The streets of Budapest were flooded with singing and hugging crowds on June 22, as Hungary topped its qualifying group to make it to the last 16 of Euro 2016 with a 3-3 draw against Portugal.
This year's UEFA European Football Championship is the first in 44 years that Hungary has even qualified for, meaning this level of sporting euphoria has been unknown to a whole generation. Some already talk about the revival of the country’s legendary “Golden Team” from the 1950s, when Ferenc Puskas led the Mighty Magyars around Europe crushing all comers.
The populist ruling Fidesz will welcome the current team's surprising success. Sporting pride is invariably good for a sitting government. It will also likely seek to use it to justify the extraordinary spending on football stadiums and other potential white elephants that has been seen in recent years. It is questionable, however, that Hungary's new and under-utilised sport facilities will attract many more spectators once the Euro 2016 hype fades.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban - a former amateur football player himself and professed sports fanatic - has been trying to put the country back on the international football map since he came to power in 2010. He quickly launched an unprecedented program of investment in infrastructure, building more than five hundred sport facilities over the past five years.
These include a new football stadium built in his home village that offers 4,000 seats to the 1,800 inhabitants. Dozens more have been added around the country. Including stadiums both completed and in the pipeline, the government plans to pump a total of HUF215bn (€685mn) of public money into building football facilities by 2020, according to Atlatszo.hu.
Orban and his political and business buddies regularly cheer from the VIP section of the new stadiums, arguing that football "returns Hungary’s self esteem”. However, polls show that the vast majority of the population does not share their excitement.
A poll by Publicus Institute in December showed that 75% of Hungarians think the government spends far too much on professional football. Even the pro-government market research firm Szazadveg found in 2013 that 56% of Hungarians do not agree with the government's stadium building program. Most of the respondents said that the money should be spent on "more important issues”. Rather more cynically, others argued that "it is not worth spending on Hungarian football because of its low quality”.
Fidesz will hope, however, that the unexpected success of the Hungarian team in France will help change such opinions. The progress of the Magyars has “delivered confirmation for Fidesz of its governmental priorities," claims political analyst Zoltan Cegledi. He accuses the ruling party of "increasing spending on sport while constantly underfinancing education and health care”.
Indeed, one group that may not be cheering quite so loudly are teachers. Hungary’s success in football comes as protest movements set up by Hungarian teachers and healthcare workers are fading away.
“The government can easily come to the conclusion that it should continue with the same policies,” Cegledi suggests. Fidesz “will do everything possible to use the success [in Euro 2016] to increase its own popularity," he says, while noting that the positivity won't last for long.
“This autumn, the government’s anti-refugee campaign will take the stage again. It is very probable that – at the time of the referendum on the EU’s migrant quota system – we will see the usual offensive and negative Fidesz,” the analyst predicts.
Others claim, however, that regardless of Fidesz’ long-standing support of football, the Hungarian team’s performance is not connected to party politics.
“The victory [at Hungary’s first match at the tournament against Austria] seems to have blurred previous structures that connect Fidesz to football," Gabor Torok, a political analyst and member of the board of directors of the Hungarian Football Federation, told hvg.hu. "It is not only the government that profits from the success, this has become a national issue instead of a political question.”
Torok claims that although Hungary’s success might be used by Fidesz to justify its sport investments, the stadium building program will remain a point of contention. “Stadiums are not the ones who are playing football on the field,” he states. Not everybody agrees with the stadium building program, he insists, but people do stand behind the national team.
Some suggest that regardless of the political consequences of the Euro 2016, the success of the Hungarian team will have a favourable impact even after the games are finished. Sports economist Ferenc Denes claims “the Hungarian football industry will see a boost,” and suggests "enthusiastic viewers [of Euro 2016] will become spectators in Hungary’s stadiums,” hvg.hu reported.
An increase in the number of spectators would surely be welcomed by Fidesz to help justify its new stadiums. The number of people attending the matches of the Hungarian national championship has even slightly decreased since 2010, according to Nepszabadsag. The average crowd last season featured no more than 2,645; that number was 2,800 in 2010-2011. The government has already flagged plans to offer further support to premier league clubs that struggle to maintain under-utilized stadiums.
However, there are calls for Fidesz to offer its support closer to grass roots level. “We need a sport policy which is cheaper, resistant to crisis (…), which can potentially reach everyone, strengthening the image of a Fidesz that does not forget about its voters,” local newspaper Szazadveg wrote way back in 2012.
The message that Orban sent from Marseille on June 18, ahead of the match against Iceland, suggests the government may already be stepping in this direction. The PM announced that the government will allocate HUF1.9bn for the renovation of Budapest’s small football fields and sport grounds of football clubs playing in lower leagues.