Viktor Orban’s Footballing Front Man

Hungarian football and Hungarian politics have become increasingly intertwined since Viktor Orban took office as Prime Minister in 2010, but his relationship with Lorinc Meszaros, the owner of NBI side Puskas Akademia is one of troubling interest. Written by Tomasz Mortimer

At the end of April 2017 in Hungary, Napi.hu published their annual spring rich list. At the top of the list for the fifth year in a row was Sandor Csanyi, the head of the MLSz (the Hungarian FA) and Chairman of OTP Bank – one of Central and Eastern Europe’s largest independent financial services and sponsor of Hungarian football’s top tier (NB I).

But the name at number five was the one that claimed all the headlines: Lorinc Meszaros, the Fidesz mayor of Felcsut. According to the data from Napi.hu Meszaros’s worth in the past 12 months quintupled from €76m to €385m, leaping from the 31st richest man in Hungary to the 5th. Since 2014, the first year Meszaros appeared on Hungary’s 100 richest list, Meszaros’s fortune has multiplied by 15.

Meszaros remarked on his ascent up the rich list in 2014 by saying, “That I have been able to reach so far; God, luck and the person of Viktor Orbán have certainly played a role, though I never privatised and I never took anything — I acquired everything through my work and my mind.”

Lorinc Meszaros’s path has been, and continues to be, a strange one – a path that is perennially linked with football and Hungarian Prime Minister and leader of Fidesz, Viktor Orban.

The pair went to the same elementary school, but were never close. They were first properly acquainted through their football love in Felcsut – the village of 1,800 people where they grew up, where Orban played for local side Felcsut SE, and where Meszaros ran a small gas-fitting company – Meszaros & Meszaros – through the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Orban’s footballing career was far from stellar, but it wasn’t bad either. From 1982 to 1988 he played for Medosz-Erdért SE and BEAC in the 4th tier of Hungarian football before coming out of retirement in 1999, after an 11-year hiatus, at the age of 35, whilst Prime Minister, to play intermittently for Felcsut in the 5th and 4th tier until 2005.

Upon retiring from playing football in 2005, Orban – while out of office following Fidesz’s 2002 defeat in the Hungarian General Election – set up the Puskas Ferenc Labdaruga Akademia in Felcsut.

The naming of the academy was contentious, to say the least. Ferenc Puskas, the Hungarian footballing legend, played out his club career in Hungary exclusively at Honved, and it’s fair to assume he would have never visited, nor ever heard of the tiny village of Felcsut. Honved fans were the ones who were particularly unamused at the name, and still 12 years on are vehemently opposed to the academy, and the club itself.

“Orban gave land of his village house in Felcsut to fund the football academy.” Freelance sports journalist Gergely Marosi told me. “The facilities of Puskas Akademia are near the area where Felcsut SE, the local football team used to play.”

It was two years later when Orban first trusted his friend Lorinc Meszaros with any kind of business responsibility (coincidentally around about the same time Meszaros’s gas-fitting company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy). The first partnership being Puskas Akademia where Meszaros was appointed President of the club’s foundation.

Due to Orban being out of office, and Felcsut being such a tiny village, there was very little fanfare or media attention when the academy was set up, and it wasn’t until 2009 that Puskas Akademia got any real traction. That was when FC Felcsut (as it was rebranded in 2008) were rebranded to, initially, Videoton FC-Puskas Akademia, after an initial partnership with the first division Hungarian side Videoton (the club who Viktor Orban supports).

“With Videoton FC they formed a partnership, so the most talented youngsters could go straight to a top-flight team. Some of the youth teams at both clubs were a mix between Videoton and Puskas Akademia players”, says Matyas Szeli from Nemzeti Sport, Hungary’s leading sports newspaper. “The then NB II [Hungary’s 2nd tier] Puskas Akademia was legally independent from Vidi, but in regard of football and professional issues, it was under Videoton’s supervision. Videoton also trained a lot at Felcsut.”

Videoton, who are based in Szekesfehervar 40 minutes down the road from Felcsut, are owned by Hungarian oligarch Istvan Garancsi who took over in late 2007. Garancsi, according to Napi.hu is Hungary’s 23rd richest man and is another close ally of Viktor Orban’s.

Vidi officially relinquished the partnership in 2012 but still hold very close ties even today; players freely move between the two clubs, and Vidi have currently been playing at Puskas Akademia’s home stadium in Felcsut for the past two seasons while their home is being redeveloped.

“The academy is now maintained by an NGO [non-governmental organisation] founded in 2004,” said Marosi. “The official communication states that the academy’s running is funded by donations – and since it came to effect, from the TAO tax return programme.”

Between 2011 and 2014 Hungarian football clubs received $276 million worth of TAO contributions of which 12% went directly to Puskas Akademia. The premise of the TAO tax return programme was to essentially get more people playing the game. This is the wording from the MLSz website:

“The system of corporate tax-breaks for those promoting sport ensures the possibility of attracting substantially greater funds into spectator sports, football included. The aim is for as many amateur footballers as possible to play the world’s most popular game in the best circumstances possible.

“As per the plans of the Hungarian Football Federation and as a result of this financial backing, more and more are beginning to play football, which in the long term can lead to football becoming more successful. Numerous clubs, thanks to the resources brought in via the TAO programme, should in the future be able to stand on their own feet financially.”

Though since it passed through parliament in 2011, the legislation has faced some fierce criticism, not least because since 2016 the information related to contributions made through the TAO program now constitutes as ‘tax secrets’, and are therefore not publicly viewable.

In 2015, a non-governmental organisation called, ‘Transparency International Hungary’ (one of the organisations that Orban has been consistently hounding in recent months) issued a report which warned against serious corruption risks that were presented through the TAO contribution system. The suspicion raised by Transparency International was that the “contributions may be made to sports clubs tied to politicians in exchange for the donor being awarded lucrative public procurements.”

There is no reason to suggest that all the money that goes in to the club goes straight back out again, but the money spent on grassroots and the academy is questionable.

In 2012, at the cost of $14m, Puskas Akademia had a beautiful stadium built right next to Orban’s home in Felcsut called the Pancho Arena (Pancho was Ferenc Puskas’s nickname in Spain), which has since gone on to win awards for its architecture. When the stadium was built, the Prime Minister’s spokesman remarked, “on Monday [the day the stadium opened] the change of regime of Hungarian football will begin.”

Meanwhile on the pitch, Puskas Akademia’s financial might is starting to show despite spending the 2016/17 season in NB II. Daniel Prosser (one of Honved’s shining lights in their NB I title win), Peter Szakaly (Debrecen’s captain), and Gabor Gyomber (Ferencvaros’ captain) were all prized away in January, while Vilmos Vanczak (who has 79 caps for Hungary) and Sandor Gyorgy (who shone at Perth Glory the season before) signed last summer.

Former Gyor and Ferencvaros manager Attila Pinter, who had a brief spell in charge of the Hungarian national team in 2014, was also lured to Felcsut from NB I side Mezokovesd in January, and secured the NB II title, and safe passage back into Hungary’s top tier in May.

Puskas are sure to be a contender in the top tier this season with such an experienced squad, and they’ve already set out their ambition for the new season by signing Attila Osvath from Vasas and Ulysse Diallo from Pinter’s former club Mezokovesd. But the two signings from Ujpest – Jonathan Heris and Balazs Balogh – two of Ujpest’s best players, made the bigger headlines.

Balazs Balogh said to Nemzeti Sport, “At the beginning of pre-season Nebojsa Vignjevics [Ujpest manager] said it is time for a change, he did not explain why, but he said it’d be better if I left. I did not understand. At first, I thought I replied with a convincing argument of why I wanted to stay: I’ve reached two cup finals with Lilak, I am very motivated to stay here, and this is not something everyone can say. Then Nebojsa called the owner, Mr. Roderick Duchatelet, and he said the same thing as the coach: it’s time for a change here. He added, I received offers, but I would be happy if you went to Felcsut.”

Despite considerably strengthening their first team, it’s not entirely visible that Puskas Akademia are feeling the effects of the academy system on or off the pitch, despite the time and money that has been spent on the project.

The Puskas academy already has a fairly decent alumnus including the likes of Laszlo Kleinheisler at Astana, Roland Sallai formely of Palermo, and Matyas Tajti at Malaga, but the academy itself was ranked as the 6th best academy in Hungary in 2016, and in the most prestigious youth league in Hungary, Puskas U19s finished 7th this season.

“Well, my personal opinion is that there has been a focus shift and an identity problem, which is unfortunate,” said Gergely Marosi. “The original plan was to base the club on the academy products. Their infrastructure was a major attraction for youngsters. Instead of this Puskas Akademia has a huge number of experienced NB I players in the team, Attila Pinter on the bench – he’s known for favouring experienced players – and most academy graduates on the bench. Usually there are only one to three of them playing.

“I’d like to see them re-focusing on youth, because I believe with the funding and infrastructure they have, that would be much more useful for Hungarian football.”

But Puskas Akademia isn’t Lorinc Meszaros’ only unusual venture into football. In January 2016, in a move that shocked many, Meszaros purchased NK Osijek in the Prva HNL (Croatian top tier) who are based in the fourth largest city in Croatia, home to around a negligible 500 ethnic Hungarians.

Osijek finished 4th in the league last season, their highest standing since 2008, and are expected to push on again next year. The Bijelo-plavi faithful have been fairly encouraged by what’s happened at the club so far, especially as the club were struggling with financial difficulties before Meszaros took over.

“For now, the fans are just happy because the team is competitive,” Alex Holiga, chief editor of Telesport told me. “There wasn’t much of a reaction when Meszaros took over. The fans were left confused when suddenly the club’s official website started publishing news items in Hungarian alongside those in Croatian, but the club soon realised it doesn’t make much sense so they dropped the idea.

“The fans are mostly hoping the infrastructure will be improved before the Hungarians leave, which everyone expects to happen at some point when Orban loses power.”

Since taking over the club, Meszaros already has spent $300,000 on the academy, and is likely to spend over $3.5m on a new stadium. He’s also spent significantly on players, at least compared to the past, forking out $500,000 on Muzafer Ejupi and $300,000 on Gabrijel Boban from league rivals Slaven Belupo and NK Zagreb respectively. They also loaned Dmytro Lepa from Puskas Akademia with Antonio Perosevic going the other way, which is likely to transpire more and more in the coming years.

Meszaros & Meszaros have become the main shirt sponsor of the club while Hungarian companies favoured by the Orban government also support Osijek such as: TRSZ, Duna Aszfalt, Magyar Epito, and West Hungária Bau. A short time after Meszaros purchased the club he said quite frankly, “the price for Croat and Serb players in the football market is a great deal higher than for those from Hungary.”

Many oligarchs and businessman in Eastern Europe and the Baltic Region have tried to make a quick buck on football clubs, but have almost always come up empty, so it’s unlikely Meszaros would be using Osijek to build his financial might.

There could however, be clear advantages for Hungarian football. The best prospects from the academy, and the best players in the senior side at Osijek may end up at Puskas Akademia, and Meszaros could be using Osijek in the same way that Red Bull use Salzburg to feed Leipzig, but the waters seem murkier than that.

“In Hungary, it’s worth investing in football not only because of all the state subsidies but also because it’s a good way to build political connections,” says Zsuzsanna Wirth from Hungarian political investigative website Direkt36. “It’s not clear why Mészáros is investing in football in Croatia but maybe this is a way for him to lay the groundwork for his future investments in the country. He already owns the Croatian company Mirno More d.o.o.”

For Osijek, it’s quite uncertain just how the future looks. The fans are sceptical, but for now, Meszaros, using the corporate tax benefit from Hungary, is spending lavishly on the future of the club, which can only be seen as a good thing for Bijelo-plavi.

However, when you look away from Lorinc Meszaros’ football dealings, everything looks that bit more disturbing.

“Meszaros first properly attracted my full attention in early 2012 but mostly because of his land grabbing in the land lease program in which he and his family eventually received 200 hectares.” says Hungarian historian Eva Balogh and owner of the website HungarianSpectrum.org. “By August 2013 I was already explaining to my readers what ‘stroman’ [stooge] means in English. At that time, the mainstream media, like Origo, already had a long article about the strange ‘luck’ of Mészáros.”

As of July 2017, Meszaros is said to be involved with over 90 businesses across Hungary (an increase of 88 since Fidesz got to power in 2010), and owns over 200 television and media outlets including the likes of Nemzeti Sport, Népszabadság (formerly Hungary’s biggest opposition paper), and all the regional newspapers in 12 of Hungary’s 19 counties.

Meszaros’ main business, the gas-fitting company Meszaros & Meszaros, recorded $75m in revenue in 2015, up from just over $3,000 in 2010. Much of the company’s revenue comes from state projects, and in 2015, the company won over $130m worth of state tenders.

This pattern continues with the majority of the companies he owns: in 2016 alone, at least $800m worth of state tenders were awarded to Meszaros’ businesses, and 99% of the state projects that Meszaros has won have been funded by the European Union.

“Using middlemen is the only way of getting a good portion of the EU monies,” says Eva Balogh. “His oligarchs overprice the services and, I assume, a certain amount of the money must go back to Orban / Fidesz. This is how this arrangement works.”

Once a project is completed, any profits are often fully withdrawn. While the tender-related public databases are pretty opaque, and therefore figures are difficult to get hold of, in early 2017 Direkt36 found some information on a sewage system company which Orban’s family owns:

“In 2013, they gained only 15% of profit on their total revenue of 2.7 billion forints [$9.6m],” it says on Direkt36’s site. “Their profit increased to 30% on 5.2 billion forints [$18.6m] of revenue by 2015. The profit gained during these three years was fully withdrawn from the companies. After deducting the share of the partners, Orbán’s family members received nearly 2 billion forints [$7.1m] in dividends.”

How often this happens it’s hard to say, but it seems that Orban has chosen to use a middlemen like Meszaros instead of using family members.

“Not too many Hungarians would argue with you if you asked if Meszaros was Orban’s stroman,” says Balogh. “It is hard to imagine otherwise. I suspect, Meszaros is not the only one, but he is definitely the most trusted. He will never contest the arrangement and it is unlikely that he will ever turn against him because Mészáros is utterly dependent on Orban.”

Meszaros’ success is symptomatic of a wider problem within Hungarian society, and it’s believed that there are currently dozens of middle men sucking the money out of public funds.

“I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily pawns, but affiliated businessmen must know who their friends are,” says Zoltan Szecsi from Politics.hu. “They come and go like Zsolt Nyerges, mainly involved in road building – he keeps a lower profile now. Zoltan Speder, head of FHB Bank and property tycoon fell from grace last year. Istvan Tiborcz, Orbán’s son-in-law is a busy bee too, though he’s been trying to cover up his businesses a bit more recently. Plus, Istvan Garancsi, the owner of Videoton FC, but it seems that Orban trusts Meszaros the most, because he made him.”

Orban has been questioned in parliament about Meszaros but brushed off a question from Gabor Vona, the leader of opposition party Jobbik, saying, “I have never had a front man of any kind, nor will I ever.”

A far-right nationalist party, Jobbik describe themselves as, “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party,” but have been described by certain parts of the media as a “neo-Nazi” and an “antisemitic organisation.”

Jobbik are increasingly becoming the most likely party that might be able to overcome the Orban government. With the left in Hungary so fragmented and disorganised, and Orban’s political strategy over refugee quotas working so effectively; Jobbik have capitalised upon this, and are beginning to ask some serious questions over Fidesz’s corruption scandals.

“All my sympathies are with Jobbik,” says the oligarch Lajos Simicska, who provided a lot of the money to Fidesz in its formative years before later falling out with Orbán in 2014. “This is a stinking criminal gang that must go.”

Jobbik have plastered anti-Fidesz billboards across the country with the slogan, “You work. They steal,” and as a country, despite Fidesz’s stranglehold over a huge percentage of the media, the people are getting restless. Orban’s popularity has fallen from 49% to 40% between January and April 2017, surveys show that 67% of Hungarians believe their government is corrupt, and the country has seen protests with numbers reaching 80,000 for weeks on end in Budapest and across Hungary.

“People have lost trust in politics,” said Andras Fekete-Gyor, the leader of the liberal, anti-Orban group Momentum. “People are completely unsatisfied with their future prospects.”

The Fidesz government passed a law through parliament in June to tighten regulations on political billboard advertising, while Orban dismissed the protests by saying it’s the work of Hungarian – American billionaire George Soros who was paying activists and flying them in to Budapest to bulk the numbers.

Soros has been on the end of a relentless ire from Orban for nearly two years now ever since the ‘Refugee Crisis’ in 2015, but that anger has been ramped up in the last few months. The Hungarian PM has effectively gone to verbal war with the philanthropist accusing him of running a “vast mafia network,” and remarked that he was a “threat to Europe’s peace” as migration is “good business for Soros.”

Orban has also lashed out at the NGO’s in Hungary, especially those that are funded in part by Soros including the world class Central European University based in Budapest whose future in the Hungarian capital now looks very uncertain.

The European Union took action against the Hungarian government over the CEU scandal, and with Orban’s incessant belligerence over migration policies increasingly exasperating those in Brussels, it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with such large amounts of EU money going into the hands of Fidesz’s officials and friends.

With Jobbik closing the gap, the EU tightening the vice, and the Hungarian populace waking up to the Hungarian government’s conduct; it’ll be interesting to see just how much longer this cycle will continue. Maybe Fidesz’s luck may just be turning.

Author: Tom Mortimer

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