies often get personally involved in the strategy and management of the academies. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Viktor Orbán were among these meddlers. If that is the case, he is not a very good strategist or manager because the season results of the Felcsút Academy between 2013 and 2016 were anything but sterling. In the 2013-14 season they were in fourteenth place with a record of 8 wins, 15 losses, and 7 ties. They were tenth in 2014-15 with 10 wins, 15 losses and 5 ties and eleventh in 2015-16, next to last in the National Championship’s first tier (NB I) with 7 wins, 16 losses, and 10 ties. By now, Felcsút plays in NB II. But I doubt that Orbán will take Double Pass’s recommendations to heart. He rarely listens to others, especially if the advice comes from abroad.

July 17, 2016

Mighty few fans and a multitude of stadiums in Hungary

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.

An NB1 game at the Debrecen stadium

A NB1 game in Debrecen

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.

Viktor Orbán and FIFA’s Sepp Blatter

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.”

Pál Schmitt, Sepp Blatter, and Viktor Orbán in 2009 at the Puskás Award ceremony

Pál Schmitt, Sepp Blatter, and Viktor Orbán in 2009 at the Puskás Award ceremony

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.