Central Europeans do not take kindly to lectures on privilege
Hungarians are celebrating today — and not just because their football team thrashed England 4-0 at Molineux last night. They also see a moral dimension in the victory, with headlines focusing on the booing of the Hungarian national anthem and chants of “you racist bastards” from England fans, after previous controversy over England ‘taking the knee’ at an away match in Budapest on June 4.
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At the Budapest game — supposed to be played behind-closed-doors due to racism from Hungarian fans at Euro 2020 — the gesture was booed by a crowd of 35,000 schoolchildren allowed to watch the game by the Hungarian FA. After heavy criticism from England manager Gareth Southgate and his players, along with widely reported comments in the British media about “brainwashed” Hungarian youth, a Hungarian government spokesperson bullishly said “anyone who thinks that children at a football match in Budapest can be blamed for any kind of political statement is truly an idiot.”
Yet the glee with which yesterday’s victory was greeted suggests Hungarians took English criticisms to heart. And while rejection of the western stance on anti-racism is becoming another key marker of Hungary’s cultural independence, this difference isn’t limited to Hungary alone. Throughout Central Europe, many football fans would side with Viktor Orbán in regarding England’s anti-racism stance as a “provocation.”
The controversy in Budapest recalled a match between Sparta Prague and Glasgow Rangers last year, when a crowd of 10,000 children booed Glen Kamara, the Rangers player whose allegations of racism saw star Czech defender Ondřej Kúdela banned from Euro 2020. A diplomatic crisis erupted after Czechs were described as “rotten fruit” by a Scottish Football Association equality and diversity advisor.
While there’s clearly a problem with racism in Central European football, the issue has become entwined with wider attitudes towards cultural developments in the West. Hungarians, Czechs, and others do not take kindly to what they see as the patronising educational intent of Britain’s anti-racism drive.
‘Taking the knee’, for example, is more than a personal confession; it’s a “public gesture” aimed at others. Southgate confirmed this after the Budapest controversy, when he said his players take the knee with the intention “to educate people around the world.”
Hungarians and Czechs react badly to such statements partly because they do not believe the English have any right to lecture them about racial politics. These countries were not oppressive colonial powers, and they have so far been left relatively untouched by globalisation — so they don’t see the need for a moral reckoning with either their past or their present. To many, the educational mission professed by England reflects a curiously self-centred view of the world.
Yet along with the sense that ‘taking the knee’ isn’t applicable, there’s an awareness that the gesture is rooted in notions of ‘white privilege’ which tend to be applied universally, without regard for the specific history of a particular social group. Countries which have been oppressed within living memory, after struggling for the preservation of their cultures — even their languages — not much further back in the past, find this inexplicable.
‘Taking the knee’ attracts boos and controversy precisely because figures like Southgate imply that regardless of their own past or present, Hungarians, Czechs, and others should all bow their heads in shame too. No matter how much criticism is levelled at them from abroad, football fans from these countries will continue to reject those who tell them to do so.