The Orban government has spent $2.7 billion since 2010 to revive the sport in the country and appeal to his populist nationalist base.
When Hungary participated in the Euro 2020 tournament this June, it marked a symbolic moment for Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s – some believe reckless – obsession with football.
Ever since he returned to power in 2010, the nationalist strongman and his far-right Fidesz party have overseen a huge economic investment in the sport at both the national and club levels to consolidate their power in Hungary.
The Puskas Arena national stadium in Budapest, which hosted the national team’s three games at the Euros, came with a hefty price tag of nearly half a billion euros. It is the most expensive of the at least 25 stadiums that have been built in the country since 2010.
Much of the funding for stadium projects has been funnelled from the TAO scheme, which has allowed construction firms – often linked to Fidesz – to receive generous tax breaks if companies donated money to a sports team.
The spectacle of thousands of boisterous football fans also offers a thrilling backdrop for Orban and his associates. A June article from the political weekly HVG highlighted how Fidesz politicians “tend to post more photos of the crowds gathered for the national team matches than the match itself.”
While Orban has not returned Hungarian football to its glories of the early 1950s, he has been central in linking it to a national re-awakening, steering the state’s finances away from other avenues to the one closest to his heart.
One man’s obsession
Orban’s preoccupation with football is well-known.
He played in the lower tier of the Hungarian football league for the youth team of Videoton, about 20 miles south-west of his home village of Felcsut. His first foreign trip as prime minister was to the World Cup final in Paris in 1998 and has allegedly never missed a World Cup or Champions League final since, in addition to watching as many as six matches a day.
In 2014, he became the beneficiary of an ornate 3,800-capacity stadium (The Pancho Arena) and football club called Puskas Akademia in Felsut named after Fernec Puskas – widely considered the greatest Hungarian footballer of all time.
Hungarian football blossomed in the interwar period after the First World War, reaching the World Cup final in 1938 and the final of the 1939 Mitropa Cup (forerunner of the European Cup). Following the Communist government takeover in 1947 and nationalisation of the sport in 1949, it took home gold in the 1952 Olympics and made another World Cup final again in 1954.
The end for Hungary as a great footballing nation came with the Soviet Union’s suppression of the 1956 Uprising and defections of much of the country’s top talent, as it steadily diminished in stature until it was firmly in the doldrums by the end of the Communist era in 1989.
Then Orban arrived on the scene, with as much as $2.7 billion spent on football over the past decade. His home club Puskas Akademia received about $140 million since 2010 and finished second in Hungary’s top league this season.
His government has also been bankrolling football academies and training facilities outside of Hungary as part of a soft power strategy to lure support of ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries.
Lorinc Meszaros, Hungary’s richest man and an Orban ally, owns a majority stake in the Croatian club NK Osijek, while Orban used public money to build a football academy in Romania. An investigation found approximately $58.5 million in taxpayer money was channelled through the Hungarian Football Federation and Bethlen Gabor Fund to clubs in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia.
Meanwhile back home, fan culture around Hungary’s football stadiums has been dominated by far-right fan groups, most notorious being the Carpathian Brigade – an umbrella group of hardcore fans with a chequered history of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ behaviour.
While there is no evidence for any formal connection between Fidesz and a slew of racist and homophobic incidents that have frequently occurred at matches, many party politicians remained reluctant to condemn the actions of fanatics from fringe groups, or worse, have even spoken out in favour of them.