Tag Archives: football academies

Sports and politics: a football empire and rebellious swimmers

I was pleasantly surprised this morning because, despite the holidays, I found quite a few topics that might interest readers of Hungarian Spectrum. For today’s post I picked two, both having to do with sports and, naturally, politics.

The football empire of Greater Hungary

I had not been aware until now that the Orbán government has been generously supporting football academies outside the borders of the country. The favorite for a long time was the Romanian academy in Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc, where the former mayor Jenő Szász was a political ally of László Kövér and in general a favorite of Fidesz. According to 444.hu, a couple of years ago the Hungarian government gave one billion forints to the Csíkszereda Football Academy. An additional 300 million came from Hungary’s most successful pipefitter, Lőrinc Mészáros, who, in recognition of his generosity, was named an honorary citizen of the city. Apparently, in the final months of 2016 the government gave another billion forints to the Csíkszereda Academy.

Early this year Mészáros also became the “owner” of the NK Osijek (in Hungarian Eszék), Class I football team in eastern Croatia. The Hungarian government was again very generous. One billion forints was given to a center that is supposed feed new talent to the Osijek football team. Naturally, Mészáros’s own firm, Mészáros & Mészáros, is the chief sponsor of the club, but other Hungarian companies favored by the Orbán government also support NK Osijek: TRSZ, Duna Aszfalt, Magyar Épitő, and West Hungária Bau. As Benjamin Novák explains in Budapest Beacon, “a particular corporate tax benefit scheme allows corporations to write off 100 percent of donations made to sport clubs meeting certain criteria.” Transparency International, which investigated the case, “believes such contributions amount to a diversion of corporate taxes from public coffers to private sports clubs, and that for this reason such contributions should technically be regarded as public funds.”

Until now, at least the public could learn the names of the corporations that were generous supporters of Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport. According to the latest plans, however, this information will no longer be available. Business secrets, you know.

NK Osijek’s stadium / Source: Index

The Hungarian government, directly and indirectly, spends an incredible amount of money on football. Just for Christmas, according to the latest government decree, 50 billion forints was poured into the clubs of five spectator sports, most of them, of course, football clubs.

But why is the Hungarian government supporting football academies in the neighboring countries? In addition to Csíkszereda and Osijek, several other football clubs in Ukraine, Slovakia, and Serbia are the beneficiaries of the Hungarian government’s largess. One billion was sent to the football academy in Mukacheve (Munkács), another billion to the football academy in Dunájska Streda (Dunaszerdahely), and three billion to the Délvidék Sport Akadémia in Serbia. (Today’s Voivodina used to be called “Délvidék” or “the southern parts.”)

And why did Mészáros buy a team? A partial answer may be, as Mészáros admitted in a casual conversation with journalists, that the price for Croat and Serb players in the football market is a great deal higher than for those from Hungary.

 

Right-wing attacks against Katinka Hosszú and her American husband

A month ago I covered the struggle between the Hungarian swimmers and Tamás Gyárfás, then president of the Hungarian Swimming Association (Magyar Úszószövetség/MÚSZ). The swimmers’ case was pressed by Katinka Hosszú, the current star of Hungarian swimming.

Katinka Hosszú was victorious. Once Viktor Orbán made it clear that the upheaval in MÚSZ should cease, Gyárfás knew that he would have to resign. Mind you, although he might be despised by the star swimmers, Gyárfás remains popular with the affiliated club managers. A couple of days ago he received the most nominations for the post of president of MÚSZ, although the chance of his regaining his position is close to nil.

At the end of my post on the storm in the swimming pool, I wrote briefly about Hosszú’s American husband and trainer, Shane Tusup, whom the Hungarian swimming establishment resents. Although he is not an easy man to get along with, I came to the conclusion that this resentment has a lot to do with the fact that Tusup is an American, a foreigner. I recalled a television discussion in which the moderator completely lost his cool and abused Tusup, who thinks he is in Uganda instead of Hungary, which is a powerhouse of aquatic sports. He comes here to teach us?

Since then I have encountered many similar reactions to Tusup and, to some extent, to Hosszú as well. Soon after the world championship (25m) ended in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, an opinion piece appeared in Magyar Idők titled “A strange couple.” At that meet Hosszú received seven gold medals, which should have warmed the hearts of all Hungarian nationalists. But, strangely enough, that was not the case. On the contrary, the author of this particular article tried to minimize the importance of her and her husband’s achievement. The author stressed the prominence of Hungarian swimming ever since Alfréd Hajós received two gold medals at the first 1896 Olympic Games. And, he continued, he hasn’t met any “swimming expert” who would “tip his hat” to Shane Tusup, who is internationally recognized and was named “trainer of the year” three times in a row. The author of the article identifies with Sándor Petőfi, who “admired but didn’t like” mountains as opposed to Hungary’s Great Plains. In fact, the locals hate Tusup with such gusto that the Hungarian Swimming Association neglected to mention his trainer-of-the-year award from FINA, the international federation of aquatic sports.

The latest attack came from an extreme right-wing association called Honfoglalás 2000. Honfoglalás is the official historical name for the arrival of Árpád and his tribes in present-day Hungary. Honfoglalás 2000 is best known for its utter devotion to Russia and to Vladimir Putin. 444.hu has written several articles about this strange group, which thinks so highly of Putin that they suggested he should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. They thanked Putin for occupying Crimea. They demonstrated for the Russian-financed Paks Atomic Power Plant with placards reading “Roszatom: Jó atom!” They demanded that Péter Juhász be taken into custody because, according to them, he called on anarchists to commit disorderly acts. You get the idea.

This group had earlier called on the swimmers “to swim and not engage in political discussions.” Tusup’s name appeared in that statement: “We don’t want America (Shane Tusup) to intervene in our sports; we don’t want to introduce American-style, disgusting election campaign style conditions in Hungary. Hajrá Magyarország, hajrá magyarok!” Orbán finishes all his speeches with this sentence, which means roughly “to the finish Hungary, to the finish Hungarians.”

This time Honfoglalás 2000 is convinced that the storm inside the Hungarian Swimming Association was organized by Shane Tusup, who is purposely creating trouble in Hungarian swimming circles and thus jeopardizing the success of the World Aquatic Championships, which will be held in Budapest next year. The reason for his actions? He wants to make sure that the 2024 Olympic Games will be held in Los Angeles and not in Budapest. “Aggressive American politics by now is attacking Hungary even through sports.” The Hungarian swimmers should realize this and should cooperate with the management of the swimming association for the sake of the success of next year’s games. “Those who are not willing to do so can go, for example, to America where they should compete in Hungarian colors—we don’t hold them back.”

One might ignore all this, arguing that these people belong to the lunatic fringe of Hungarian politics. Unfortunately, my sense is that these sentiments are widely shared by those who follow the affairs of the Hungarian Swimming Association. And their numbers are significant because swimming is one of the two most successful Hungarian sports.

December 27, 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

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.