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.
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.