Hungarian Football Association

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 political reverberations after the Hungarian football fiasco

When soccer/football becomes a political matter, as was pointed out by a Swiss journalist straight from Felcsút, it is not surprising that a spectacular defeat of the Hungarian team will soon be part and parcel of high level politics. This is exactly what has happened. Fidesz politicians have been madly searching for scapegoats in order to avoid pointing the finger at the chief soccer enthusiast of the country, Viktor Orbán. The first victim of the “purge” was the coach, who resigned right on the spot. The second target seems to be Sándor Csányi, president of the Hungarian Football Association (Magyar Labdarugó Szövetség). I assume you know that Sándor Csányi is one of the richest Hungarians and CEO of Hungary’s largest bank, OTP.

Actually, if Viktor Orbán’s minions wanted to find a scapegoat in Sándor Csányi, they didn’t have to worry too much about a possible negative reaction to their attack from the chief. In the last few weeks a noticeable cooling of the friendship between the prime minister and the banker could be observed. The first punch came from Orbán’s side when the prime minister’s faithful chief-of-staff, János Lázár, called Csányi the country’s chief usurer. That got Csányi’s goat, who answered in kind and alluded to Lázár’s questionable role in the monopolization of tobacco products and the licensing of the tobacconist shops. If that weren’t enough, he gave an interview to Olga Kálmán in which he explained all the negative effects of the abnormally high taxes on banks. Even so, a few days later Csányi and Orbán could be seen amiably sitting side by side at some Videoton game.

After the miserable performance of the Hungarian national team, several Fidesz politicians attacked Csányi, making him and the secretary-general of the Association responsible for the state of Hungarian soccer. Perhaps the very first to go on the attack was Máté Kocsis, mayor of District VIII and the man in charge of the growing Fidesz communication team, who announced that the coach’s resignation is not enough. Of course, he meant a purge of the Hungarian Football Association headed by Csányi. He was followed by Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz original and currently a member of the European Parliament, who in addition to Csányi wanted to summarily fire the secretary-general of the Association. The third person was Zsolt Wintermantel, mayor of Újpest and a member of parliament, who demanded that the whole upper echelon of the Association resign.

Viktor Orbán playing football / ATV

Viktor Orbán playing football / ATV

The reply from Csányi was not long in coming. This morning he gave a press conference in which called Deutsch “a Twitter hussar,” alluding to Deutsch’s fondness for mostly obscene tweets.  Csányi also recalled that when Deutsch was minister of sports in the first Orbán administration he ordered computerized gates for all Hungarian stadiums, which turned out to be useless junk. He suggested that Deutsch try to sell the whole lot and with the proceeds help Hungarian football. As for Máté Kocsis, Csányi didn’t spare words. He claimed that when Kocsis took over the mayoralty of District VIII there were six stadiums while now it has only four. “Such a man should shut up when it comes to soccer. As a spokesman for Fidesz he has so many other opportunities to lie.” As for Wintermantel, Csányi acted as if he didn’t really know his name: “What’s the name of that mayor? Oh, yeah, Wintermantel. He is the one who screams in front of every stadium and before each match. He should learn more about the facts. This is not politics, this is football.”

After all that, it is perhaps not surprising that both Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap “censored” Csányi’s words about Kocsis. Magyar Nemzet  left out the most important part of Csányi’s remarks–about Kocsis’s many opportunities to lie as a Fidesz spokesman. Instead they truncated Csányi’s message to Kocsis: “At the time of regime change there were six football fields in the District VIII. Now there are only four. Therefore go elsewhere to lie in connection with soccer.” Magyar Hírlap completely ignored Csányi’s remarks about the Fidesz politician.

This is what happens when politicians use sports, any kind of sport, for their own political purposes. This is especially true when the prime minister himself is the “guiding light” of soccer, which he claims is a “Hungarian sport.” If the coach is at fault and if the chairman of the Hungarian Football Association should be sacked, what should happen to Viktor Orbán who most likely is involved in even the smallest details of the Hungarian football business? Because he was the one who convinced Csányi to seek the chairmanship and who also made sure that he was elected to the position. And who is the person who outlines in great detail the whole future of the sport in Hungary? Naturally, the prime minister, who gave his longest ever interview to the journalist spokesman of the Puskás Academy. Nothing happens in the sport without his okay.

Meanwhile Ádám Szalai, center forward of the Hungarian team, vented his frustration. Interestingly, his complaints about the state of Hungarian soccer are very similar to what Ferenc Gyurcsány told his fellow MSZP members in Balatonőszöd: we have been lying to ourselves and refusing to see the growing problems. False hopes and promises. Nobody is ready to face the music. Nobody really wants to work hard. The bigwigs, I think Viktor Orbán included, insist on Hungarian coaches when these coaches are no good. No Hungarian player plays in any first- or even second-rate European clubs. He himself used to be considered an excellent football player at home, but when he was picked up by a German team it turned out that he really couldn’t compete with his teammates. He had to relearn how to play the sport. At the age of 25-27 one cannot learn to play soccer. What Hungary needs are foreign coaches who make them work hard and who can produce a new generation of players. The present set is useless. Forget about them.

But then there was the match between the Hungarian Roma top players (válogatott) against the Vatican’s Swiss Guard in July 2010. And you know what? The Gypsies won 8-1. Interestingly enough, we didn’t hear about Viktor Orbán’s sitting there in Felcsút, where the game was played, yelling: “Hajrá Magyarország, hajrá magyarok!  Take a look at the short video. It’s fun.

When I told this story to a friend of mine, she said something the Hungarian government might take to heart. Why not put some effort into organizing soccer clubs in villages where there is a sizable Roma population? Such a program wouldn’t need billions. You need balls, a field, and enthusiasm. It would keep those boys active and success would be a great boost to their egos. After all, Puskás himself started to play on an empty lot somewhere in Újpest. He and his friends didn’t even have decent balls. They made them from rags.

The key to future success most likely lies not in fancy football academies (and certainly not in stadiums) but in having thousands of kids introduced to the game. Playing soccer is not an expensive sport like tennis, skiing, or skating. Lots of poor kids can play it. Just like so many Afro-American kids could easily play basketball, often on abandoned city lots, and eventually some of them became world-famous basketball players.

Meanwhile, it looks as if Viktor Orbán will have to be satisfied with a foreign coach. I just wonder who in the world will take the job.

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.