Tag Archives: football stadiums

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’s private stadium is completed: “The resurrection of Hungarian football”

The great day is coming. Monday, which is a holiday in Hungary, will not be about the resurrection of Jesus Christ but about the resurrection of Hungarian football. I’m not kidding. This is what György Szöllősi, communication director of the Puskás Academy, said to the hundreds of reporters who showed up for the first tour of the facilities of the Pancho Arena. Why Pancho Arena? Because, as we just learned, this is what the Spaniards called Ferenc Puskás when he was playing for Real Madrid. Mind you, in Hungary everybody knew him as Öcsi Puskás (“öcsi” means younger brother or a really young boy in Hungarian). And while we are on the subject of names, Puskás’s family name until he was ten years old was Purczeld. Yes, one of the Mighty Magyars was of German extraction, a descendant of one of the many German immigrants who settled in Hungary in the early eighteenth century.

I guess the creators of the Pancho Arena in Felcsút, a Hungarian village about 40 km from Budapest, decided on the name because Viktor Orbán, who was already working on making a national superhero out of Ferenc Puskás, decided during his first premiership to name the old Népstadion (built between 1948 and 1952)  after the football legend. So, the Puskás name was already taken. Thus they had to settle for a name that isn’t terribly familiar to Hungarians.

I doubt that Puskás in his youth ever heard of this village. His favorite town was Kispest, where he started to play football. Kispest was a separate town until 1950, when it was incorporated into greater Budapest. Nonetheless, Orbán managed to get all “the Puskás treasures” in the possession of the Puskás family to Felcsút, where the prime minister spent part of his childhood and where he built a weekend house a few years ago. These “treasures,” which include old jerseys, pictures, trophies and other memorabilia, will be on permanent display in the halls of the stadium. Daily guided tours will be available to all who would like to see this “sanctuary” to Ferenc Puskás and football. The description of the arena as a sanctuary also comes from the Academy’s communication director.

The sports reporters were clearly in awe of the excellent conditions created in Felcsút for the sport. I’m also sure that they are looking forward to reporting from the press box equipped with all the latest marvels of modern technology. They lauded the turf that is being watered and heated from below ground.

Journalists who deal with political matters were less enthusiastic. They made sarcastic remarks about the man who is able to satisfy all his whims because of his position of power. They can’t quite get over the fact that such a large and ostentatious stadium, which will be able to seat 3,600, is being built in a village of 1,800 people. Index calculated that each individual inhabitant of Felcsút received 3.77 million “football” forints. One old peasant woman who was interviewed kept emphasizing that the erection of such a stadium is a real joy for the Felcsútians because “after all, the building will remain here.” But this is exactly what worries the critics. What will happen whenViktor Orbán is no longer the prime minister or when he is no longer, period? What will happen to this stadium? The same thing that happened to the one Nicolae Ceaușescu built in his birth place, the village of Scornicesti, which now stands empty and crumbling? Moreover, what can one say about the leader of an allegedly democratic country who allows a football stadium that is supposed to be an exhibition piece to be built in his backyard? Indeed, a valid comparison can be made between the Romanian dictator and Viktor Orbán. This is what a blogger was alluding to when he gave this title to his post on the stadium: “Santiago Orbaneu: Ilyen lett a felcsúti stadion.” (This is how the stadium in Felcsút turned out.)

Felcsut stadium1

Photo László Döme / pfla.hu

There are several boxes, complete with I assume well-stocked bars for those who either “deserve them” or can afford them. One box belongs to Viktor Orbán and his guests. The plaque next to the door reads: “The prime minister’s office.” That aroused the interest of the journalists, but it turned out that the plaque is somewhat misleading. It is the private box of the founder of the Puskás Academy, Viktor Orbán. It will be his as long as he lives. Another box is designated for “local entrepreneurs.” I guess it is reserved for Viktor Orbán’s front men in Felcsút.

In the VIP section the seats are apparently made out of real leather, and the lucky ones who sit there can watch game replays in slow motion on monitors attached to the backs of chairs in front of them. I’m not sure how well these leather chairs will stand up to nature’s vicissitudes and the inevitable stains.

Photo Läszló Döme / pfla.hu

Photo László Döme / pfla.hu

The elaborate wooden structure will also be difficult to keep in tip-top shape. And the copper roofs in no time will tarnish. In brief, the upkeep of the structure will be enormous. What will happen if the flow of money that is coming in now due to the founder’s position stops? Because, although perhaps Viktor Orbán doesn’t want to face the fact, financial supporters of his hobby will drop him once he is no longer of use to them. Once Viktor Orbán is out of office–because it will happen one day regardless of what some pessimistic people say–I doubt that a new Hungarian government will pick up the tab.

Source: Nëpszabadság

Those leather chairs / Source: Népszabadság

On Monday at the opening ceremony there will be the usual speeches. Two of the stars of the show will be former president Pál Schmitt, an Olympic champion and member of the International Olympic Committee, and Ángel Maria Villar, president of the Spanish Football Association and vice president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. The former had to resign in disgrace because of plagiarism and the latter’s reputation is marred by his possible involvement in corruption cases. What a pair!

The communication director of the Puskás Academy admitted that decent people no longer go to watch football, but he predicted that “on Monday the change of regime of Hungarian football will begin.” Critics of Orbán’s football mania very much doubt it. They consider every penny spent on stadiums a waste of limited resources. And the stadium at Felcsút a disgrace that speaks volumes about Viktor Orbán and the regime he has built.

No good players, no spectators but more and more stadiums

There was great excitement in government circles yesterday in the wake of the news that the third quarter Hungarian GDP grew by 1.8%. Observers who look around the country couldn’t quite believe that number and skeptics immediately questioned the figures of the Central Statistical Office.

No, the numbers are not falsified, but if they are not put into context they are misleading. What the ordinary citizen, even the one who more or less follows the news, doesn’t realize is that a year ago during the same period there was a decrease in the GDP of 1.7% compared to 2011. Thus, this single figure simply indicates that we are where we were two years ago. Moreover, economic growth during the first three quarters of 2013 didn’t herald a robust recovery. It was a modest 0.5%.

Prospects for the future are not especially bright because investment is still very low and comes mostly in the form of large government projects financed by the European Union. Since the Orbán government stopped all convergence projects that were under way in 2010, only a fraction of the available subsidies was used as late as the summer of this year. Then János Lázár took over the office handling EU projects and promised to begin large and hitherto postponed projects in a great hurry. According to critics, the government has been spending money with very little thought for utility. I for one find it outrageous that billions of euros given to Hungary by the citizens of better-off countries in the European Union go for projects that have nothing to do with convergence.

Let’s focus on the most objectionable: football stadiums. As of August 2013 a total of 123 billion forints was set aside for stadiums whose construction was already under way. And announcements over the last few months indicated that the Hungarian government will spend an additional 110-130 billion forints refurbishing existing stadiums or building new ones. These new stadiums, taken together, will be able to seat about 110,000 football fans. In the fall of 2012 the average number of spectators at the matches of Division I was 2,807; this number decreased to 2,728 during the 2012/13 season. Attendance varied widely by club. Ferencváros averaged 6,174; Diósgyőr, 5,669; Debrecen, 4,400; and Szombathely, 3,433. Then there was Mezőkövesd with an average attendance of 800 and the famed Felcsút with a mere 300-500 spectators.

Some 80% of the population object to spending public money for building or refurbishing stadiums. As far as Felcsút is concerned, even the majority of Fidesz voters disapprove of Viktor Orbán’s pet project. Yet voter dislike of this stadium building frenzy didn’t dampen Viktor Orbán’s zeal. In the 2014 budget the government allocated an additional 82.8 billion forints for stadiums.

Two days ago Népszabadság learned that the cabinet had discussed refurbishing and/or expanding twenty-six existing stadiums. The cost will be 21 billion forints. Most of the money will go to Honvéd (Army) in Budapest. In addition, Pécs, Paks, Kaposvár, Nyíregyháza, Zalaegerszeg, Vasas, Cegléd, Gyimót, Kisvárda, Szigetszentmiklós and several others will all have stadiums. Soon there will scarcely be any larger than average size town in Hungary without a spanky new stadium. Someone wittily remarked that if sometime in the distant future archaeologists undertake extensive excavations in the Carpathian Basin they will wonder what all those oval-shaped foundations were used for by the people who lived here thousands of years before.

Bishop Kiss-Rigó plays football / MTI

Bishop Kiss-Rigó plays football / MTI

It seems that the football stadium mania is infectious. The Szeged-Csanádi Diocese started a business venture, Szeged 2011 Labdarugó Sportszolgáltató Kft. The bishop, László Kiss-Rigó, is keenly interested in football. He put half a million forints of his own money into the Grosics Football Academy in Gyula. He also put money into Profi Futball Kft. Now Kiss-Rigó wants to rebuild one of the two abandoned football stadiums in Szeged. Never mind that Szeged doesn’t even have a team. The diocese’s company will build a stadium–and maybe “they will come.”

The reconstruction of the stadium will cost about 2-3 billion forints, and the Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ) already promised the diocese-owned company 700 million forints toward the cost. The company itself hasn’t been doing well. In fact, just last year it lost 95 million forints. However, the bishop is optimistic that his business venture will receive a few billions from private donations–donations that can be written off on the donors’ taxes. Just as Felcsút managed to get 4-5 billion, Kiss-Rigó, a great Fidesz supporter, will most likely get generous support thanks to his connection to Viktor Orbán. As far permission from the city of Szeged is concerned, one doesn’t have to worry. Although the mayor is a socialist, the majority of the city fathers are members of Fidesz. They already gave their blessing to the bishop’s project.

But not all is in order in the Szeged-Csanád Diocese. The Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service (NAV) is investigating possible tax fraud and other unspecified felonious acts. And that leads me to the surprising fact that businesses owned by church organizations have all sorts of privileges granted by the Orbán government that other businesses don’t receive. For example, lower corporate taxes, no taxes on company vehicles, and lower personal income tax rates for ministers and priests. The Democratic Coalition included repeal of these perks among the party’s sixteen points.

The investigation of the Szeged-Csanád Diocese is still under way. An earlier investigation into the crooked business practices of the Pécs Diocese ended the career of the bishop of Pécs.

It would be interesting to know the extent to which churches are engaged in business ventures and how much the Hungarian government is helping them along. In the Szeged case, the Hungarian Football Association’s 700 million donation to Kiss-Rigó’s business venture comes from the Hungarian taxpayers, who are most likely not terribly keen on a church-built stadium in Szeged.