Politicians’ interest in sports, particularly football, is not uncommon. One of the most striking examples is the incumbent President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who played for several Istanbul semi-professional clubs until the age of 26. After spending 12 years as an amateur, the future Turkish leader decided to “hang his boots up” and focus on his political career. However, he still pays much attention to the development of football on domestic soil.
In the realities of contemporary political craft, “hybridization” is becoming increasingly popular among public figures at various levels. Indeed, it is difficult to recall a sphere of human activity that cannot be used for political purposes.
Viktor Orbán’s football
The odious Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, embodying the image of a “simple boy” – typical for all authoritarian leaders today – decided to bet on football. This is Hungary’s most popular sport; furthermore, the legendary “golden” team of the first half of the 1950s with the equally legendary Ferenc Puskás, Zoltán Czibor and Sándor Kocsis, has become an integral element of the Hungarian national memory and created a kind of football culture.
Huge investments are being made in the development of Hungary’s football industry: stadiums are being repaired and football infrastructure constructed right across the country. Over the last decade, the Hungarian government spent about 2.5 billion euros on building new and renovating old football arenas and academies throughout Hungary. And at the recent EURO 2020 tournament, Hungary was the only co-host country to grant 100 percent admission to seats at the Puskás Aréna in Budapest. In other countries, the maximum stadium occupancy rate reached only 50 percent.
So, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Hungary’s actions have been among the pillars of Orbán’s populist regime for over a decade. Indeed, such a story could seem like a trivial scenario of investing in sports to increase popularity among the citizens. That said, there is one important nuance to consider. Given the great success of this model of political behavior in the domestic market, Orbán decided to export it abroad, with a particular set of motives in mind: to use football as a lever of “soft power,” as well as to unite Hungarians outside Hungary and gain their support.
The soft power of Hungarian football
When it comes to Ukraine, a vivid example is the story of Mukachevo FC, located in the Zakarpattia region in the west of the country. From 2005 to 2016, it functioned as a children’s and youth football club. After benefiting from Hungarian investment and rebranding (the organization was renamed the Munkács Football Academy), it first grew to the level of an amateur club. From the 2021/22 season, it became a professional FC. In 2020, a modern club sports base with several football fields, an administrative building and other modern infrastructure and equipment was put into operation in the village of Derksen near Mukachevo.
Almost half (48 percent) of the Munkács Football Academy (MFA) belongs to Attila Reves, a functionary of the Hungarian Kisvárda FC and, at the same time, a close friend of Orbán. Summarily, the Hungarian share in the project amounts to 96 percent. The Academy attracts young people not only from Zakarpattia or neighboring regions but also from the rest of Ukraine. In classrooms, children learn the Hungarian language, and the most talented are taken away by Kisvárda FC, helping them to obtain Hungarian citizenship should they wish.
The MFA story is not unique to Hungary. In September 2018, Orbán took part in the opening ceremony of a football academy in the town of Bačka Topola in the multiethnic region of Vojvodina in northern Serbia. Budapest funded the project for 9.5 million euros. Today, the Hungarian Academy, located in a town with a population of 30,000, is one of the most modern in the country.
In 2019, Hungary funded the Slovenian football club Nafta Lendava for almost 6 million euros to build a football academy and a dormitory for a local bilingual Hungarian-Slovenian school.
However, Budapest is investing the most significant funds into Romanian football and mainly in the Székely Land, inhabited by Székelys, a subgroup of Hungarians. In addition to building football academies (five of them are functioning now in Romania, and they are even united in a kind of association), Hungary provides significant financial support to several local football clubs.
An extraordinary story has developed with FC DAK-1904, based in the Slovak town of Dunajska Streda. In a city where 80 percent of the population consists of ethnic Hungarians, the local football club is a true symbol of Hungarian national identity. The team’s matches are accompanied by performing the Hungarian national anthem, displaying flags of the historic metropole, etc. Since 2014, Oscar Vilad, a longtime friend of Orbán, has been the owner of DAK-1904. Since then, the club has received around 8 million euros of Hungarian financial support.
Generally speaking, in almost every country that received at least some territory from Hungary under the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920, a particular football project has already been implemented by Budapest. Phantom pains of the former imperial greatness still torment Hungarian society and are a probable explanation for the popularity of right-wing views and the success of the ruling Fidesz party. Hungary’s actions in the football sphere could be referred to as a form of neo-colonialism.
How does it work?
The effect of such soft power works on “newly converted” Hungarians, whom Budapest naturalizes by issuing passports, as well as among ethnic Hungarians. Both groups, in getting the support of the “metropole”, automatically associate it with the current regime. This is precisely what Orbán needs.
Following legislative changes adopted by Fidesz in 2011, all Hungarians have the right to vote in domestic elections. Since the 2014 elections, Orbán’s party has received ultimate support from the diaspora. For example, in parliamentary elections of that year, about 125,000 Hungarians voted by mail from abroad, and 95 percent gave their vote to Fidesz. It is no exaggeration to say that these votes helped the pro-government coalition gain a two-thirds majority in parliament which retained power in the hands of Orbán.
The situation repeated itself in the next parliamentary elections in 2018: more than 220,000 Hungarians abroad took part in the elections, 96 percent of whom voted for Fidesz. The party gained 133 seats out of a possible 199 in the National Assembly, thus extending Orbán’s term for another four years.
Even in 2022, when the Hungarian opposition demonstrated an unprecedented desire to cooperate to change the regime, form a coalition of six parties and devote much time and attention to propaganda among the Hungarian diaspora, it failed to shake the balance of power in its favor. Out of about 260 000 Hungarians in the diaspora, almost 94 percent voted for Orbán’s party. However, this time the votes of Hungarians outside Hungary did not contribute significantly to Fidesz’s success, which won quite confidently, maintaining a gap of around 20 percent with the opposition.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting the growing trend among the electorate of Orbán and Fidesz abroad. In 2014, about 122,000 members of the Hungarian diaspora representatives voted for him, when in 2022, this figure doubled to almost 248.000 people. According to the results of the elections held on April 3, 2022, every 20th vote for Fidesz came from outside the diplomatically recognized borders of Hungary.
Whether it is a lot or a little is a controversial question. Nevertheless, in the context of future elections and theoretical problems of Fidesz’s electoral support, the diaspora may become the “trump card up its sleeve” that can be used at the most challenging moment.
Therefore, it is quite possible that Orbán’s “football investment abroad” strategy has not yet said its final word.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.
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