football as a political weapon

The 8-1 loss in Amsterdam and its possible political consequences

I just read that the last time the Hungarian national football team suffered such a devastating defeat was in 1932 when Austria beat the Hungarians 8-2. Actually, the 8-1 loss to the Dutch team tops the 1932 showing. In itself this defeat is a historic event in the annals of Hungarian football. Perhaps more important, it whipped up especially strong reactions because of Viktor Orbán’s maniacal devotion to and the abnormally high government investment in soccer. Anger over the loss quickly morphed into anger at Viktor Orbán and his government. This defeat may well have serious political consequences.

Ákos Tóth, a journalist for Népszabadság, rightly pointed out that “Viktor Orbán’s regime received a deadly blow from the Hungarian national team.” He succinctly explained why. Other failures of the government could be explained away or simply be engulfed in silence as the prime minister tried to divert attention from the country’s troubles by creating enemies everywhere. Inside as well as outside of the country. But “on the field one cannot lie. There a goal is a goal.” Moreover, Orbán made football “the ethos” of his whole administration. He hoped that near-term success in this sport would justify the expenditure of billions of forints the country doesn’t have on soccer instead of on sports in which Hungarians excel, for example, swimming and kayaking.

An earlier editorial by Attila Ballai in Magyar Nemzet gives us an idea of the value the Hungarian political right places on football success. The author, a great admirer of Viktor Orbán the statesman, kept repeating the importance of at least some success for the present government. He emphasized the “responsibility of the players” because the stakes are high. This game, as all others of the national team, is more than a sporting event. It is politically important for Viktor Orbán and all those who believe in him and his government. Ballai doesn’t expect gold medals. A little win would do, so that “people wouldn’t say that they [meaning the government] are doing all this for these guys [who keep losing]. Are you building stadiums for these football players? Are you spending money on them?”

As we know, the Hungarian national team lost the match in Bucharest. That was bad enough. But with their mortifying defeat against the Netherlands they became a laughing stock. And Viktor Orbán lost face and was perhaps even dealt a serious political blow.

Szilárd Devecseri, one of the Hungarian players, after he kicked an own-goal. The mood of the rest of the players was no better.

Szilárd Devecseri, one of the Hungarian players, after he kicked an own-goal. The mood of the rest of the players was no better.

In times of adversity Viktor Orbán remains silent. In this case some of his underlings spoke in his place. One of his spokesmen, Máté Kocsis, demanded that more heads roll. (The coach, Sándor Egervári, already resigned.) Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus and a football fan, suspects that Kocsis couldn’t have demanded resignations from MLSZ, the Hungarian Football Association, without permission from his boss who is most likely after Sándor Csányi, the president of MLSZ and CEO of OTP, Hungary’s largest bank.

Mihancsik accuses Viktor Orbán of using these players for his own political purposes and thus putting an incredible burden on them. She is alluding to the kind of pressure that was so well expressed by Ballai at the other end of the political spectrum. She feels for these twelve players who are practically paralyzed on the field.

When I visited the University of Florida in Gainesville, an American graduate student delivered me to the airport. It turned out that she is planning to write her dissertation on Hungarian sports and politics during the Rákosi regime. I mentioned to her that the first anti-regime demonstration occurred in 1954 when the Hungarian team failed to win the World Cup. Then just yesterday a friend of mine in Hungary reminded me of the same event, underlining the possible disruptive consequences of the latest Hungarian sports loss. Indeed, a small disturbance broke out after the “The Golden Team” lost to Germany. A crowd attacked the coach’s house, and the members of the team didn’t dare to travel all the way to Budapest and instead left the train in secret in Tatabánya.  He also gave me some details of the close relationship between the party leadership and the Golden Team. Mihály Farkas, minister of defense, kept visiting the players in the dressing room just as today’s bigwigs are doing. That kind of relationship may have unintended consequences. On the one hand, it might intimidate the players, as Mihancsik pointed out. On the other hand, failure on the field may translate into failure at the ballot box.

Here are a few comments from right-wing papers. “The chief honcho said that we like this game. These people don’t like the game but that awful lot of MONEY they receive. Here is the result of the work by a bunch of ignorant parasites, like Csányi and Kubatov.” Kubatov, of Kubatov-lists fame, is currently the head of Ferencváros.

“A series of losses, building a stadium in Felcsút, murderers who escape, half a million emigrants, tobacconist shops, giving away land to friends and relatives, the face of Pintér and the stupid head of Balog… This is the true face of the Orbán regime.” “The fish begins to rot in the head. Without this GENIUS all the others would have gone by now  to ….[obscenity follows].”

Someone suggested that perhaps a Hungarian referee could have helped the situation. The answer: “Hungarian referee, then the best! Mrs. Szájer.” Referee and judge is the same word in Hungarian: bíró. Or: “I demand that every Hungarian be given a stadium with a narrow-gauge railway and with that talented coach, Sándor Egervári.” Or: “Why didn’t the chief tobacconist of Felcsút tell the Dutch that ‘Hungary is doing better!'”

“Is this the famous community of working people? They are going to lose the election in 2014 with this attitude.” “I imagine that on Sunday morning the people in the West will read in the papers that according to Viktor Orbán the problem is that the Europeans don’t work and don’t pray. RIDICULOUS!!!! The truth is that the Dutch were playing ball (they worked) while the Hungarians were standing by.”

“I suggest to you, völkisch Scythians, to march on October 23 and demand that it be included in the Hungarian constitution that no Hungarian team can get more then four goals during one match.” “Our prime minister said that the Hungarians are football-wise. Can you imagine if they weren’t?” “You are awfully quiet … I know why, because one cannot lie here. It is not like the games of Fidesz-KDNP. This game is played for goals.”

Viktor Orbán put up a picture on his Facebook page. He seems to be carrying a baking pan containing some unidentifiable food. This page is naturally visited by adoring fans with appropriately fawning comments. On the other hand, some comments were from people who are obviously no fans of his. Most of them remarked on the fact that he is showing food here when “your people are starving, more than 3 million people live under the poverty line.” Or “a lot of people are hungry because of him but the most important thing for him is that he can live in luxury.” Another person asked whether he is cooking here for the starving children. One guy said: “He is celebrating the great victory!”

Meanwhile, as the result of very intense campaigning, more people voted in Baja by 3 p.m. than all day long the last time. That is a good sign regardless of the outcome. More people realize that their votes count.