It’s impossible to separate Hungarian football from Viktor Orban. Eleven of the 12 clubs in the Hungarian top division are owned by Orban allies. The club that finished runners-up last season play 20ft from Orban’s country house. More than 25 new stadiums across the country have been constructed with government funds under his reign. The fans print his famous slogans across their flags. The players watch matches alongside him.
When the Hungarian Prime Minister regained power again in 2010, Hungary were 57th in the world rankings, they hadn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986, the Hungarian league was ranked 36th in Europe, and only two sides had qualified for a European group stage in the past 10 years.
Fast forward just over a decade, Hungary are 40th in the world rankings, have just played at their second major tournament in five years, the league is ranked 27th in Europe, and a Hungarian side has reached a European group stage in each of the past four seasons.
The league itself is in a position unimaginable to a Hungarian football fan 11 years ago. Since communism fell in 1989, Hungarian football had become a laughing stock at home and abroad. The biggest clubs in the country had experienced financial ruin, the stadiums throughout the league were decrepit, the standard of the pitches was terrible, attendances had dropped by more than 50% and the standard of the football itself was drab.
The whole footballing experience within Hungary was small-time, amateurish, poorly organised, badly run. It felt like a forgotten sport where ghosts of an illustrious past haunted the current crop.
Yet now, Hungarian football feels real, it feels professional. The stadiums are world class, the clubs well-run, the football – though not near the quality of Europe’s top leagues – is much easier on the eye and the media give it it’s full backing.
There has been a huge perception change in that regard. The media for years viewed Hungarian football with disdain, but thanks to Orban, that’s no longer the case.
In the 11 years of Orban’s premiership, government ownership of the media sector has risen by 19%, including the sports media. The CEO of the organisation that owns Nemzeti Sport, Hungary’s sports daily and the third most popular newspaper in Hungary, was a member of the government until April 2020, while the editor-in-chief is a friend of Orban. The public broadcaster Magyar Televizio, also own the rights for all Hungary’s domestic and international games.
Orban has spent lavishly to make all this a reality. It’s estimated that £2 billion has been spent on football since Orban took power, with £100 million being spent on his pet project, Puskas Akademia, alone.
This would be easy to take if Hungary was a super-wealthy country, but it isn’t. Twelve per cent of the country live in poverty, with 75% of the total population living below the EU poverty threshold.
It would also be easier to take if Orban were a benevolent leader who used his rhetoric and position for good. But Viktor Orban is no such leader.
Over the past 11 years, Viktor Orban has eroded the foundations of Hungarian democracy. It’s why many call “soft-fascism” a subtle form of authoritarianism.
Since 2010, Hungary has dropped 69 places in the Press Freedom Index and 11 places in the Democracy Index. Hungary is also the only EU member state to be considered “partly free” by the think tank Freedom House.
On the face of it, elections are free, though parliamentary districts have been redrawn to give Orban’s party Fidesz a huge edge. The media remains free, but 90% is owned by the state or an Orban ally. The courts are free, though they’re filled with Fidesz loyalists.
Orban drove these changes through in less than five years after winning a supermajority, which allowed him to bend the constitution to his will. Now six years later, the Hungarians system is a rigged one that Orban uses to drive through his illiberal agenda.
The LGBT+ community have borne a lot of the brunt. Orban has repeatedly spoken about how LGBT+ people are not compatible with Christian values and in the summer, the Hungarian government passed a law that censored the portrayal of LGBT+ relationships for under 18’s in the media and at school.
Migrants too have been lambasted upon every corner with Orban and his government dehumanising them on an almost daily basis. His rhetoric is justified by invoking national security and sovereignty, yet the delivery is so poisonous that the paranoia created amongst his fanbase is palpable, as evidenced at the newly built football stadiums that he helped finance.
Hungary’s football stadiums have long been a hotbed for white supremacist sentiment. Yet the sentiment has never before been aligned with government. Now the rhetoric used in parliament is interchangeable with that on the terraces.
When Hungary’s LGBT+ law came to be in June 2021, a few days later members of Hungary’s fans displayed anti-LGBTQ banners vs Portugal in Budapest.
When responding to Hungarian fans’ booing of the knee vs Ireland, Viktor Orban said, “Hungarians only kneel before God, homeland and when they propose to their love”. At Hungary’s game against England at the Puskas Arena in September, a Hungarian flag with the words, “we only kneel for God” was seen in the streets of Budapest.
A percentage of the Hungarian fanbase are now emboldened by their premier. When Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham were racially abused by Hungarian fans at the Puskas Arena in September, there was no widespread condemnation. Hungary’s foreign minister said that England can’t complain about a hostile atmosphere after their fans booed the Italian national anthem during Euro 2020. Large parts of the press also blamed Sterling for provoking the Hungarian fans.
Hungarian football and Hungarian governance has become so intertwined it almost feels like it is now as one, like football is merely an extension of government. For the liberal Hungarian football fan who sees through the Orban facade, it is difficult to reckon.
In one respect, it is great to see Hungarian football improve, it is great to see young 20-year-old Hungarians playing the type of football past generations could only have dreamed of, and it’s great to see a country proud of its number one sport again.
But the cost it has come at is immeasurable. One part of your mind tries to compartmentalise by taking a stoic approach and arguing that, “Orban can take so much away from me, but he can’t take away my love for the sport”, but the other side of the mind struggles to keep that love alive.
Seeing those scenes at the Puskas Arena last month only sees that love further diminish. I just hope we don’t see anything like it tomorrow.