Viktor Orbán’s reckless football obsession

catch sight of the football stadium

with one main street and a couple of grocery shops, Felcsút looks like any other sleepy Hungarian village. That is until you catch sight of the football stadium, which dwarfs the other buildings in this town of 1,800 people, about 25 miles west of Budapest. The Pancho Arena, completed in 2014, is surely among the world’s most striking football grounds, more cathedral than stadium, with a swooping shingled roof, copper turrets and ornate wooden vaults thrusting upward around the interior.

Bearing the nickname that Real Madrid fans gave to Hungary’s greatest footballer, the striker Ferenc Puskás, in the 1950s, the Pancho Arena is home to a club also named in his honour, Puskás Akadémia FC, which was founded in 2007, and was recently promoted into the Hungarian first division. The stadium has a capacity of 3,800, more than twice the size of the town. But much as Puskás himself had little connection to Felcsút – he began his club career in Budapest, and never set foot in the small town – the stadium isn’t really here for the locals.

This much becomes apparent when you enter the complex, where parking spaces have been reserved for an array of Hungarian oligarchs – men of great wealth and noted proximity to the government. There is a space for the banker Sándor Csányi, the country’s richest man and the head of the Hungarian football association, and another for István Garancsi, who owns nearby Videoton FC, and his fellow construction oligarch László Szíjj. There are two spaces for Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Felcsút and the chairman of Puskás FC, who has vaulted into the upper echelons of Hungary’s rich list since his childhood friend Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 2010. And there is one space, of course, for Orbán himself, who spent part of his childhood in Felcsút, and played semi-professional football here for a fourth-division side during his first stint as prime minister in the late 1990s.

When we arrived at the Pancho Arena on an overcast Saturday afternoon last spring, the word around town was that Orbán would attend that day’s match. When he is not travelling abroad, Orbán often spends weekends at his dacha in Felcsút. Since returning to office (he also served as prime minister from 1998 until 2002) in a populist landslide in 2010, Orbán has amassed more domestic power than any other EU leader. He has rewritten Hungary’s constitution, filled the constitutional court with allies and made an erstwhile political colleague the chief public prosecutor. His supporters head thousands of previously independent bodies, including Hungary’s national bank, its election committees, cultural institutes and sporting federations.

Orbán has not been shy about steering funds to the area that is closest to his heart – football. But it is not easy to ask him questions about Hungary’s stadium-building frenzy, because he rarely gives interviews, other than on state radio, where he is inevitably flattered by friendly journalists.

For Hungarian oligarchs and foreign journalists alike, the best chance of an audience with Orbán is a visit to the Pancho Arena, which is why the car park outside the ground fills up with expensive vehicles whose owners are seeking proximity to power. “Even if you hate football, you have to go to these matches,” said Gyula Mucsi of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. “It is the only place that the elite are willing to socialise with anyone outside of their small circle. Big construction and infrastructure development projects and plans which require a lot of money are basically decided in the skybox.”

On this particular Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours before kickoff, Orbán’s parking space was still vacant. But perhaps we would see him walking into the ground. After all, it is only 20 metres from his house.

now 54, Orbán has been a public figure for more than half his life. Increasingly remote, what remains of the 26-year-old who burst into Hungary’s national consciousness during the 1989 change of regime is best viewed at Felcsút. His obsession with football is legendary: Orbán is said to watch as many as six games a day. His first trip abroad as prime minister in 1998 was to the World Cup final in Paris; according to inside sources, he has not missed a World Cup or Champions League final since.

Inside the Pancho Arena – whose sweeping curves and timber beams embody Orbán’s nationalist fondness for “organic Hungarian architecture” – crowd sizes rarely reach four figures. But the prime minister stares down at the pitch with great intensity, paying little attention to the oligarchs and ministers surrounding him. Still, there is much to be gained from staying close to Orbán: at last count, seven people on Forbes’s list of the 33 richest Hungarians had close government links. Last year’s highest climber – going up to number eight – was Orbán’s pal Mészáros, the Felcsút mayor and football club chairman, who tripled his own wealth and went on a spending spree that included the acquisition of 192 regional newspapers in one day.

With nearly all the country’s media in friendly hands, and a divided opposition struggling to adapt to the new reality, Orbán has entered his imperial phase. Newspapers that challenge the government find themselves closed down; independent NGOs are threatened with police investigations and branded as “foreign agents”. The government is an “expression of God’s mercy”, he grandly declared on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

But if the stadium in Felcsút, where the king is surrounded by his courtiers, looks like a symbol of Orbán’s absolute power, it also threatens to become a sign of imperial overreach – a lightning rod for critics and a target for investigators. The European commission has paid a visit to Felcsút to inspect the vintage railway Orbán built, using EU funds, to connect his two boyhood villages. And the Hungarian supreme court has issued two rulings that will force the government to release closely guarded financial information about its spending on sports and stadiums, which may reveal the true cost of Orbán’s football obsession.

It is an obsession that began early. Most of what we know about Orbán’s childhood comes from interviews he gave more than a decade ago. Initially, the Orbán family – he is the middle child of three brothers – lived in cramped conditions with his paternal grandparents in Alcsútdoboz, the next village along from Felcsút. His father, Győző, thrashed him “once or twice a year”. Győző was a Communist party member, but political discussions were not encouraged at home. “The milieu from which I sprang had no specific traditions whatsoever,” Orbán said later. “I came from such an uncultured, from such an eclectic … something.” It was his grandfather, a one-time docker who had fought on the eastern front during the second world war, who turned him on to football. The young Orbán no doubt heard many a story about Hungary’s heroic teams of the interwar years, and their gallant World Cup final defeats in 1938 and 1954.

When he was 10, the family moved to Felcsút. Orbán worked in the fields at harvest time, sorting potatoes and pulling beets. It was back-breaking work. “You have to hit the rats hard the first time, or else they run up the spade and bite you,” he learned. When the family moved again, up the road to nearby Székesfehérvár, he saw warm water come straight from the tap for the first time, at age 15. Although academically gifted, Orbán described himself as “an unbelievably bad child: badly behaved, impudent, violent”. By force of will, rather than talent, he got into the youth side of the Videoton, a top-flight team based in Székesfehérvár, who reached the Uefa cup final in 1985. Orbán enjoyed the social opportunities that football offered: “The game brought together people from different backgrounds. Every time I changed team, I also changed cultures.”

By 1988, Orbán was a law student in Budapest, where he and 36 other students founded Fidesz – the party he still leads. As communism crumbled in 1989, Orbán rocketed to prominence as a youth leader. As some 250,000 people gathered in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square for the reburial of Imre Nagy – the former prime minister who was executed for his role in the 1956 Hungarian revolution – Orbán delivered a famous speech denouncing the Soviet Union and demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungary. It was a moment of nerve and opportunism – the speakers that day had allegedly made a gentleman’s agreement to sidestep the subject of Russia’s departure – but with it, he entered the history books.

A lesser-known detail of that tumultuous era is that the Fidesz leaders who currently occupy Hungary’s three most powerful posts – Orbán, President János Áder, and László Kövér, the speaker of the national assembly – all played together on the same five-a-side team. On Friday evenings in the late 1980s, Hungary’s future rulers turned out for the goofily named law-student side Fojikasör – loosely translated, it means “the beer ish flowing”. Zsolt Komáromy, who regularly played against Orbán with a rival squad, recalled that for the prime minister, “playing football was a way of releasing his aggression. One time he took the ball out of play. When everyone else stopped, Orbán said, ‘It’s not out’, and carried on, and scored. He was overwriting the laws: sort of ‘I’ll tell you when it’s in or out.’”

Orbán became an MP in 1990, and quickly established himself as the leader of Fidesz, then a liberal party. He mixed with pro-European liberal intellectuals, who recognised his talents, but teased him over his smalltown ways. But when Fidesz was unexpectedly wiped out in the next elections, Orbán dropped liberalism and rebranded his party as the flagbearer of a new right-leaning middle class. After a successful election campaign in 1998, which promised “two kids, three bedrooms, four wheels”, Fidesz formed a coalition government with two smaller parties – and Orbán, then 35, became Europe’s youngest prime minister.

Fidesz politicians “started coming to the games in black cars, and bodyguards would stand next to the pitch,” recalled Imre Wirth, another former five-a-side opponent. While his colleagues stayed with The Beer Ish Flowing, the prime minister decided to play semi-professional football for Felcsút, then in the fourth division. After a narrow election loss in 2002, Orban turned further toward nativist populism, refusing to concede defeat on the grounds that “the people” could never be in opposition. He ceased attending parliament, and set about targeting the votes of those “left behind” in the transition from communism.

When a scandal engulfed the Socialist government in 2006, Orbán grabbed his opportunity and took to the streets. As the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution approached, rioters – many of them security guards from Ferencváros, Hungary’s biggest club side – channelled the spirit of ’56 and stormed the national television headquarters. On 23 October 2006, the first day of the official commemorations, Orbán gave a speech at the end point of a radical nationalist march. Riots broke out again, and police officers without ID badges shot plastic bullets at protesters. A leaked US diplomatic cable worried that Orbán was “liable to play with fire”.

The next year, Orbán and Mészáros set up the Puskás Academy – on 1 April 2007, which would have been Puskás’ 80th birthday – with initial capital of just €500. Meanwhile, Mészáros, along with Orbán’s wife, Anikó, and his father, began to acquire more land around the club. Three years later, Hungary’s political centre lurched to the right, and Orbán secured an outright majority. Armed with a constitution-changing mandate, Orbán proclaimed a “ballot-box revolution” and promised to complete what he called the “unfinished regime change” Hungary had begun in 1989.

Felcsút has not been the only beneficiary of Orbán’s football construction boom. In Budapest, we paid a visit to the new stadium of MTK, a venerable football club whose president, Tamás Deutsch, is a co-founder of Fidesz and one of the party’s representatives at the European parliament. “This is not a stadium, it’s a football castle – it’s a new concept,” Deutsch told us, sitting on an Italian sofa in his own executive box. Deutsch goes back a long way with Orbán, and they regularly kicked a ball around at that fabled law school in the late 1980s. He was always a “demanding teammate”, even in these casual kickabouts, Deutsch said. “When somebody made an unforced error, he would shout at them,” he recalled.

MTK’s slightly curious new ground – it has concrete walls behind each goal, rather than stands – was built for €27m (£24m), 50% over budget. It was funded through Orbán’s controversial TAO scheme, which allows corporations to divert taxable profits, with minimal disclosure, to sports clubs and cultural institutions. Meanwhile, direct state funds have built a new 24,000-seater stadium for Ferencváros, the Groupama Arena in Budapest, for an official cost of €63m (£55m), and the 20,000-seat Nagyerdei Stadion in Debrecen for €55m (£48m).

The Pancho Arena was a relative snip at €12m (£10m), but the Felcsút club also receives around €10m (£9m) per year through the scheme. In Mezőkövesd, a town of around 17,000 in northern Hungary, a new 4,200-seater stadium was built for the local club – whose chairman is the Fidesz deputy minister András Tállai, also head of the national tax authority. Tállai showed his gratitude by commissioning an oil painting of Orbán and Puskás.

Deutsch defended the stadium-building scheme against critics who note that 40% of households in Hungary still live below the breadline. “If we gave the financial support only to sports, this argument would be fair,” he told us. “But we also give to education, health, infrastructural development and so on.” The government’s critics might reply that it currently spends more on sport than on teachers’ salaries.

To understand the significance of football for Hungarians, Deutsch explained, you have to look at their history. At the beginning of the 20th century, he said, “Hungarian football was one of the leading cultures”. Indeed, in the interwar years, Hungary was part of a wider culture of sophisticated passing football – known as the Danube school – which included teams from Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Bratislava. This style reached its highest expression in the legendary 1950s Hungarian national team, the “Magical Magyars”. Captained by Puskás, the most prolific international goal-scorer of the 20th century, the team was tactically innovative and rich in individual talent, including Nándor Hidegkuti, the revolutionary “false number nine” after whom Deutsch’s stadium is named.

The Magical Magyars, known at home as the Golden Team, dazzled the football world in a four-and-a-half-year unbeaten run. That 31-game sequence included a gold medal win at the 1952 Olympics, and a victory in what was then dubbed the match of the century, a 6-3 thrashing of England at Wembley in 1953. To prove that was no fluke, Hungary humbled England 7-1 in a return fixture in Budapest the following year. That glorious run ended with a shock defeat to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final – “the biggest success of Hungarian football history and the saddest day of Hungarian football history”, in the words of György Szöllősi, the editor-in-chief of Hungary’s leading sports daily. (The legend of the 6-3 victory lives on in the nation’s collective memory – it’s the name of a pub, a betting website, and a brand of spritzer.)

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