This morning I read a lengthy interview with Viktor Orbán on the Ferenc Puskás Academy’s website. Several newspapers summarized the prime minister’s thoughts on the state of Hungarian football. The historian Gábor Egry, whom readers of Hungarian Spectrum know from his occasional comments, wrote on Facebook about this interview: “Compulsory reading. Really. Everything one ought to and must know about Orbán.” So, let’s get to it.
By way of background, I should note that Hungarian football in general is very poor and this year was especially so, despite the fact that the prime minister is spending billions and billions of taxpayer money directly or indirectly on his favorite sport. Stadiums are being built and plans are being hatched to make Hungarian football first-rate, as it once was.
Most professional sportswriters claim that there is no way Viktor Orbán’s dream of returning Hungarian football to its former glory will ever be fulfilled. I heard an interview with Iván Hegyi, editor of Népszabadság‘s sports section, and he convinced me that Viktor Orbán doesn’t understand the realities of professional football today. The interview with the prime minister only confirms Hegyi’s opinion.
Perhaps I should also say a few words about the man who conducted the interview, György Szöllősi, spokesman for the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy. Szöllősi is a supporter of the prime minister’s plans for the future of Hungarian football and most likely shares his convictions. Moreover, just lately he wrote a longish article defending Orbán against the less than kind criticisms of his grandiose plans. In this article he came out with some rather bizarre explanations of why Ferenc Puskás became an excellent player. Not because of his talent but because of the excellent school system established by Kunó Klebelsberg. Anyone who knows anything about Puskás’s early years spent kicking a ball made out of rags on “the grund” should recognize the lunacy of this claim.
Szöllősi gave the following title to the interview: “Football is like gulyás soup.” Gulyás soup? How? Simple. According to Viktor Orbán, the great cook, one always adds to the gulyás soup in a kettle over the open fire. One never takes anything out of it. Mind you, I don’t think that it is immaterial what we put into that soup or, if the soup has been already ruined, whether it is worth adding expensive ingredients to it because it is unlikely that a basically bad soup could be much improved by Viktor Orbán’s methods.
Orbán’s mania for football has completely politicized the sport. By now, I’m sure, a lot of people who heartily dislike Orbán were happy when his favorite team, Videoton, was beaten to a pulp by a third-rate Montenegrian team. Gusztáv Megyesi, the sharp-tongued columnist, admitted that much. And how does Viktor Orbán feel about the total collapse of Hungarian football in spite of his financial efforts? Bad. When he was asked about Videoton, he said “Luckily I didn’t see the second match. I heard about the Waterloo only through an SMS. It was like a shot through the lung. I was still spitting up blood more than a week later.” I’m not going to dwell on the abnormality of such a reaction from an man who is by now 50 years old.
He knows, of course, that this season’s results reflect badly on him, so he has to explain away the failure as “a temporary setback that should not influence a leader who must concentrate on the essentials, the whole picture.” The overall plan included making Videoton one of the hundred best European teams in 2012-2013. In 2013-2014 they wanted to be among the top fifty and finally in 2014-2015 they were planning to be among the top 32. Well, the 2013-2014 goal is down the drain, but that’s life. He is still very optimistic about the future not only of Videoton but also of all the best clubs in Hungary.
He and his fellow leaders of Hungarian football “are in the process of building a whole system. The system of Hungarian football.” It is the state of Hungarian football as a whole that interests him, not so much the fate of individual clubs. For him “this is a question of honor” because “football has no meaning outside of national honor and national pride.” The aesthetics of the game is important, so is club spirit, but “without the homeland everybody is only a mercenary instead of being a messenger.” His rule is that first comes the club, then the team, and only after that the player.
Orbán has rather peculiar ideas about the players as well. “We look up to the players because they are better than us. Not only are they stronger, faster, more skillful but altogether superior to us” because for “the sacred goal they are able to put aside all individual self-interest.” Sacred goal? A sporting event? And those Olympic champions putting aside all individual ambition? Since when?
About half way through the interview we come to the decision of Orbán’s government to spend billions on football stadiums during hard economic times when about half of the population lives close to or under the poverty line. Critics point out that it is useless to pour money into infrastructure when there is no quality football in the country.
Why is Hungarian football so bad? Orbán naturally has the answer. It is the fault of the European Union because of what is known as the Bosman ruling. The European Court of Justice banned restrictions on foreign European Union players within national leagues and allowed players in the European Union to move to another club at the end of their contract without a transfer fee being paid to the club. Prior to the Bosman ruling, professional clubs in some parts of Europe were able to prevent players from joining a club in another country even if their contracts had expired. Given the free movement of workers within the European Union, this decision shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. But Orbán would like to return to the state of affairs before the Bosman ruling. Unfortunately, Hungarian teams were not doing well even before 1995.
The Bosman ruling, in Orbán’s opinion, made football an economic activity when, in his opinion, it is a part of culture that needs special regulations. When Orbán talks about football as a part of culture, he doesn’t think of culture as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns” but in its narrow sense as “intellectual and artistic activity.” He considers the football player an artist, and therefore “football is closer to culture than to economic enterprise.” Hungarians are just too old fashioned when they don’t want to accept football as a part of culture. They place science and culture above everything else. They have difficulties understanding that football is a part of the culture in the modern world.
Orbán is proud of his fund-raising for Hungarian football. During the interview he boasted about his ability to gather large sums of money from individual donors to build a stadium in Felcsút. He hopes that in the next fifty years there will be prime ministers who will be able to convince people to spend money for this good cause. He wanted to start a tradition and hopes that he will have followers.
But he does not take the exceptionally bad performance of Hungarian football this season lightly. Since he put so much emphasis on the necessity of achieving international success in football, he must consider these losses to be personal defeats. As he said at the beginning of the interview about Videoton’s poor performance, “It was not a shame. It was a failure.” His own failure as well.