Secretaries and bank clerks trot down the Budapest side street, their commute brightened up by a gigantic mural that uses 1950s posters, photographs and football programmes to depict the “match of the century”. The goalkeeper Gyula Grosics leaps heroically, Billy Wright looks on haplessly, Ferenc Puskás celebrates and then comes the bold claim of centurial supremacy and that scoreline: Hungary 6 England 3. Brash, nostalgic and nationalistic, the giant artwork has a lot in common with Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, a football crazy politician on a mission to revive Hungarian football.

The 1000m² mural used 400 litres of paint and took three weeks to complete. The problem is that in the time it took Barnabás Jankovits and friends to transform this side street in the Jewish district, Hungarian football imploded. Timed to mark the 60th anniversary of Hungary’s watershed Wembley win, the unveiling ceremony in fact came days after the country’s biggest ever defeat.

Hungary’s 8-1 thrashing away to the Netherlands not only put paid to dreams of Brazil 2014, but it also sparked fierce criticism of Orbán’s habit of using taxpayers’ money to build stadiums. Orbán disappeared for a few days, later emerging to complain of ongoing “brain damage” from the trauma. Even the fiercest government loyalists expressed anger that Orbán was chasing a dream of recreating the Puskás era while a third of Hungary’s 10 million people are living below the poverty line.

Others argue that if Hungary has to spend big on sport then it shouldn’t waste 60% of that budget on a failing football team when it excels at other sports, having won eight gold medals at the London Olympics and finished ninth in the medals table. The enduring popularity of football has ensured its close relationship with business and politics, on both sides of Europe. Hungary’s greatest sporting icon Ferenc Puskás understood very well the relationship between football, money and politics, once explaining a first-half torpor to his manager with the immortal phrase “small money, small footie, big money, big footie”. With this, the most prolific international striker of the 20th century secured a pay rise and then turned a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 victory. “The émigré Puskás was welcomed back to Hungary in 1981, a full year before the IMF got an invite,” noted Tamás Krausz, a professor of history at Budapest’s ELTE University.

Although the nationalist Orbán government claims Puskás as a true Hungarian, just as the previous regime painted him a socialist hero, the Mighty Magyars were partly a British invention. After the Wembley game the president of the Hungarian football federation (MLSZ) paid tribute to the English coach Jimmy Hogan, who had worked in Hungary in the 1920s, saying the Lancastrian had taught the Hungarians “everything we know about football”. Gustáv Sebes, the manager of the Aranycsapat [the Golden Squad] echoed the sentiment. Márton Bukovi and J Jenö Csaknády were being slightly unfair when they named their 1954 football manual Learn to Play the Hungarian Way.

Only a month before the 8-1 defeat in Amsterdam, the government had announced its plan to host European Championship games in 2020. Convening in parliament’s stunning delegation room, football was represented by the Uefa president Michel Platini, money by Sándor Csányi, the president of the MLSZ and Hungary’s richest man, and politics by Orbán. The prime minister was typically bullish, saying “without national honour and national pride football has no meaning” before adding to the locker-room atmosphere by running off with the ball at the end of the press conference.

News of the grand seven-year plan was all over the state media for days. As in the Communist era, irreverent political jokes abounded: what’s the difference between Orbán and Platini? One’s an autocratic, ageing, overweight midfielder and the other one was European Footballer of the Year in 1984.

In truth, Orbán’s political destiny has been linked to football from the start. Some of the most powerful members of his government — including the president and leader of the House — played in the same five-a-side team as the prime minister in the late 1980s. Since then the nation’s interest in football has plummeted, not least because Hungary has not made it to the finals of a major tournament since 1986.

A government can massage economic data or blame unemployment statistics on its predecessors, but an 8-1 defeat offers spin doctors less room for manoeuvre. After the game Sándor Egervári resigned as national coach and Csányi said Hungary would focus on youth, “to break out of the current stagnant and insular coaching system” and consult with the federations in the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. The next manager of the Hungarian national football team would probably be a foreigner, he added, setting a target of qualification for the 2016 European Championship.

Relations between the government and the MLSZ finally reach a nadir in the aftermath of the Netherlands defeat. When a government spokesman criticised Csányi’s performance, the oligarch replied that he “should shut up about football”, as he had plenty of opportunity to lie in his current role. The state official taunted Csányi, saying he had “written his name in the annals of Hungarian football, as the 8-1 defeat will be remembered 50 years from now.” Not to be commemorated with a giant mural in downtown Budapest, though, presumably.

Hungary’s political elite are set on building new stadiums regardless. There is widespread dismay that the city of Debrecen (population 210,000) will get a 30,000-seater stadium. The town mayor — yes, also an occasional member of that five-a-side team — said it was disgraceful that Debrecen have had to play their Champions League games 140 miles away in Budapest. But opponents note that the former railway workers team has played three home Champions League games in its 111-year history, including a 4-3 defeat to Fiorentina that later turned out to have been fixed. The team’s European foray featured the worst ever defensive performance in a Champions League group stage and there is little prospect of a rerun any time soon.

Nevertheless, the government decreed that Ferencváros would get a 22,500-seater facility, while a 65,000-seater national stadium will be completed by 2016. The head of sport for Fidesz, the governing party, admitted this is a drain on the budget but expressed hope that the money “will be recouped in four or five years.”  The MLSZ said it wants to increase average domestic attendances from a meagre 3,000 to 10,000 by 2018, blaming the decades-long slump in attendances on poor facilities. However, with the nation’s coffers emptier than its terraces, opposition MPs launched a campaign to stop the profligate building of stadiums. The country agreed too, with over 90% of those asked by the pollsters Tarki saying the money should be allocated elsewhere. But when the 2014 budget was announced, stadium spending was actually increased.

Orbán has always had twin obsessions, politics and football, and with his huge majority suggesting the former is sewn up for now, there is only one world left to conquer. Orbán set up the Ferenc Puskás Football Academy next to his weekend house in Felcsút, his childhood village, in 2007. It was initially a modest affair, but since his 2010 return to power the money has flooded in, thanks to his introduction of tax breaks that allow corporations to donate to football stadiums. The key donor Hungary’s biggest bank and football league sponsor OTP, of which Csányi is CEO.

Although essentially now a feeder club to Orbán’s favourite team, Videoton, in nearby Székesféhervár, the academy team managed promotion to the top flight last season. As the 18-year-old Baltazár Büki, a former trainee at the academy, put it, “Videoton and Felcsút are two different teams, but one club.” The academy trainees, who live on site, are growing up together, forming bonds like the one that next door neighbours Puskás and Sándor Kocsis formed with their “fancy a kickabout” secret knock in Kispest before graduating to the Honvéd and national teams together.

Of the Aranycsapat, Büki said, “They tried to set them as an example for us. The dormitory is full of Puskás photos, Gyula Grosics would come over a lot.” The goalkeeper, who died in June, was, like Orbán, an anti-communist turned nationalist, and was even put under house arrest for expressing dissenting views against the nascent communist regime. “Orbán comes over to watch matches, sometimes training sessions, or to play a little,” Büki said, before adding the familiar refrain, “I don’t want to get into politics.”

He also declined to comment “for reasons of loyalty” on why he left the academy. However, it is getting difficult for anyone to ignore the stadium project next door, which has become a national symbol of the prime minister’s hubris. “It is literally in his [Orbán’s] back yard,” Tamás Bodoky of the Hungarian Wikileaks website atlatszo.hu said of the arena which seats 3,500, double the village’s population. The stadium opened on Easter Monday, two weeks after his general election victory. It was designed in the nationalist style of the late Imre Makovecz, a personal friend of Orbán’s. In its early stages the locals referred to it as Sauron’s castle, but in its finished form, with its wooden pillars, it rather resembles a church. 

Other signs of hubris were in evidence when Orbán’s boyhood team Videoton hosted a Fecsút match against Puskás’s former team, Kispest. The club’s stewards were instructed to order Kispest fans to take down the banner bearing Ferenc Puskás’s name, despite the banner, and player being club institutions. The political analyst and football fan Zoltán Somogyi explained that “the very young club, Felcsút, is claiming Puskás’s name. Also they have the heritage of Puskás at their academy. The fans took the banner down, but they were outraged.” A Facebook group named “Puskás belongs to Kispest, not Felcsút” soon appeared.

In the days before Hungary’s April election, Orbán even evoked the famous Puskás witticism on the election campaign trail, telling voters that if his ruling Fidesz party were to win big, a big future would follow. The world’s press descended on Felscút, calling it a microcosm of Hungarian society under Orbán. The New York Times noted that the stadium is 20m from Orbán’s house. Other media outlets observed that the only regional precedent for this was Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceauşescu’s construction of a stadium in his home village of Olt, in his case a 30,000-seater. Once host to a decent side and such young loanees as Dan Petrescu and Ilie Dumitrescu, it is now a decaying white elephant of a stadium used by a fourth-division team.

Orbán’s project recalls the glory days of the Magical Magyars in several respects. Hungary pioneered the concept of building the spine of the national team around a single club side with Honvéd and at times, observing Orbán with his siege mentality, demands for unquestioning loyalty and “zero sum game” approach to politics, one is left wondering whether out there somewhere a football team is missing a manager and a country a prime minister.

Viktor Orbán’s political life has been entwined with football from the start: the holders of Hungary’s three highest public offices once played in the same student five-a-side team — Orbán himself, President János Áder and House Speaker László Köver. Chris Condon, who played against Fojikasör (‘The beer is flowing’) in the 1990s before becoming the Financial Times correspondent in Budapest, said the Fidesz side was a legacy of the team that started when they were law students: ‘’It was a fairly competitive league, mostly late-20-something guys with good skills but past their prime for the full pitch. The Fidesz side was a bit older than most, but was a decent team. In the 1998-2002 period when Fidesz was in government and Viktor was PM, he never showed up.’’

But while Orbán was attacking political rivals, the rabble rousing, nationalistic party strongman Kövér was, on the pitch at least, ‘’a mild-mannered defender, always staying back to protect his goal. He was also quiet and even-tempered, even a peacemaker when tempers flared.’’

Another one-time opponent said that “after Kövér became Minister of Secret Services, his bodyguards were always standing by the touchline. Once Kövér was involved in a tussle and the state security officials ran onto the pitch to intervene. After that he made them wait outside the sports centre.’’

The future head of state, Áder, with his milquetoast public persona, was the opposite of Kövér, on and off the field, however. ‘’On the pitch, he was an attacker, always up front and looking for goals and creating a lot of contact going for free balls. I recall him getting into a shoving match with one of our guys — a very level-headed guy normally. Áder was the instigator, and the whole thing almost came to blows until other players from both sides, including Kövér, broke it up,” said Condon. ‘’In other words, on the pitch Áder was a hothead and Kövér a gentleman.’’

Orbán’s competitive streak has never been far from the surface. A former opponent speaking on condition of anonymity recalled him disputing a throw-in decision “by throwing the ball with full force into our defender Zsolti’s face by way of retribution. I come from Budapest’s Eighth District but I had never seen anything like that in my whole life.” 

Another team member recalled the incident: “When one of our team told him to stop, Orbán’s answer was ‘be happy that I didn’t smash his face in.’”

Orbán, now 50, has faced repeated accusations of moving Hungary’s electoral goalposts. In an interview two weeks before the election in April, his wife Anikó Lévai told Story magazine that she once won a skiing competition, but by the time the award was presented her husband had made the organisers change the rules so that men and women were in different categories, so technically she hadn’t beaten him.

The final thought goes to the former captain of Fidesz’s rival five-a-side team, who said, “Thank God I do not remember too much about them, except that they usually smelt of alcohol: but then again so did everyone else.”


This article appeared on Episode Seventy Five of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.