Tag Archives: Ferenc Puskás Football Academy

Financing of Hungarian sports: court rules it must be transparent

Even small victories can lift anti-Orbán hearts nowadays in Hungary. Thanks to the recent decision of the Kúria, Hungary’s highest judicial body, Viktor Orbán was rendered a defeat that must have hit him hard. At risk is what he considers to be one of his greatest achievements, the Felcsút Football Academy.

Transparency International spent a considerable amount of time and energy investigating the government’s lavish support of sports and came to the conclusion that the sports financing system the Orbán government established is rotten to the core. In the course of its investigation Transparency International also ascertained that the “absolute winner of the whole system is the village of Felcsút and its football club.” Felcsút has become the symbol of everything that is wrong in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. It is a village of 2,000 people with one of the most lavish football stadiums, which can seat 4,500. The club uses all sorts of tricks to entice people to attend the club’s games, usually to no avail. The stadium is practically empty most of the time. In fact, according to those in the know, Hungarian football is dead, and the incredible amount of money that was poured into the game was an utter waste. Hungary’s FIFA standing is the same as it was before.

Over the years people have tried to find out how much money was being spent on sports, mostly football. But the system is intentionally complicated in order to hide the exact amount that comes from two main sources: direct grants allocated for sports in the budget and something called Társasági Adókedvezmény/TAO (Corporation Tax Allowance), introduced in 2011. Corporations can get a tax break if they support one or more of five sports: football, handball, basketball, water polo, and ice hockey. Money allocated to support sports is considered to be part of the tax owed. Thus, all money that is donated to these sports is a direct loss to the central budget. Since 2011, according to the latest estimate, 330 billion forints of corporate tax money was diverted to sports organizations. Or, put another, more shocking way, in the last six years the Hungarian state has given up one out of every nine forints in tax revenue.

From this money 128 billion went to football clubs and 86 billion for handball, while the rest was shared by basketball, water polo, and hockey. Viktor Orbán has been insisting for years that TAO is not public money and therefore no one has the right to learn about the sponsors, the recipients, and the amount of the money donated.

Interest in Hungarian football–Debrecen Stadium, which can seat 20,000. Cost €40 million

Transparency International, being convinced that the tax allowance is public money, asked the ministry of human resources for their allocation figures, which was denied. Transparency at that point sued the ministry. In the first instance, Transparency lost the case. The decision was based on tax secrecy. In addition, the judge didn’t consider the requested data to be of public interest. On appeal, however, the decision was reversed. Tax secrecy as a reason for denying access to the information was discarded, and the court ruled that the TAO monies are, after all, considered to be public funds. The ministry then turned to the Kúria, and on October 25, 2017 the decision of the appellate court was upheld.

Concurrently with Transparency International’s suit against the ministry of human resources, Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) sued Viktor Orbán’s Academy in Felcsút for the release of all contracts for jobs that were financed by TAO money. Felcsút apparently received about 14 billion TAO forints in the last six years. In July 2016 the Székesfehérvár Court ruled in DK’s favor, but Felcsút Academy had no intention of obliging and appealed. In February 2017 the Budapest Appellate Court also ruled in DK’s favor, but for a different reason from the Székesfehérvár Court. While the lower court considered TAO to be public money, the appellate court based its verdict on the non-profit status of Felcsút Academy. Felcsút Academy was obliged to turn over all documents relating to TAO funds within 15 days. Felcsút Academy again appealed the verdict, and thus the case ended up in the Kúria for a final decision. On November 15 the Kúria ruled that Felcsút must provide details of how they spent the enormous amounts of “public” money. The verdict could have been predicted because a month earlier, in connection with the Transparency International case, the Kúria had already declared TAO funds to be a public resource.

Index described the verdict as “the final and humiliating defeat of Orbán’s football academy.” János Lázár’s reaction a day later amply showed what kind of a country Hungary has become in the last six or seven years. During Lázár’s usual press conference on Thursday, when asked his opinion of the Kúria’s decision, he said: “There is a judge in this country who is very angry with Hungary’s government and Fidesz. His name is András Baka. Because of his changed official status, he has been greatly offended, and for some strange reason all TAO cases end up on his desk. I wouldn’t want to suppose that any bias would have influenced the judge, who on numerous occasions publicly criticized Fidesz and the government.”

Let’s stop here for a moment and go back to 2011, when the Hungarian Supreme Court became the Kúria. The chief justice at the time was András Baka who, prior to his appointment in 2008, had been a judge at the European Court of Justice for Human Rights for 17 years. Although he was considered to be a conservative judge, he became worried about Viktor Orbán’s so-called judicial reforms. He objected, for example, to the forced early retirement of judges, which gave the government a free hand to fill about 300 positions that became vacant as a result of the new law on retirement. Orbán desperately wanted to get rid of Baka and eventually came up with a good excuse. Baka hadn’t been a judge in Hungary for five years. His 17 years with the European Court of Justice were not considered relevant. Baka turned to the European Court of Human Rights and eventually was awarded about 100,000 euros, which naturally the Hungarian government, or to be precise Hungarian taxpayers, had to cough up. Baka couldn’t return to his old post, which had been filled by someone else, but he was reinstated, I’m sure grudgingly, as one of the leading judges in the Kúria.

The Kúria’s answer to Lázár was brief and to the point. They will not comment on politicians’ statements concerning their activities, but the spokesman explained that the assignment of cases is determined a year ahead and given to judges according to their professional specialties.

Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that this is the end of the story because János Lázár intimated at the press conference that it was time “to make order” as far as TAO is concerned. To make order to me means that they will most likely come up with some modification to the law that would prevent the public from learning where that incredible amount of money has gone.

November 17, 2017

A few gems from Viktor Orbán’s “strong and proud” Hungary

There are just too many topics that have piled up in the last few weeks that deserve at least a mention. So I decided that today’s post would be a potpourri.

Lex Felcsút

Hungarians like to use the Latin “lex” for “law” when a piece of legislation proposed by the Orbán government is specifically designed to circumvent already existing legal constraints or has been enacted for the specific benefit or disadvantage of individuals. Here are a couple of examples. When Viktor Orbán wanted György Szapáry, who was over the age of 70, to be Hungary’s ambassador to Washington, he simply changed the law, raising the upper age limit for diplomats. When he wanted Zsolt Borkai, an Olympic champion and former lieutenant colonel in the Hungarian Army, to become a Fidesz member of parliament, the five-year moratorium on members of the armed forces for political office was lowered to three. Thus, Lex Borkai.

In 2015 the Demokratikus Koalíció sued FUNA, the foundation that runs the Felcsút football academy, after the foundation refused to release all the documents between January 2013 and November 2015 that pertained to the billions of tax-deductible forints the foundation received from large corporations. The foundation’s position was that the money certain sports clubs receive this way is not considered to be “public money.” The Székesfehérvár court didn’t agree. It ruled that the so-called TAO money in support of sports facilities (Corporate Tax Program) is considered to be public money and instructed FUNA to provide documentation of their finances. FUNA appealed, but in February the Budapest Appellate Court ruled that the books of the foundation for the required period should be made public. The ruling this time was based not on the public nature of the TAO support but on FUNA’s designation as “a publicly useful nonprofit” (közhasznú) organization. Within 15 days FUNA was supposed to deliver the documents to DK.

Those who had been distressed over this murky set-up full of opportunities for corruption were thrilled. “Here is the end,” said Magyar Narancs in February 2017. But not so fast. Nothing is that simple in Orbán’s Hungary. First of all, 15 days came, 15 days went, and no documents arrived. At that point the Demokratikus Koalíció sued. And the case was moved to the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, for a final decision. There is no decision yet, but the government doesn’t leave anything to chance. On June 27 Magyar Nemzet noticed a small change in the TAO law enacted by parliament a few days earlier. Sports organizations are henceforth no longer designated as “publicly useful nonprofit” entities. If the appellate court decided that the documents must be released because FUNA is a publicly useful organization, the way to deal with this problem is simply to abolish the designation. That’s why this latest fiddling with the law is called Lex Felcsút.

The Poster War

Another perfect example of Fidesz inventiveness when it comes to legislation is the recent law nicknamed Lex Simicska. After a couple of abortive attempts, the Fidesz majority pushed through a law that should have required a two-thirds majority by amending a piece of existing legislation that needed only a simple majority. President János Áder dutifully signed a clearly unconstitutional law. You may recall that these Jobbik billboards, the target of the law change, featured not only Orbán but also Lőrinc Mészáros and Árpád Habony. Jobbik made the right decision when it included these two on their posters. Only yesterday Iránytű Intézet (Compass Institute) released a poll on the popularity of Habony and Mészáros, in addition to that of politicians. These two are at the very bottom of the heap. Habony is most likely seen as the symbol of Fidesz’s very aggressive method of communication, while Mészáros is the symbol of corruption. Clearly the Hungarian people like neither.

A 2010 Fidesz poster right next to Hungária Circus in Hatvan / Source: 24.hu

Lajos Simicska’s firm, Mahír, gave a substantial discount to Jobbik, which Fidesz tried to portray as concealed party financing. But selling advertising spots is like any other business venture where there are no fixed prices. Sometimes they are cheaper–for example during winter. Sometimes they are more expensive–for example, at election time. And, I assume that in certain circumstances personal preferences may play a role. For example, in Jobbik’s case, Simicska’s by now intense hatred of Viktor Orbán must be taken into consideration. Or, conversely, when Simicska worked hand in hand with Viktor Orbán for the good of Fidesz, he gave, as we all suspected, a very good price to his own party. In fact, at the very beginning of the 1990s Simicska purchased Mahír for that very purpose.

Now we know how good a price Fidesz got from Simicska in 2010 when the whole country was plastered with Fidesz posters. Someone made sure that 24.hu got all the documentation covering Fidesz’s deal. Fidesz paid 63% less than Jobbik did for its recent billboards. One billion forints worth of advertising was purchased for 23 million! That’s a real bargain, all right. But that’s not all. Fidesz ordered 4,700 billboards for 23.2 million forints, and they got an additional 1,300 posters gratis. Thus, Fidesz had 6,000 billboards and posters as opposed to MSZP’s 2,000 posters and Jobbik’s fewer than 500 during the 2010 election campaign. But, of course, these parties didn’t have such a generous benefactor. Nor did they have such well-funded party treasuries.

State support of parochial schools

I just read that the Orbán government spends 200,000 forints on children who attend parochial schools and only 54,000 on those who attend public schools. If all children were considered equal, public schools should receive 112.5 billion forints more than they get now. I feel very strongly about this issue, and I find the trend of passing public schools gratis to various churches unacceptable. The kind of education children receive in parochial schools, given the extremely conservative nature of Hungarian churches, may have an adverse effect on Hungarian society as a whole. Moreover, how can the Orbán government justify that kind of discrimination against most of its own young citizens?

Shooting galleries for school children

I left the best for last. Even the Associated Press reported about two weeks ago that Hungarian educational authorities are currently evaluating the installation of shooting galleries in schools to increase the variety of sports available to students. Officials of the Klebelsberg Center insist that the idea has absolutely “nothing to do with aggression and violence.” I saw a high-ranking official of the Center talk about this plan with great fervor in a TV interview, but about two weeks later came the denial. Márta Demeter, formerly an MSZP member of parliament, asked István Simicskó, minister of defense, about the veracity of the news. He flatly denied any such plans. He claimed that the Klebelsberg Center’s inquiries from school principals about appropriate locations for shooting ranges have nothing whatsoever to do with “the long-range defense development program” of his ministry. I’m sure that the Center’s inquiry and Simicskó’s earlier plans of building shooting ranges all over the country are connected. I also suspect that reactions to the notion of putting firearms into the hands of 13-14-year-olds were so negative that the great plan had to be abandoned.

Conclusion

That’s all for today, but I think these few examples are enough to demonstrate that something is very wrong in Viktor Orbán’s “strong and proud” Hungary.

July 2, 2017

It’s hard to get away from football when discussing Hungarian politics

I picked a few topics today that on the surface don’t have much to do with one another, but by the end I trust we will see a common theme. Yes, I know, the title has already given it away.

First of all, we have a public opinion poll by the newly established ZRI (Závecz Research Institute). Tibor Závecz used to be a member of the Ipsos team, but Ipsos stopped doing political polling. Závecz therefore formed ZRI as a kind of successor to Ipsos. The poll, taken between July 10 and 17, doesn’t reveal any dramatic changes in political trends, but the responses to some of the questions ZRI posed may offer opposition party leaders a strategic compass for the 2018 election.

I will spend little time on the actual numbers. In the sample as a whole, Fidesz gained three percentage points, from 24% to 27%, in the last month. This gain, according to Závecz, is most likely due to the intensification of the anti-migrant campaign and the initial success of the national football team at the European Football Championship. All the other parties moved up or down by about a couple of percentage points. However, the weakening of Jobbik over the last few months can by now be described as a trend. In April Jobbik’s share was 15%, in May 14%, in June 12%, and this month 11%. It looks as if Gábor Vona’s new strategy is not exactly a success among the radical elements. Apparently, the losses are especially noticeable among members of the younger generation and in the countryside where the party was extremely strong. As is usually the case in Hungarian polls, the largest group among the respondents, 36%, could not name a party for which they would vote today.

Among those respondents who said they would definitely vote if the election were held today, 49% said they would vote for Fidesz. Yet in the sample as a whole, 43% would like to see a change of government in 2018 and only 32% would like to see this government continue. The problem is that those who would be happy to see the Orbán government go are extremely passive. Only 16% of them would even bother to vote. The task of the democratic opposition, and it is a daunting task, must therefore be to motivate some of those people whose current attitude is, as Tibor Závecz aptly described it, “I want you to vote and get rid of this government for me.” Leaders of the democratic opposition will have to figure out a way to get these dissatisfied masses to the polls since 43% translates into more than 3 million votes.

Fidesz may have benefited in this survey from the performance of the Hungarian national football team, but Hungarian soccer is an unlikely long-term prop for the party. It’s enough to look at the miserable performance of FTC (Fradi) against Partizani Tirana in the Champion’s League qualifiers. The Albanians beat the Hungarian team 3-1. The Hungarian players were so bad that the coach actually apologized, and the fans demanded the resignation of Gábor Kubatov, Fidesz’s campaign wizard and the chairman of FTC. Fewer than 9,000 spectators showed up for the game, played in the brand new Groupama Arena with a capacity of almost 24,000. The game was a reality check. Hungarian football, despite the flash in the pan in France, cannot compete internationally with any hope of success, despite generous financial support from the Orbán government. FTC received close to 1.5 billion forints from the government just this year, and the new stadium cost almost 16 billion forints.

And now let’s move to Felcsút and the findings of Direkt36, “a non-profit investigative journalism center with the mission to expose wrongdoings and abuse of power through fair but tough reporting.” Direct36 works with 444.hu, which yesterday published some details of the Orbán family’s land holdings in Felcsút. The details of the story are not entirely new. In 2013 the late Krisztina Ferenczi reported on how Viktor Orbán, at the very end of 2006, made offers to several homeowners in Felcsút to purchase parts of their large backyards. These parcels of land now serve as the VIP parking area for the Pancho Arena. So, Ferenczi concluded, Orbán already had well developed plans for a large arena at a time when he had just lost his second election in a row. He was waiting for the moment when he would be prime minister and could build his hobby arena from taxpayer money.

csaladi focibusiness

Anita Vorák of Direct36 in the 444.hu article shows that Orbán didn’t fill out the financial statements he submitted to parliament properly. Of course, in comparison to other corruption cases, this “little oversight” is really a small item. But from the way the story of the purchase of these strips of land unfolds, one has the distinct impression that something is very fishy. First of all, it is not at all clear what the connection is between Viktor Orbán’s own holdings and those of the Felcsúti Utánpótlás Neveléséért Alapítvány, a foundation behind the Ferenc Puskás Academy which was established by Viktor Orbán with an initial capital of 150,000 forints. For example, not only Viktor Orbán but also Anikó Lévai, his wife, and Győző Orbán, his father, gave the foundation free use of the land they had purchased for 50 years. The non-profit foundation’s founder has no legal, formal connection with its creation, the Academy. But it’s curious that the founder of the foundation and his family members “lend” land to the foundation, land that will be used by the Academy.

I was astonished to read that the foundation has 110 employees. This is a large tax-free business funded almost exclusively by the state for the pleasure of the founder of the organization. And the wealth of the Academy and therefore of the foundation keeps growing. I really wonder what will happen to this whole edifice when Orbán is no longer prime minister and the flow of money from government coffers comes to an end. Because I assume that the next administration will have the good sense to stop funding this monster and will instead investigate this so-called foundation, what Krisztina Ferenczi called “the Felcsút family football business.”

July 22, 2016

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

An Orbán interview about football

I don’t follow football, or soccer as it is called around here. Of course, I know that the performance of Hungarian football teams is abysmal and that the Hungarian prime minister spends billions of forints on stadiums that are practically empty. And naturally I know a lot about the stadium Viktor Orbán built right next to his country house in Felcsút. The stadium seats almost 4,000 people. Felcsút has a population of 1,600.

Viktor Orbán’s pet project, handsomely financed by taxpayer money, is the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy which, in the founder’s opinion, is among the top ten best academies in Europe. According to a less biased assessment, of the twelve Hungarian academies the Puskás Academy ranks ninth.

After Viktor Orbán delivered his “speech to the nation” on Friday, he went directly to Felcsút to watch the first match of the season. While there, he gave an interview to the communication director of the Academy.

What did I, a soccer know-nothing, learn from the prime minister? For starters, that the Puskás team is very weak. Naturally, Viktor Orbán said nothing of the sort, but one couldn’t help but be suspicious when he repeated several times that the emphasis in Felcsút is not on the team’s performance because, after all, it is an academy. The important thing is “teaching the students to play football.”

I also came to the conclusion that the Puskás team would be beaten every weekend if they did not hire outside, older players: Attila Fiola (25) and Attila Polonkai (36). Naturally, this is not exactly what Orbán said. He only mused about the adverse psychological effects of losing every weekend.

The stadium might empty and the team untalented but the Pancho Arena is fancy

The stadium might empty and the team untalented, but the Pancho Arena is fancy

I also learned that Orbán is worried about the possibility of the team’s losing its standing in the top tier of the National Championship (NB1), which would not be “worthy of the heritage of Ferenc Puskás.”

During the interview it also became clear that the fancy Felcsút stadium and the Puskás team attract very few spectators. Only once was the stadium full: at the opening ceremony. I was happy to learn, however, that according to Orbán “it doesn’t really matter how many spectators we have…. We don’t have fans. We have an academy.”

Also, there seems to be a fear that the low attendance has something to do with people’s political antipathy toward Viktor Orbán. The prime minister had to agree. In his opinion, the Academy and its team are frequently attacked unfairly on account of him, attacks that “are very hard to bear.” Therefore, he has the highest respect for the players. I wonder what kinds of attacks these players have to endure. We learned only that the fans of Vasas FC “sent [Orbán] in a most vulgar manner to a warmer climate.”

That’s what I learned from the interview. Since reading it, I found out that on the average there are 1,000 spectators at the Felcsút games, which (using admittedly spurious math) comes out to 3.47 million forints per spectator from taxpayer money. Another interesting bit of information I picked up was that Orbán after all must be bothered by the low turnout. Because otherwise why would it be necessary to offer free bus rides to fans from seven close-by towns and villages?

In brief, the Academy and its stadium are a flop.

Despite Viktor Orbán’s best efforts, Hungarian football is not a success story

I never  in my wildest dreams thought that one day I would be searching for details on some fine points of football/soccer. In fact, in my teenage years I was so indifferent to the world’s favorite sport that I wouldn’t even attend the “game of the century” in Pécs when the “Golden Team/Mighty Magyars” played against the not so mighty locals. But what can one do if Hungary is today cursed with a prime minister for whom football is the most important thing after politics? (Or perhaps even ahead of it.)

Football for Viktor Orbán seems to be so important that he even subordinates matters that are vital to the well-being of his people (education, healthcare, and social services) to his favorite sport. Austerity measures are introduced three or four times a year in order to keep the deficit under the required 3%, but these measures never touch the sacred game of football. Other sports in which Hungarians are much more successful receive only meager–and ever decreasing–government subsidies.

I have to trust those who know something about the game and who claim that Hungarian football is currently beyond redemption. They emphasize that the kind of professional football that is played today pretty well precludes the possibility of Hungary ever becoming the football powerhouse that Viktor Orbán dreams of. Football is business, big business. And the borders are wide open. A talented Hungarian football player could make millions of euros in another country. But there is one major problem: there are no truly outstanding Hungarian players, and it looks as if there won’t be any in the near future.

Viktor Orbán, whose energy between 2002 and 2010 was spent primarily on his efforts to regain power, put aside enough time to ponder the future of the struggling Hungarian football enterprise. One of his many goals as prime minister was the revival of Hungarian football, but the way he has gone about it is not likely to produce results. He launched a stadium construction and renovation project in 2010, scheduled to be completed in 2018 to the tune of 140-160 billion forints. The  map below gives a fair idea of the magnitude of the undertaking. Altogether 33 stadiums will be built or renovated. Unfortunately, the quality of Hungarian football is so bad that the stadiums today are practically empty. I assume that Orbán thinks that better stadiums will attract  more fans; if you build them they will come. Stadionprojektek But where will the players come from? From the football academies, of course. Oh, yes, the football academies. Viktor Orbán received some bad news on that front recently. Some time ago the Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ) asked the independent Belgian firm Double Pass to assess the work being done in the Hungarian football academies. The verdict as summarized by MLSZ is devastating. Double Pass also ranked the Hungarian academies, which MLSZ wanted to keep secret. There was good reason for the secrecy. The “famous” Ferenc Puskás Academy backed by Viktor Orbán was ninth out of twelve! This is the same academy that, according to the prime minister, was among the top ten in Europe!

Even the best Hungarian academy, the Debreceni Labdarúgó Akadémia, is inferior in comparison to academies in other European countries with strong teams. In Hungary training methods are old-fashioned and not uniform. There are no trainers who specialize in developing particular skills. Recruiting is done on a part-time basis. Psychological coaching is sorely wanting. The Hungarian academies don’t use modern training software. And the report goes on and on for 134 pages.

The directors and coaches of these academies were not at all thrilled about this probing by Double Pass, and now that the ranking is available they try to explain away the firm’s findings by claiming, as is usual in Hungary, that the employees of Double Pass don’t really understand the Hungarian system. Well, let’s put it this way, Double Pass clearly understood that the Hungarian system doesn’t produce winning teams. Hungary is currently host to the annual UEFA European Under-19 Championship. So far, the Hungarian team has lost to Austria (3 to 1) and to Portugal (6 to 1). Sportswriters kept saying that the Hungarians “should have won” against the Austrians but, well, they blew it. The Portuguese  are very good but they won against Israel with only three goals and not six. In brief, the Hungarians under 19 are lousy. And these people are students and graduates of the academies! Hungary might have 33 swanky stadiums by 2018, but the country is unlikely to have fantastic football players.

And while we are on the subject of these new stadiums, an incredible amount of money was spent on the Felcsút project, but weeks ago one could already read that something is very wrong with the drainage of the field. After a heavy rain a game had to be scrapped because the grass would have been damaged otherwise. Nature was blamed: the rain was too heavy. This time the game was played in the rain, and as one of the sportswriters remarked, the game was almost played in a lake. But that is not the only problem. The fancy wooden structure over the spectator seats does not shield people from the rain. The sportswriters with their computers were not exactly happy with the section allocated to them because the rain was coming down on them fast and furious. So, they packed up and went inside to watch the game on the monitor. So much for Viktor Orbán’s efforts so far on behalf of Hungarian football. He seems to be as successful in this endeavor as he is in governing the country.

The childish games of a would-be dictator: The case of Viktor Orbán

I think it is time to talk about the dear leader’s megalomania that’s recently reached an all time high. The dear leader is, of course, Viktor Orbán. Or at least this is what he is called by those who’ve had enough of his and his government’s autocratic and corrupt practices.

To his many sins we may add a total lack of  restraint. He acts like any two-bit dictator with limitless power. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, Viktor Orbán has enormous power within Hungary. The only limits he has to endure come from the European Union. Until now, however, he has managed to evade any serious consequences of flaunting the spoken and unspoken rules of the Union, and it looks as if he will be able to avoid the excessive deficit procedure as well. Or at least this is what one could hear from Mihály Varga, who managed to exchange a few words with Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, today.

Lack of restraint. A man who with the assistance of his minions placed by now in all positions from the executive to the judiciary and a willing horde of third-rate journalists ready to serve him will arrive at a point where his sense of reality completely fails him. He becomes so single-minded in pursuit of his selfish interests that he loses sight of the possible consequences of his actions. And since he rules with an iron hand in his own party, there is no one in his entourage who dares warn him.

It seems that no one in Fidesz has the guts to tell the dear leader that his football mania got to the point that people are beginning to think that Hungary’s Orbán is not very different from Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator. After all, Ceaușescu also built an enormous football stadium in the village in which he was born and lived until the age of eleven. Viktor Orbán is following in the Romanian dictator’s footsteps.  Ceaușescu built a 30,000-seat football stadium in Scorniceşti, population 12,000, while Orbán is building a 3,500-seat stadium in Felcsút, population 1,800, where he spent his early years.  The scales are roughly comparable.

But Orbán is outdoing Ceaușescu because, after all, the Romanian dictator didn’t have a house right next to the stadium. Orbán does. He will now have a very elegant, very expensive small stadium of his own. He has to walk only a few feet to be in the arena. The stadium will be named after the Hungarian “Golden Team” of the early 1950s on which the famed Ferenc Puskás played. In addition to the stadium, Orbán managed to get money to establish a football academy in Felcsút, naturally named after Ferenc Puskás.

I read somewhere that when Orbán established the Puskás Academy in 2007 he didn’t really think that a village football team could ever be a first-rate team that could play in Division I of the National League. Most likely at that time Orbán was still recovering from his deep depression after the lost 2006 election. But now the sky’s the limit. Last Saturday Puskás Academy, which everybody simply calls Felcsút, was the undefeated champion of Division II and therefore next season the team will be able to play with the “big boys.”

Since 2007 the Academy has built a private high school and several practice fields and has a staff of 23, including a “communications director.” It is in the middle of constructing a stadium that will cost 3.5 billion forints. Money is pouring into the coffers of the Academy.

Earlier Orbán made sure that his wealthy friends would have an incentive to donate sizable chunks of money for spectacle sports: football, handball, hockey, etc. Those contributing to a fund set up for that purpose could write off the amount donated from their income tax. Once billions were collected this way the various clubs could apply for grants. Felcsút was not shy and asked for 3.5 billion. It received 2.8 billion, one-fifth of the total allocated. Just to give some sense of the size of this particular grant, the football club that received the second largest amount was Debrecen with 500 million forints.

The stadium is already described in the media as a dream or a wonder stadium. It is being built following the design of the famed Imre Makovecz, an ardent supporter of Fidesz, who died a few years ago. The plans released by the Academy show an intricate structure using the most expensive materials.

Puskas1

The construction of the dream stadium is already underway, and by next spring  important games will be played in the village where Viktor Orbán grew up. A Puskás-Suzuki Cup was established, and these games will be played in Felcsút. Several international matches will be held in the village. And since the Academy is swimming in money, it even bought an old railroad line and has already restored the old railroad station.

MTI / Photo by Szilárd Koszticsák

The work has begun / MTI photo by Szilárd Koszticsák

Mihály Varga, minister in charge of the economy, under European Union pressure announced a new  austerity program a few days ago. He indicated that it might be necessary to halt some of the major government investments, like the building of new stadiums and the reconstruction of Kossuth Square in front of the parliament building. However, it is unlikely that stadium construction will be halted in Felcsút. And if the Academy’s project can go ahead, most likely so will Debrecen’s. The project manager of a very large stadium in Debrecen, where work has already begun, announced that the city will go ahead with the construction regardless of what Mihály Varga says.

Just today Ernő Bihari, a blogger, wrote that “it is outrageous that the prime minister of a country that belongs to the European Union builds a football stadium on taxpayer money next door to his house, establishes a football academy maintained by taxpayer money, and purchases a narrow-gauge railroad also on taxpayer money. His family and his friends have received practically all the state lands in the neighborhood of his village. This is just a short list. And Viktor Orbán has the gall to do all this in the middle of Europe. This guy believes that his power is limitless.” The blogger points out that Orbán surpasses even Silvio Berlusconi, who after all made his money and became the owner of  AC Milan prior to his political career.

“The weapon is in the EU’s hands. Chancellor Merkel must decide on which side she wants to stand and give the signal to her own people that they can say what everybody knows already although no one wants to bear the odium of the decision.” So, says Bihari, it is time to state openly that “not only is Orbán’s mindset incompatible with the spirit of the Union but he is intolerable altogether.”