Over The Rainbow: How Hungary sportswashed its way to the front of UEFA’s queue 3 months ago

Over The Rainbow: How Hungary sportswashed its way to the front of UEFA’s queue

"People say Orban is a big football fan, but I think what he loves more is power. He knows that football is a great way of displaying that power to the rest of the world."

Sportswashing is nothing new, even if the term itself has only recently started to become widely used. For over a century, political parties and nation states from across the world have been eager to align themselves with sporting success and the prestige of hosting major events and tournaments. The 1978 World Cup was held in and won by Argentina, at a time when the country was in the grips of murderous military junta rule. The 1936 Olympic Games were hosted in Berlin, capital at the time of Nazi Germany. There are countless more examples. Sport, after all, is a powerful tool when it comes to shaping perceptions of places or improving the reputations of important figures, if only outwardly. It's also - more pertinently - a useful way to deflect the focus away from other matters, the issues some would prefer didn't make the headlines.

Advertisement

Viktor Orban is acutely aware of all this. Elected for a second term as Prime Minister of Hungary in 2010, he has gone to great lengths to associate himself with what, at a glance, appears to be a steadily improving outlook for Hungarian football.

This summer saw the national side compete in their second successive European championships, having ended their 30-year wait for a major tournament appearance at Euro 2016. Orban was in attendance in Budapest for the games with Portugal and France. The Hungarian squad already boasts several players plying their trade in the Bundesliga. In RB Leipzig's Dominik Szoboszlai - denied a place at Euro 2020 through injury - they have a young talent tipped by some to go to the very top of the game. Another major finals appearance, you sense, will not be far away.

The national team's re-emergence has coincided with huge government investment in the sport, sanctioned by Orban. Across Hungary, a number of academies have been created with existing ones undergoing significant revamps. Several of the country's dated, communist-era stadiums have been overhauled or replaced entirely. The Puskas Arena - carrying the name of Hungary's most famous son - is the jewel in the crown: a palatial home for the national side, every inch the ultra-modern football stadium. It is a venue fit to host the biggest of games, and already has a remarkable record for doing so since its renovation was finished in 2019.

Three Euro 2020 games - the only matches at the tournament to be played before full capacity crowds - were held at the Puskas Arena. It was briefly seen as a possible venue for the final, should it be taken away from Wembley. Earlier this year, it was also made available at short notice as a neutral venue for several Champions League knockout ties. In 2023 it will host the final of the Europa League.

Advertisement

All of this gives the impression that Hungary, with its proud and storied footballing history, is back on the right track after decades spent drifting through the wilderness of international football.

Chip away at the veneer, however, and all is not what it first seems.

"It creates a perception of Hungary as an improving country, a country which is worthy of holding these games regularly," says Tomasz Mortimer, a football writer and founder of hungarianfootball.com. "What they’re displaying to Europe and the rest of the world is impressive, no doubt about it."

"That’s what Orban is trying to do," he adds. "He’s using football to create a vision of Hungary around the world which you can’t do with anything else. We can’t compete economically or on a military level. Football is a great leveller in that respect."

Advertisement

Mortimer has written several articles on the extensive state investment in the Hungarian game since Orban returned as PM. A recent one, published in the Guardian last month, said that around £2 billion had been ploughed into football in Hungary since he returned to power in 2010.

"There was a time when the money spent on sport in Hungary was publicly accessible data," Mortimer adds. "But when Orban took over, they [the Fidesz party] won a supermajority, so they were allowed to change the Constitution. One of the things they did was to make it so sport investment wasn’t publicly accessible data any more. It became so opaque, you can’t always see where the money’s actually gone. With stadiums, you can see it to an extent; the academies, you don’t really know where exactly the money’s gone."

Most of the money spent can be explained by the raft of new stadiums, even if this doesn't account for the excessive construction costs involved.

"11 of the 12 clubs in Hungary's top flight (the Nemzeti Bajnokság I) are owned by Orban's allies," Mortimer explains. "Construction contracts are sold to allied companies for inflated prices. If you want to be straight about it, it’s pure cronyism. Nobody can deny that."

Advertisement

The need for the wave of new football grounds also appears questionable. Debrecen are one of the clubs to have benefited from a new stadium - the 20,000 capacity Nagyerdei Stadium. They were relegated in 2019/20, but their average attendances in their last two seasons in NB I were below 4,000. For context, the only time the stadium sells out in a year is for Debrecen's annual flower carnival.

In a sense, none of this matters; Orban has got what he wants. While there is no direct link to the money spent by his government and the Hungarian team's apparent resurgence, a new band of modern stadiums - particularly the Puskas Arena - has made the country a more attractive proposition when it comes to hosting big games. UEFA's decision to award them three matches at Euro 2020 is evidence of that. The images beamed across the continent of those first two full capacity games in Budapest were widely praised.

"I can speak to my friends and they have no idea what Orban represents," Mortimer adds. "A lot of people in the UK aren’t well up on their Central and Eastern European politics, so why would they? I’ll speak to people and they’re like ‘Oh, it’s amazing seeing all the fans in the stadium. It’s amazing how much better Hungarian football’s getting.’ It's 100 per cent sportswashing and, in a way, it's worked."

Advertisement

The problem with sportswashing, however, is that it occasionally has the tendency to backfire. Particularly in the digital age, hosting a major event or owning a sports team can amplify the very issues those at the top would hope to deflect attention away from.

The day before Budapest played host to its first Euro 2020 game, 10,000 people took to the streets of the Hungarian capital in protest at a new legislation which bans education and advertising that is deemed to depict and popularise consensual same-sex conduct or the affirming of one’s gender to children. Appending this to a law protecting children from child abuse, an explicit connection had been made between homosexuality and paedophilia.

The move was described as a "dark day" for Hungary and its LGBTQ+ community by Amnesty International.

"There’s been a huge outcry," says Amnesty's Aron Demeter, who lives in Budapest. "There were thousands of people in the street to protest it, but the reaction has come from across Hungary, not just here. Beside the annual Budapest Pride, this was the biggest LGBTQ+ protest in the history of this country.

The legislation was passed on June 15, news which was followed by another protest.

"The LGBTQ+ community here are angry, upset and anxious all at the same time, quite understandably," Demeter adds. "This isn’t the first time something like this has happened."

Demeter explains that it has been relatively common for high-ranking political figures in the country to use derogatory terms when referring to the LGBTQ+ community over the last year. The latest legislation followed a law passed last December which forbids same-sex couples from adopting children. Prior to that, the country outlawed changing gender on official documentation in May of last year.

"Sadly, it was relatively foreseeable that there’d one day be laws against the LGBTQ+ community here."

All of this, you suspect, would easily have been lost in the international media, buried somewhere beneath the Euro 2020 hype, were it not for what happened in Munich. In the days before what proved to be Hungary's final appearance at the tournament, the German city's mayor, Dieter Reiter, submitted a request to UEFA to light up the outer shell of the Allianz Arena, where the game was to be played, in rainbow colours.

In response to the ruling in Hungary, it was designed to be a show of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. It was turned down by UEFA, who later explained it was deemed "political".

"It was a shame that UEFA didn’t agree to that," Demeter explains. "Their explanation, I think, goes against what they theoretically stand for. It’s great that they take such a stand against racism, I just don’t see the difference. You should stand up to racism, you should stand up for LGBTQ+ rights, too. They are not doing that."

Despite the disappointment at UEFA's stance, Demeter was buoyed by the response from the wider football community. Thousands of rainbow flags were handed out to the crowd in Munich. Other stadiums in Germany lit up in rainbow colours. For the final game in Budapest, the Netherlands' last-16 clash with Czech Republic, he noticed many Dutch supporters holding rainbow flags and symbols - despite reports claiming some were confiscated.

"It was nice to see," he adds. "You don’t see that from football fans going to games in Hungary, but they made it look like a small-scale Budapest Pride!"

BUDAPEST - Supporters Netherlands with rainbow flag during the UEFA EURO 2020 match between the Netherlands and the Czech Republic at the Puskas Arena on June 27, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by ANP Sport via Getty Images)

UEFA issued a further statement to deny that the order to take rainbow flags from Dutch supporters was not, as some reports claimed, given by them. That this was even considered a possibility spoke volumes.

Euro 2020 has shone a light on the way in which Viktor Orban and his government run things in Hungary, serving as a reminder that sportswashing is very much alive in European football. In rejecting the request to light up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours, UEFA have shown how hollow their platitudes about promoting a game for all truly are, preferring instead to satisfy the wishes of a government who have openly sought to suppress the rights of LGBTQ+ people.

At best, it is naivety. Perhaps those who run football simply weren't aware of the background before they started giving flagship fixtures to Hungary, or entire World Cups to countries where migrant worker human rights abuses are rife.

Or maybe none of this actually matters. If the stadiums and the money and the ability to put on a show is all there, perhaps that's all that's really needed. The rest, they can turn a blind eye to, regardless of who stands to benefit and who stands to suffer as a result.

"Ferenc Puskas is the only Hungarian known around the world," Mortimer says. "That’s because of football. Orban knows that. A lot of people say Orban is a big football fan, but I think what he loves more is power.

"He knows that football is a great way of displaying that power to the rest of the world."