BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A video celebrating the inauguration of Hungary’s Puskas Stadium shows Prime Minister Viktor Orban kicking a football across town from his office balcony above the Danube right onto the pitch in the newly-built national football arena.
The $650 million, 65,000-seat venue was officially opened last week and was built to be ready for next year’s continent-wide European Championship – a tournament Hungary could miss.
The government has spent more than $2 billion on football since Orban took power in 2010, with nearly $400 million in 2018 alone, according to budget data summarized by the Hungarian Football Association. That dwarfs previous spending on a sport that has failed to respond to the investment.
The International Monetary Fund put the country’s economic output at about $160 billion last year – meaning one in every 400 of those dollars financed football.
Hungary has hosted the 2017 World Aquatics Championships as well as a number of other international sports events and some see Orban’s efforts as part of a ‘soft power’ approach.
“He considers sports a breakout point, a great tool to enhance the country’s image abroad,” said Agoston Mraz, director of the Nezopont Group, a think tank close to Orban’s ruling Fidesz party.
“It is connected to everything: a multiplying effect in the overall economy, tourism, media, and so on.
“It is a lot like Formula 1 and the Hungaroring (race track) was in the 1980s. Its positive effect was a lot deeper than immediately visible, which justified the billions spent on it.
“The effect of these events benefits the country in many, many ways.”
However, the investment has yet to pay dividends on the football field with the national team still struggling.
After a promising start to Euro 2020 qualification faded, Hungary must now enter the playoffs, where they travel to Bulgaria in March for a knockout match, with the winners facing Iceland or Romania for a place at the tournament.
Long gone are Hungarian football’s glory days of global dominance in the 1950s, or even their more modest achievements in the late 1970s and ‘80s when they reached the World Cup.
Since then, the fortunes of the national team and Hungary’s club sides have been in decline for over 30 years.
During that time, their appearance at Euro 2016, when they reached the last 16, has been Hungary’s only major tournament. Clubs have also failed to advance beyond the group stages of the Champions’ League – and have reached even that phase only twice.
Orban, a decent club player and lifelong football fan, has considered it a personal mission to turn that around.
He elevated sports to front and center in his government’s priorities and has made lavish funds available for football to create a world-class infrastructure.
He even founded a football academy and a professional club in his home town Felcsut, which have received more than $130 million in state funds and private gifts according to official filings.
Peter Kreko, an analyst at the Political Capital think tank, believes it has been a mistaken approach.
“State money follows a logic of power, not one of efficiency and professionalism,” Kreko said.
“The failure was coded into this system... The country is hostage to its leader’s hobby. He can continue doing this until voters notice – and they are starting to grasp the enormity of the funds that yields them nothing but permanent frustration.”
Under Orban hundreds of local pitches, a dozen new arenas nationwide, and the big national stadium have been inaugurated, training facilities have been built and oaths sworn.
The Puskas, named after Ferenc Puskas who starred for Real Madrid and played for the ‘Magnificent Magyars’ following the Second World War, officially opened last week with a friendly against Uruguay and was a culmination of that process.
The Puskas was built on the precise location of the People’s Stadium, a drab Communist-era arena where Hungary played as they reached their peak, appearing in the 1954 World Cup final.
Club matches with 60,000 fans were not uncommon whereas today the most popular team, Ferencvaros, averages 7,600.
Demolished in 2015, the People’s Stadium concrete was recycled in the new stands and the center circle was preserved in the exact same location.
Although the stadium’s hefty price tag drew heavy criticism – especially as early plans for a multi-functional arena hosting facilities for several sports were abandoned to create a football-only pitch – the government has defended it as necessary, along with all other spending on the sport.
“Football is the most popular sport in Hungary,” said Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, on Thursday.
“We would prefer better football of course, but a lot of this money goes to non-professional sport and to youth football. If we ever want a very good national team, we have to support youth football. And let’s hope for the best in the playoffs.”
Orban, speaking on Hungarian Radio on Friday, said all the country’s major construction projects faced criticism before they were realized.
“We may have argued, fought, whether we need the stadium or not, but in the end, when we got it, we were all happy.
“I know the debates that surrounded these projects over the centuries. The same thing happened with the Chain Bridge, the Parliament building, theaters...
“I am never fazed by controversy during development,” he said. “Once you make a decision you stick by it, because once you carry it out everyone will applaud. We saw that in the last few days.”
Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Christian Radnedge