Tag Archives: football

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

From football to fear: Recent opinion polls in Hungary

Today is devoted to polls. Please don’t worry, the post will not be full of numbers. I will concentrate on the big picture.

My first topic is Hungarians’ feelings for football. I think that talking about football today is especially timely because, as 444.hu’s sportswriter put it yesterday, the Swiss team “walked all over the Hungarians,” whose game was apparently full of “glaring mistakes.” It was only during halftime that the Swiss didn’t score a goal, as he put it sarcastically. Hungarian football is apparently not worth watching, and there is a point when even nationalism isn’t enough to keep interest alive. Just as there comes a time when the lure of a better life outside of the country cannot keep an awful lot of Hungarians at home.

Ever since 2010 an incredible amount of money has been spent on sports and sports facilities in general, but naturally  Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport, football, received the most. 24.hu calculated the amount of money spent between 2011 and 2017 on five sports– football, handball, basketball, water polo, and hockey–from just the so-called TAO offerings. Large companies, in lieu of taxes, can donate money to support one of these five sports, but given Orbán’s penchant for football, half of the 415 billion forints of TAO money went to football clubs. And then there are all those football stadiums, 32 of which will be built by 2020 and will cost 215 billion forints. Yet all that money didn’t improve the quality of Hungarian football, and consequently there are mighty few Hungarian fans at games.

Given the enormous outlays for football, does it serve any useful purpose? We know that the quality of play hasn’t improved and that the number of fans who show up in these new stadiums is small. Republikon Intézet conducted a poll to find out how people feel about Hungarian football. The pollsters asked two questions: (1) How true is the following statement: “I follow Hungarian football and I’m proud of it” and (2) Do you think it is worth investing in sports facilities in Hungary? The result most likely greatly saddened Viktor Orbán: the people are not grateful. Even Fidesz voters are not that proud. More than half of them are decidedly not proud, and they don’t follow the games at all. Only 22% are enthusiastic. And if that is the word from the Fidesz voters, you can imagine what the left-liberals think: 73% of them want nothing to do with the sport. Two-thirds of the Jobbik voters are also left cold by Hungarian football.

When it comes to the stadium-building mania of the prime minister, the figures are not at all encouraging. It seems that Viktor Orbán was able to convince 37% of Fidesz voters that investing in sports facilities is worthwhile, but 27% of them think it’s a waste of money. The majority of Jobbik and socialist-liberal voters disapprove of the incredible spending on stadiums and other sports facilities. What’s amazing is that Orbán, who is normally very sensitive to public opinion, seems to be utterly oblivious to the unpopularity of spending taxpayer money on his personal hobby.

Another poll that aroused my interest was conducted by Medián. The goal was to measure the extent of endangerment Hungarians feel when it comes to the perceived threat from the “migrants,” George Soros, “NGOs financed by foreigners,” the European Union, Russia, and the United States. Respondents were able to choose among five possibilities, ranging from “no threat at all” to “very big threat.” I’m sure that no one will be surprised to hear that 49% of Hungarians absolutely dread the migrants, while only 6% are not afraid of them at all. George Soros is greatly feared by 32% of the respondents. Even the mild-mannered members of NGOs are greatly feared by 17% and somewhat feared by an additional 20% of the population. The amazing finding is how successful the Orbán government has been in convincing Hungarians that Putin’s Russia poses no danger to Hungary. This is especially surprising given the recent Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian military aid to the rebels in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Only 9% of respondents consider Putin’s Russia a serious threat, the same percentage that consider the United States a serious threat.

444.hu, which commissioned the poll from Medián, rightly points out that “the government propaganda is working perfectly because people are afraid of exactly those things Fidesz wants them to be afraid of.” Perhaps the most telling proof of the success of the propaganda campaign is a pair of questions. One is about the threat to Hungary from the European Union and a second, from “Brussels.” Since the European Union is popular among Hungarians and because the Orbán government didn’t want to be too blatantly antagonistic to the EU in its anti-EU campaigns, they used “Brussels” instead of the European Union in their propaganda campaigns. And behold, 37% of the respondents are afraid or very afraid of “Brussels,” while only 25% fear the European Union. This is how effective propaganda is.

As for those feared NGOs, László Földi, one of the three “security experts” used by the state and Fidesz media to frighten the population to death, is ready to do them in. Földi, I’m convinced, is not quite of sound mind. He is a former intelligence officer from the secret service apparatus of the Kádár regime who spreads his outlandish views not just on the refugee question but on Hungary’s security in general. In Földi’s view, the world is full of spies, internal as well as foreign, who are trying to undermine the present government of the country.

Well, a few days ago Földi was the guest of Echo TV, which was purchased recently by Lőrinc Mészáros. Mind you, the change of ownership from Gábor Széles to Mészáros made no difference. The station has been a hub of far-right journalists and commentators all along. The conversation was about Islam in Hungary. In passing, Földi talked about the “migrants” and those civilians who try to help them, specifically the Helsinki Committee and Migration Aid. Földi came out with the following absolutely mind-boggling statement: “We are at war and these people are collaborators, war criminals, traitors, and so on. This is a very different conceptual system. A human trafficker in war is not a human trafficker but in effect a saboteur who has no legal status. In brief, they can be freely liquidated. This is what the code of war says: we don’t take spies or saboteurs to court but we immediately eliminate them.” He is an adviser to István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest. Enough said.

October 8, 2017

The agony of Hungarian football

The “humiliating defeat” of the Hungarian national football team by the amateur players from the tiny Principality of Andorra has prompted a nationwide uproar. One might retort that football is just a game and there is no guarantee that teams considered to be inferior always lose and the better ones always win. Why all the fuss? Perhaps the best answer came from Bence Jávor, sportswriter for Index, who, in connection with the Andorra-Hungary 1-0 game said that “at the moment the greatest problem with Hungarian football is that it is not really about football.” Viktor Orbán made the game a vehicle for the much coveted national greatness. An incredible amount of money and effort has gone into the sport since 2010 without any improvement in the quality of the players.

Hungarian football and Viktor Orbán exist in a symbiotic relationship. The defeat in Andorra is a defeat for Viktor Orbán and his vision. Last summer when during the European Football Championship games Hungary scored a couple of victories, Orbán obviously believed that his strategy of making Hungarian football great again was working. Those who are aware of the depth of the problems, however, knew from the start that all the billions of forints spent on the sport had been in vain.

The government media has been circumspect. Origo, for example, tried to minimize the defeat by publishing a long article listing all the horrible Hungarian losses suffered in games with inferior opponents, starting with the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. Government propaganda outlets must be careful. One doesn’t joke around when it comes to football. After all, that is Viktor Orbán’s domain.

Thus, it is mostly the opposition papers’ sportswriters who offer penetrating analyses of the state of Hungarian football. Index pointed out that while last year, after the two Hungarian wins against Austria and Portugal, Orbán immediately posted on his Facebook page “Na, ugye” (You see), claiming that his strategy had worked, this time he was silent. Not a word about the fact that Hungary hasn’t won one game yet in the preliminaries to the World Championship, to be held in Russia. This defeat is also Orbán’s defeat. As Bence Jávor said in his Index article, “In Hungary, football is a sector of the national economy, even a nation-forming sector which, as a result of the exclusively divine political will, is able to return the lost confidence of our people so they can continue to rise again because their talented children in the stadiums will enforce at last the much deserved appreciation of the world.” But there is a wide chasm between Orbán’s imagined role of the sport and reality, which despite all efforts cannot be closed.

In Népszava Iván Hegyi, formerly sportswriter at Népszabadság, wrote an excellent article titled “Magyar Dwarfs in Lilliput.” He points out that the “cheap propaganda” that can be read in government papers’ sport sections or in such papers as Nemzeti Sport, the favorite newspaper of Viktor Orbán, only matches the level of Hungarian football. In the last few years pro-government oligarchs have poured 190 billion tax-free forints into football clubs and into Orbán’s very own Puskás Academy in Felcsút. The Orbán government has spent 400 billion forints on building stadiums. As Hegyi says, “almost 600 billion forints for practically nothing.” That is a sizable amount of money: 2.2 billion dollars more or less down the drain. Some “experts” even tried to “analyze” what happened but, as Hegyi puts it, “this kind of analysis is made only in Humbugistan.” This is where Orbán’s vision of football as a “strategic sector” has led. To Humbugistan.

Another article that created quite a controversy appeared in HVG. It bore the title “[András] Hont: Na ugye.” This is a take-off on Viktor Orbán’s by now infamous bragging last summer after a couple of wins during the European Football Championship. “You see? Didn’t I tell you? It was worth it!” All that in two short words. But now Hont says to Orbán, “Na, ugye.” It means, didn’t we tell you, Viktor Orbán, that all the money you’ve been pouring into football has been a total waste? All that money that was given to football instead of to education and healthcare.

But what really upset the Hungarian right was Hont’s devastating words on the Hungarian football hooligans who accompanied the national team to Andorra. As usual, they wreaked havoc when they were ready to remove the players’ shirts because “they didn’t deserve to wear their uniforms.” Even though Hungary’s defeat in Andorra was described in the media as “shameful,” “what we really ought to be ashamed of is that from time to time we let a few hundred unhinged Neanderthals with Nazi tattoos invade Marseilles, go to Lisbon to attack gays or to Bucharest to make a racket. They should be left somewhere where no-go zones or zoos should be built to accommodate them.” The following video will give you an idea about the behavior of the Hungarian “fans.”

Well, the members of the “Carpathian Brigade,” who created the upheaval in Andorra, were not happy with Hont, whom they kept calling “Andráska.” Even Magyar Idők felt that it had to weigh in on the issue. Although the article quoted Hont’s exact words on the tattooed Nazis, it still accused Hont of a lack of patriotism. “What kind of man is it who is happy when his country loses and sad when it wins?” This is the level of “government journalism” in Hungary nowadays. Despite the fact that Hont said not a word about being happy that the Hungarians lost.

What do we know about Viktor Orbán’s reaction to the Andorra fiasco? The little journalists managed to get out of him was the following: “We have the same leadership at the head of the Hungarian Football Association that was able to find the appropriate answer after the devastating 8-1 loss suffered at the Hungarian-Dutch game. Now we must all trust that President Sándor Csányi and his team will make a wise decision after proper deliberation.” This leads me to believe that Viktor Orbán is still incapable of realizing that his strategy has totally failed, that everything he has done has been for naught.

I’m also sure that today he regrets the words he uttered only a few days before the disastrous performance in Andorra. “Hungarian football is doing much better today because we have football academies. The system of academies is the greatest value in Hungarian football. We must preserve and strengthen it. This is what we have learned in the last ten years. This is what we are good at…. In brief, I think that if we stabilize the system of academies we will have world-class Hungarian football.” We are indeed in Humbugistan.

June 12, 2017

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

The ethos of Hungarian football

The current Hungarian political landscape is a wasteland. Almost nothing is happening. Half of the government seems to be in France, and the rest of the country talks of nothing else but the Hungarian national team’s surprisingly good showing at the European Championship. Since 1972 no Hungarian national team had been good enough to even participate in these games, so the national delirium is understandable. Today I’m going to look into some possible explanations for the sorry state of the sport in Hungary in the last thirty years or so.

Hungary was once a powerhouse of football, but today economic realities make it highly unlikely that it will ever return to its former glory. Hungary simply doesn’t have the kind of money necessary to finance a top-flight team. Each player has his own price and, according to Andreas Möller, the recently hired assistant to Coach Bernd Storck, the market value of the Hungarian national team today is the lowest of all the teams playing in France. One reason for this low number is that a fair number of the athletes play for Hungarian and Polish clubs, which are lesser known and valued and hence pay lower salaries. (Or they pay lower salaries, hence they are lesser known and valued.)

But it seems that there are other problems in the world of Hungarian football that have less to do with money and more to do with the circumstances created by the leaders in the sport. I read an interview with a player who felt so neglected in his Hungarian club that he packed up, moved to Austria, and today is a member of the Austrian national team. For one reason or another, his coach in Hungary didn’t appreciate his talents.

One shouldn’t think that this young man’s case was unique. A couple of months ago Storck, the new coach of the Hungarian team, made the mistake of asking why a certain young player from the Puskás Academy was being ignored when he is very talented. Storck was immediately rebuked by the coach of the Academy, who announced that all decisions are his responsibility and he doesn’t appreciate advice, even if it comes from the coach of the national team. László Kleinheisler, the hero of the Hungary-Norway match, was a member of Videoton, where he was completely neglected although again he is apparently a very talented player. To everybody’s amazement Storck picked him to be a member of the national squad. Criticism immediately followed this “rash decision” on Storck’s part.

Over the years, reading the Hungarian media, I couldn’t help noticing that the coaches of the national team came and went with frightening frequency. Today I sat down and counted: nine coaches in ten years. One of these, Sándor Egervári (2010-213), gave an interview to Sport TV in October 2015, shortly after Storck was hired and had just made the decision to change the entire staff he inherited from his predecessor. Egervári said in the interview that “we trained [the players] for second place because for us second place meant moving further up.” Well, I don’t know about football, but in other sports the coach wants his team to win and not be satisfied with second place. In the interview he had to admit that “unfortunately in the last half year” when he was the coach, the Hungarian team lost its second position.

In the rest of the interview he expressed his misgivings about Bernd Storck who, in his estimation, is a divisive personality, which will be detrimental to the squad’s cohesion. He called Storck’s decision to hire an entirely new training staff “horrifying” because the old staff “knew the circumstances that exist in Hungary” and they were the ones who could help the players. He went on and on until it finally became evident that what Egervári really objected to was that the new coach was not a Hungarian. Someone coming from the outside cannot get to know the players, he said, adding that “we are Hungarians in an emotional sense” and thus, I gather, a German will never understand the Hungarian psyche. Never mind that the mostly Hungarian coaches in the last thirty years hadn’t achieved anything. The final message of Egervári was to “go with the flow,” don’t change anything, permanence is something to be cherished. But the trouble is that in this context permanence meant failure.

Storck’s daring moves and his assessments of player talent were largely responsible for the achievements of the Hungarian national team, but the second man who should be applauded is Sándor Csányi, president of the Hungarian Football Association, who backed Storck up through these last few months. He told Storck that he had a free hand in deciding with whom he wants to work. He also defended the coach against the leadership of the Puskás Academy.

In October, right after Egervári’s attack on him, Storck explained his decision to change the entire staff only a few months before the beginning of the games. He explained that the members of the old staff worked only half-time, and Storck is apparently the kind of guy who works 24/7. Also, he had his own ideas about the game and needed people who could understand and share his vision. As for the risks, he said there are times when one has to take risks. A few days ago he again elaborated on the lack of daring of Hungarian football players as well as their lack of self-confidence and a will to win. “It is hard to convince the players that they should raise their heads, look their adversaries in the eye, and be proud that they wear this uniform.” Just as we heard Egervári say that he would be satisfied with second place, apparently leaders in the Hungarian world of football kept telling Storck and Möller before the game against Norway to “play for a tie.”

Zoltán Stieber celebrating his goal at the game against Austria

Zoltán Stieber celebrating his goal at the game against Austria

I’m not sure, but I have the feeling that Storck is paying a lot more attention to analyzing the techniques of the adversaries than his predecessors did. He believes that there is never enough study of earlier games. Each player receives a detailed account of the strengths and weaknesses of their adversaries. The staff works out a complete plan for the coming game. With a part-time staff I wonder whether such thorough prepping was possible. Most likely not.

Of course, one swallow doth not a summer make, but Storck and Möller are committed to staying in Hungary until at least 2018. The question is how hard a time they will have changing the fundamentals which, like so many other things, would need a total makeover.

June 21, 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.

The Quaestor scandal and football

Perhaps if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán were not a crazed football fan his government wouldn’t be in such a pickle today. What does football have to do with the Quaestor scandal? A lot. Although the Orbán government is desperately trying to blame the socialist-liberal governments (2002-2010) for the collapse of Quaestor, the close relationship between Fidesz and Csaba Tarsoly, the CEO of Quaestor, dates back to 2001, during the first Orbán administration. And it was all about football.

In 2001 Tarsoly purchased the Győr football stadium and 17 acres of land for 650 million forints from Rába Rt. While he was at it, he also bought the ETO FC football team. With the purchases he assumed their heavy debt load, plus the stadium was no longer up to snuff. He needed cash and, knowing  the boundless interest in football among the Fidesz leadership, he approached Tamás Deutsch, then sports minister, who promised him 900 million forints. He also went to the socialist mayor of Győr for additional funds and got a promise of 500 million. The people of the city were thrilled that someone had bought the financially ailing football team that had seen better days, and therefore the mayor gladly offered help. Moreover, when Fidesz lost the election in 2002 he himself made sure that the new socialist-liberal government would fulfill the Fidesz government’s promise of financial help.

Back in 2001 Tarsoly had the support not only of the mayor but also of two Fidesz members of the city council, one of whom was the young political hopeful, Péter Szijjártó. Tarsoly may have been counting on a Fidesz victory in 2002 because three weeks before the election, in the presence of the Fidesz members of the city council, he laid the cornerstone of the new stadium although there was no valid building permit yet. I suspect that the cornerstone-laying ceremony was designed to help the Fidesz election campaign.

Fidesz’s loss at the national election must have been a blow to Tarsoly because he had only verbal promises of financial help, no cash in hand. So he rushed back to the socialist mayor asking for his continuing support, which he got. Moreover, the mayor promised to lobby on his behalf with the new sports minister, Ferenc Dénes, and later with Ferenc Gyurcsány, who held the post between May 2003 and September 2004.

Of course, the money that had been pledged was nowhere near enough to build a stadium that could seat 16,000 people. Moreover, as time went on, Tarsoly’s ambitions grew. He also wanted to have a hotel, a plaza, and a high school for the students of the football academy run by ETO FC. So, at the same time, Tarsoly applied for a series of loans from the state-owned Magyar Fejlesztési Bank [MFB] (Hungarian Development Bank), which eventually amounted to 16.9 billion forints. The actual construction and its financing had some setbacks, especially given the 2008 economic crisis, but the stadium and the plaza were finished in 2009. The hotel opened only in 2012.

Photo by Sándor H. Szabó

Photo by Sándor H. Szabó

Already in 2009, that is under socialist stewardship, MFB had worries about the way Quaestor was handling the project and two years later, when the Fidesz-appointed president took over the bank, he also considered the project to be one of twelve that were risky. He even asked for a police investigation, but the police or the prosecutors didn’t follow through. 444.hu suspects that the Orbán government didn’t want to make a fuss because of Tarsoly’s generous support of football. In fact, as time went on, both Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó praised Tarsoly and his project at every turn. Orbán often visited the ETO Park in Győr, and the team became one of his favorites, especially since his own son was a member of ETO FC for a while. Apparently, when Audi moved its factory to Győr, Orbán’s only request in exchange for the generous government support extended to the German manufacturer was sponsorship of ETO FC. Indeed until a few days ago Audi gave 300 million forints every year to the local team.

Of course, Szijjártó, a Győr native, was thrilled. In 2012 when the four-star hotel opened, Szijjártó praised the project as the most modern sports complex in Central Europe. He went on and on about the “family-friendly plaza”and the stadium itself, which in his opinion is “the most precious gem” of all stadiums. Of course, this was before the tsunami of football stadiums thanks to Viktor Orbán’s insatiable appetite. The Győr stadium seats 16,000. A week ago only 3,800 fans were present.

As far as the plaza is concerned, it is an unmitigated disaster. It turned out that there was no need for a third shopping center in Győr. At present 44 stores out of a total of 80 are empty. The mall reminds people of the plaza in the film “Dawn of the Dead” except “not even the zombies come here.”

Some commentators speculated that the reason Tarsoly was optimistic about getting financial assistance from the government in early March was Viktor Orbán’s passion for football. Judging from the short note the prime minister sent to Tarsoly on March 9th, there might still have been a glimmer of hope as far as the owner of ETO FC was concerned. Orbán was ready to talk about Tarsoly’s proposal even at that late stage of the crisis. Of course, we have no idea what transpired in the afternoon of March 9th and the morning of the 10th when Mihály Varga’s deputy had a chat with Tarsoly, but it looks as if Orbán was unable to convince the ministry of national economy that saving Quaestor was economically and politically feasible. Even if Tarsoly owns ETO FC, Orbán’s favorite team.