Ferenc Puskás Football Academy

Despite Viktor Orbán’s best efforts, Hungarian football is not a success story

I never  in my wildest dreams thought that one day I would be searching for details on some fine points of football/soccer. In fact, in my teenage years I was so indifferent to the world’s favorite sport that I wouldn’t even attend the “game of the century” in Pécs when the “Golden Team/Mighty Magyars” played against the not so mighty locals. But what can one do if Hungary is today cursed with a prime minister for whom football is the most important thing after politics? (Or perhaps even ahead of it.)

Football for Viktor Orbán seems to be so important that he even subordinates matters that are vital to the well-being of his people (education, healthcare, and social services) to his favorite sport. Austerity measures are introduced three or four times a year in order to keep the deficit under the required 3%, but these measures never touch the sacred game of football. Other sports in which Hungarians are much more successful receive only meager–and ever decreasing–government subsidies.

I have to trust those who know something about the game and who claim that Hungarian football is currently beyond redemption. They emphasize that the kind of professional football that is played today pretty well precludes the possibility of Hungary ever becoming the football powerhouse that Viktor Orbán dreams of. Football is business, big business. And the borders are wide open. A talented Hungarian football player could make millions of euros in another country. But there is one major problem: there are no truly outstanding Hungarian players, and it looks as if there won’t be any in the near future.

Viktor Orbán, whose energy between 2002 and 2010 was spent primarily on his efforts to regain power, put aside enough time to ponder the future of the struggling Hungarian football enterprise. One of his many goals as prime minister was the revival of Hungarian football, but the way he has gone about it is not likely to produce results. He launched a stadium construction and renovation project in 2010, scheduled to be completed in 2018 to the tune of 140-160 billion forints. The  map below gives a fair idea of the magnitude of the undertaking. Altogether 33 stadiums will be built or renovated. Unfortunately, the quality of Hungarian football is so bad that the stadiums today are practically empty. I assume that Orbán thinks that better stadiums will attract  more fans; if you build them they will come. Stadionprojektek But where will the players come from? From the football academies, of course. Oh, yes, the football academies. Viktor Orbán received some bad news on that front recently. Some time ago the Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ) asked the independent Belgian firm Double Pass to assess the work being done in the Hungarian football academies. The verdict as summarized by MLSZ is devastating. Double Pass also ranked the Hungarian academies, which MLSZ wanted to keep secret. There was good reason for the secrecy. The “famous” Ferenc Puskás Academy backed by Viktor Orbán was ninth out of twelve! This is the same academy that, according to the prime minister, was among the top ten in Europe!

Even the best Hungarian academy, the Debreceni Labdarúgó Akadémia, is inferior in comparison to academies in other European countries with strong teams. In Hungary training methods are old-fashioned and not uniform. There are no trainers who specialize in developing particular skills. Recruiting is done on a part-time basis. Psychological coaching is sorely wanting. The Hungarian academies don’t use modern training software. And the report goes on and on for 134 pages.

The directors and coaches of these academies were not at all thrilled about this probing by Double Pass, and now that the ranking is available they try to explain away the firm’s findings by claiming, as is usual in Hungary, that the employees of Double Pass don’t really understand the Hungarian system. Well, let’s put it this way, Double Pass clearly understood that the Hungarian system doesn’t produce winning teams. Hungary is currently host to the annual UEFA European Under-19 Championship. So far, the Hungarian team has lost to Austria (3 to 1) and to Portugal (6 to 1). Sportswriters kept saying that the Hungarians “should have won” against the Austrians but, well, they blew it. The Portuguese  are very good but they won against Israel with only three goals and not six. In brief, the Hungarians under 19 are lousy. And these people are students and graduates of the academies! Hungary might have 33 swanky stadiums by 2018, but the country is unlikely to have fantastic football players.

And while we are on the subject of these new stadiums, an incredible amount of money was spent on the Felcsút project, but weeks ago one could already read that something is very wrong with the drainage of the field. After a heavy rain a game had to be scrapped because the grass would have been damaged otherwise. Nature was blamed: the rain was too heavy. This time the game was played in the rain, and as one of the sportswriters remarked, the game was almost played in a lake. But that is not the only problem. The fancy wooden structure over the spectator seats does not shield people from the rain. The sportswriters with their computers were not exactly happy with the section allocated to them because the rain was coming down on them fast and furious. So, they packed up and went inside to watch the game on the monitor. So much for Viktor Orbán’s efforts so far on behalf of Hungarian football. He seems to be as successful in this endeavor as he is in governing the country.

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The childish games of a would-be dictator: The case of Viktor Orbán

I think it is time to talk about the dear leader’s megalomania that’s recently reached an all time high. The dear leader is, of course, Viktor Orbán. Or at least this is what he is called by those who’ve had enough of his and his government’s autocratic and corrupt practices.

To his many sins we may add a total lack of  restraint. He acts like any two-bit dictator with limitless power. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, Viktor Orbán has enormous power within Hungary. The only limits he has to endure come from the European Union. Until now, however, he has managed to evade any serious consequences of flaunting the spoken and unspoken rules of the Union, and it looks as if he will be able to avoid the excessive deficit procedure as well. Or at least this is what one could hear from Mihály Varga, who managed to exchange a few words with Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, today.

Lack of restraint. A man who with the assistance of his minions placed by now in all positions from the executive to the judiciary and a willing horde of third-rate journalists ready to serve him will arrive at a point where his sense of reality completely fails him. He becomes so single-minded in pursuit of his selfish interests that he loses sight of the possible consequences of his actions. And since he rules with an iron hand in his own party, there is no one in his entourage who dares warn him.

It seems that no one in Fidesz has the guts to tell the dear leader that his football mania got to the point that people are beginning to think that Hungary’s Orbán is not very different from Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator. After all, Ceaușescu also built an enormous football stadium in the village in which he was born and lived until the age of eleven. Viktor Orbán is following in the Romanian dictator’s footsteps.  Ceaușescu built a 30,000-seat football stadium in Scorniceşti, population 12,000, while Orbán is building a 3,500-seat stadium in Felcsút, population 1,800, where he spent his early years.  The scales are roughly comparable.

But Orbán is outdoing Ceaușescu because, after all, the Romanian dictator didn’t have a house right next to the stadium. Orbán does. He will now have a very elegant, very expensive small stadium of his own. He has to walk only a few feet to be in the arena. The stadium will be named after the Hungarian “Golden Team” of the early 1950s on which the famed Ferenc Puskás played. In addition to the stadium, Orbán managed to get money to establish a football academy in Felcsút, naturally named after Ferenc Puskás.

I read somewhere that when Orbán established the Puskás Academy in 2007 he didn’t really think that a village football team could ever be a first-rate team that could play in Division I of the National League. Most likely at that time Orbán was still recovering from his deep depression after the lost 2006 election. But now the sky’s the limit. Last Saturday Puskás Academy, which everybody simply calls Felcsút, was the undefeated champion of Division II and therefore next season the team will be able to play with the “big boys.”

Since 2007 the Academy has built a private high school and several practice fields and has a staff of 23, including a “communications director.” It is in the middle of constructing a stadium that will cost 3.5 billion forints. Money is pouring into the coffers of the Academy.

Earlier Orbán made sure that his wealthy friends would have an incentive to donate sizable chunks of money for spectacle sports: football, handball, hockey, etc. Those contributing to a fund set up for that purpose could write off the amount donated from their income tax. Once billions were collected this way the various clubs could apply for grants. Felcsút was not shy and asked for 3.5 billion. It received 2.8 billion, one-fifth of the total allocated. Just to give some sense of the size of this particular grant, the football club that received the second largest amount was Debrecen with 500 million forints.

The stadium is already described in the media as a dream or a wonder stadium. It is being built following the design of the famed Imre Makovecz, an ardent supporter of Fidesz, who died a few years ago. The plans released by the Academy show an intricate structure using the most expensive materials.

Puskas1

The construction of the dream stadium is already underway, and by next spring  important games will be played in the village where Viktor Orbán grew up. A Puskás-Suzuki Cup was established, and these games will be played in Felcsút. Several international matches will be held in the village. And since the Academy is swimming in money, it even bought an old railroad line and has already restored the old railroad station.

MTI / Photo by Szilárd Koszticsák

The work has begun / MTI photo by Szilárd Koszticsák

Mihály Varga, minister in charge of the economy, under European Union pressure announced a new  austerity program a few days ago. He indicated that it might be necessary to halt some of the major government investments, like the building of new stadiums and the reconstruction of Kossuth Square in front of the parliament building. However, it is unlikely that stadium construction will be halted in Felcsút. And if the Academy’s project can go ahead, most likely so will Debrecen’s. The project manager of a very large stadium in Debrecen, where work has already begun, announced that the city will go ahead with the construction regardless of what Mihály Varga says.

Just today Ernő Bihari, a blogger, wrote that “it is outrageous that the prime minister of a country that belongs to the European Union builds a football stadium on taxpayer money next door to his house, establishes a football academy maintained by taxpayer money, and purchases a narrow-gauge railroad also on taxpayer money. His family and his friends have received practically all the state lands in the neighborhood of his village. This is just a short list. And Viktor Orbán has the gall to do all this in the middle of Europe. This guy believes that his power is limitless.” The blogger points out that Orbán surpasses even Silvio Berlusconi, who after all made his money and became the owner of  AC Milan prior to his political career.

“The weapon is in the EU’s hands. Chancellor Merkel must decide on which side she wants to stand and give the signal to her own people that they can say what everybody knows already although no one wants to bear the odium of the decision.” So, says Bihari, it is time to state openly that “not only is Orbán’s mindset incompatible with the spirit of the Union but he is intolerable altogether.”