June 15, 2021

Today Portugal will face Hungary at the Ferenc Puskas Arena in Budapest in front of 60,000 fans. It’s the only venue being used at Euro 2020 that, in the group stage at least, will be at full capacity. Everywhere else, Covid restrictions mean limited attendance. But not in Hungary, not for its prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

Orbán’s love of football is unfeigned. He played for the youth team of Videoton, a club based in Székesfehérvár about 20 miles south-west of his home village of Felcsút, who reached the Uefa Cup final in 1985. His first foreign trip as prime minister was to the World Cup final in 1998 and he has been a regular at major finals ever since. It’s said that there are days when he watches as many as six matches — he played the game, he loves the game, and he dreams of returning Hungary to the glories of the early 50s, when it could realistically claim to be the greatest football team in the world.

The end for Hungary as a great football nation came with the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Uprising. Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Zoltan Czibor, three key members of the great side that had taken Olympic gold in 1952, reached the World Cup final in 1954 and twice hammered England, defected and moved to Spain. The Under-21 squad, who had been in Geneva when Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest, didn’t go home. And it turned out that the brilliance of the Aranycsapat — the Golden Team — had disguised an underlying mounting crisis within the Hungarian game.

Hungarian football had boomed in the years after the First World War, the vacant lots of the rapidly expanding capital proving fertile ground for a lingering British cultural influence and the coffee-house intellectuals who became fascinated by football. During the decades that followed, economic and political turmoil led to a great diaspora of players and coaches, who had a profound influence on the development of the game, in Italy particularly, but also in Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, France, the Netherlands and South America. Yet the generation of talent, largely through two clubs, MTK and Ferencváros, never stopped. Hungary reached the World Cup final in 1938, and the final of the 1939 Mitropa Cup (a forerunner of the European Cup for sides from central Europe) was contested by two Hungarian sides.

Although neither club was at all exclusive, MTK were seen as the side of the assimilated Jewish middle class and Ferencváros of a nationalistic, often ethnically German, working class. MTK were forcibly disbanded by the Fascist government in March 1942 and although they were reconstituted after the war, there had been not just a catastrophic loss of life but also the destruction of vital links with the past.  The Communist government that took power in 1947 was suspicious of Ferencváros and its Right-wing leanings, and so when football was nationalised in 1949 it was given to the food-workers union rather than one of the bigger state organisations such as the army (Honvéd) or the secret police (MTK), a deliberate attempt to limit their resources and influence. Again, the result was to undermine the foundations of Hungarian football’s excellence. After the defections of 1956, there was no means of replacing what had been lost.

The memory of how good things had been, though, remained — and proved inhibitive. The side that reached the quarter-final of the 1966 World Cup always suffered by comparison with the Aranycsapat. The 1978 World Cup side suffered by comparison with them, and the 1986 side was in turn seen as being not as good as the 1978 generation. After that the returns diminished to such a point that Hungary stopped even qualifying for tournaments.

In October 2006, I interviewed György Kárpáti, who had played in the notorious “Blood in the Water” water polo match at the Melbourne Olympics, when Hungary beat the USSR 4-0 a month after the Uprising had been crushed. The day before, he’d paid what he knew was likely to be his final visit to Puskás, who was by then in the grip of dementia. “At least he doesn’t understand we’ve just lost to Malta,” Kárpáti said. Hungarian football was at a new low.

A week later, Orbán spoke at a march to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Uprising. He had come to prominence in 1989 with a brave and incendiary speech calling for the Soviets to withdraw, and would go on to be elected prime minister in 1998 before being defeated by a Socialist-Free Democrat coalition in 2002. Scandal within the government and the anniversary of the Urpising presented him with an opportunity; the march developed into an anti-government protest and then rioting, during which plastic bullets were fired.

Football went hand-in-hand with politics for Orbán, and on 1 April 2007, less than six months after Puskás’s death and on the 80th anniversary of his birth, he co-founded the Puskás Academy, a football club in Felcsút.

Orbán was re-elected three years later and, claiming a democratic mandate, set about reforming the constitution on more authoritarian lines. As the control of Fidész, his increasingly Right-wing party, tightened, so the Academy grew. In 2014, construction was completed on the Pancho Arena in Felcsút, an extraordinary 3,800-capacity stadium with copper domes and a wooden vaulted roof, for a town with an official population of 1,800. “Pancho” was a nickname for Puskás, a man who never set foot in the village. It is more than a football venue, though; the stadium has become a vital networking site, a place where politicians and businessmen know they can find the prime minister, who owns the dacha next door.

Orbán as a younger politician playing in a charity match. Credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty

In 2013, the Academy was promoted to the top flight for the first time, and although they were relegated in 2016, they came straight back up the following season. In 2020, the club finished third. Last season they were second. Whether their sudden rise is a sign of smart investment and excellent coaching, or of the weakness of the rest of the Hungarian league depends who you ask — or it could be that there is something more sinister going on. Towards the end of the 2019-20 season, the Mezőkövesd coach Attila Kuttor was fined €5,000 for claiming referees were under pressure to help the Academy qualify for the Europa League. (They did qualify, but lost 3-0 to the Swedish side Hammarby in the first qualifying round).

Football is a vital tool for Orbán, and 11 of the 12 top-flight clubs in Hungary are effectively Fidész-controlled. At least 25 major new stadiums have been built in Hungary over the past decade, often by construction firms with links to the Prime Minister, and all taking advantage of the country’s TAO scheme, which gave tax breaks to companies who donated to sports clubs. Might those funds have been more usefully directed elsewhere? As Hungary’s hospitals have creaked under the strain of the pandemic, it’s been impossible not to wonder.

Progress on the pitch is difficult, and the economics of European football are stacked against Hungary. Talented young players gravitate naturally to the wealthier leagues of Austria and Germany; but slowly, there are signs of progress. When Hungary qualified for Euro 2016, it was their first appearance at a major tournament for 30 years. When they then beat Austria and three times held the lead against Portugal before drawing to reach the knockouts, it felt vaguely miraculous. Then reality dawned with a 4-0 defeat to Belgium.

Still, the sense of inevitable decline is over. In part that’s down to a belated acceptance that the achievements of the early 50s are unattainable now, but it’s also because of the Orbán-inspired investment. The forward Roland Sallai, who is likely to start against Portugal, is at Freiburg now, but he came through the Puskás Academy. And, at last, Hungary have a young player of truly exceptional potential, their first for perhaps four decades: the 20-year-old midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai who, like Orbán, was a youth at Videoton. He joined RB Leipzig from Red Bull Salzburg in January but hasn’t played since because of injury and will miss the tournament.

With on-field success a distant prospect, Hungary has started to promote itself as the ideal host, staging judo, wresting and aquatics world championships in recent years. A possible Olympic bid lurks, unconvincingly, in the background. Last year, Budapest stepped in to stage the Uefa Super Cup when the pandemic forced a rejig of the schedule. That was the first major game held at the Puskás Arena, built on the site of the old Communist Népstadion in central Budapest. In February and March, both legs of the Champions League last-16 ties between Manchester City and Borussia Mönchengladbach and Liverpool and RB Leipzig were held there to circumvent Covid restrictions.

Of course, Hungary is not the ideal host for everybody. Orbán condemned Ireland’s players for taking the knee before a friendly in Budapest last Tuesday, while the commentator János Hrutka was sacked by the Orbán-affiliated Spíler TV after he supported the national goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi for criticising a law that prevents unmarried or same-sex couples adopting children. Football is an arena for Orbán to appeal to his populist nationalist base.

The Arena was always going to be built for the Euros, and for it to have staged games behind closed doors would have seemed a dreadful anti-climax. Which is why the decision to allow maximum capacity has been greeted with some scepticism — if not from the Fidész-controlled Hungarian media.

Hungary’s figures have improved recently, with just eight deaths and 199 new cases announced on Friday, which allowed Orbán to announce a widescale lifting of restrictions at the end of May as a total of 5 million vaccinations was reached. But Hungary has suffered dreadfully from a widespread complacency about the second wave: its ratio of 3,060 deaths per million population is better only than Peru. By way of comparison, the UK lies 15th in that list, with 1,909 deaths/million.

There are those who wonder how 60,000 can be allowed into a football stadium while public protests are still limited at 500: the demonstration that prompted Orbán to make a U-turn last week, by offering a referendum on whether Budapest should host a campus of Shanghai’s Fudan University, instead involved multiple small protests converging outside the parliament.

Polls suggest Orbán could face a serious challenge from a united opposition in next year’s elections, which is another reason the show must go on. Staging this tournament is part of the legacy he has envisaged. Drawn in an extremely difficult group with France and Germany as well as Portugal, progress is very unlikely. Even taking a point would be an achievement.

But a full stadium alone may be enough. Orbán has not returned Hungarian football to the status of seven decades ago — who could? — but he has brought about improvement and he is bringing the biggest circuses to town. Whether that justifies deflecting spending from more obviously worthy causes is debatable, but few in the Ferenc Puskás Arena will be worrying about that if Hungary upset Portugal this evening — or frankly, even if they don’t.