Will Hungarian football crumble should Orbanistan fall?

With the gap closing in the polls ahead of the general election, what will happen to Hungarian football should the unimaginable happen? Written by Tomasz Mortimer

“In a dictatorship, it is difficult to predict the popularity of political forces, as people do not dare say that they don’t support the ruling party.”

Hungarian society has long been labeled a dictatorship by dissenting voices under Fidesz rule, and though Jobbik leader Gabor Vona’s words in early March may seem hyperbolic to some, at least part of the statement seemed to ring true.

Fidesz still stand at a decent 41% in the polls, but as soon ago as February that figure stood at 62%, and the feeling is that the public are shy to tell pollsters that they’re voting for anyone but Fidesz.

Just over two months ago anything other than a Fidesz landslide in April’s general election seemed inconceivable, but a local bi-election victory for an Independent, Jobbik backed Peter Marki-Zay at the end of February in the city of Hodmezovasarhely seemed to change everything.

As a result of the victory, Vona and his right-wing party extended the olive branch to those parties on the left; “cooperation is important”, Vona stated. For the first time, and unpredictably, a formerly divided and politically jumbled opposition came together. And were galvanised.

The margin for error is narrowing. Anything but a two-thirds absolute majority could see Orban ousted from his position at Fidesz. It would at least cause political chaos.

But what will that mean for Hungarian football? The Fidesz government have spent lavishly on Viktor Orban’s favourite sport since winning the election in 2010, both at home and abroad.

Stadiums and academies have been built, the Hungarian league’s TV broadcaster is under government control, and Orban allies are in charge at Ferencvaros, Videoton, MTK, Puskas Akademia, and Osijek in Croatia, to name but a few.

Will everything that has been built up over the last eight years crumble to dust if Fidesz falls?

Sandor Csanyi and the MLSz

Owner of the league’s primary sponsor OTP Bank, Sandor Csanyi is Hungary’s richest man, but not exactly a government ally despite becoming President of the Hungarian Football Federation (the MLSz) on the recommendation of Orban just two months after Fidesz’s election win in 2010.

Csanyi is not a ‘football man’. He doesn’t dislike it, but it’s not his passion. However, to prosper politically, and financially, in ‘Orbanistan’, investing in football is a must.

Not much concrete information is known about Csanyi’s political leanings. Publically he’s apolitical, though he has gotten on amicably with all of Hungary’s PM’s down the years, but his relationship with Orban and his party has been slightly different. It’s been frosty and turbulent.

Following Hungary’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2014, Csanyi was publically vilified by a number of Fidesz ministers including Janos Lazar, Mate Kocsis, Tamas Deutsch (owner of MTK Budapest), and Zsolt Wintermantel, who vocally demanded Csanyi’s resignation.

Csanyi hit back at all of his critics, labeling Tamas Deutsch a “Twitter Tsar”, and saying of Kocsis, “as a spokesman for Fidesz he has so many other opportunities to lie.” The spat didn’t go down well with Orban.

Sandor Csanyi, unlike Orban allies and former allies such as Lorinc Meszaros and Lajos Simicska, is an independent player, and almost bulletproof. Orban is an advocate of Putin’s social model, where the business elite are dependent on the leader and the few independent players remain mostly isolated.

Csanyi isn’t dependent on Orban, and is the owner of the biggest bank in Hungary and the food manufacturer Bonafarm. He’s also on the board of the gas multinational MOL (another main sponsor of the MLSz) and was also recently appointed FIFA Vice President. He has way too much power to be simply cast aside.

That Vice Presidency may just be a crucial component to the longevity of the MLSz. It wields international power for Csanyi that wouldn’t have been possible before, so should Fidesz fall in April, the MLSz could continue unhindered. At least politically.

Financially, things may be different. Between 2011 and 2014, through the government’s now opaque TAO system, the Hungarian football system (the MLSz and the clubs) received $276 million in donations.

“The scheme essentially allows corporations to write off 100 percent of donations made to sport clubs meeting certain criteria,” says Benjamin Novak from the Budapest Beacon. “The government argues such contributions are private contributions. However, Transparency International believes such contributions amount to a diversion of corporate taxes from public coffers to private sports clubs, and that for this reason such contributions should technically be regarded as public funds.”

Since 2016, contributions made through the TAO program constitute as ‘tax secrets’, and are therefore not publicly viewable. Transparency International warned that there were serious corruption risks relating to the programme stating that the “contributions may be made to sports clubs tied to politicians in exchange for the donor being awarded lucrative public procurements.”

Where the money comes from is anyone’s guess, and though the TAO system is unlikely to come to a complete halt following a potential Fidesz defeat, the donations will drop dramatically.

“Any such coalition would likely hit restart on key laws – including the Basic Law – associated with Fidesz and the TAO scheme would certainly be considered one of these,” freelance political journalist Dan Nolan told me.

“Football in some ways defines the post-2010 Orban regime at this point, and it would be ‘an open net’ for any government to cancel future stadium building projects and demonstrably reassign football funding to public services. Given Sandor Csanyi’s original reluctance to accept the MLSZ leadership – added to the fact that he just became FIFA vice president – he could be replaced without much argument from either side.”

Stadium building projects, along with academy refurbishments, have been a staple of the incumbent Orban government. Ferencvaros, Debrecen, Haladas, Diosgyor, Mezokovesd and Puskas Akademia have all had new grounds built with TAO money, plus the new national stadium, the Puskas Ferenc Stadion, will join the long list in 2019. The cost stands at over €1 billion.

“The TAO program and the stadium projects that have yet to start – Honved and Nyiregyhaza for example – would be stopped ASAP, but the MLSz has contracts with the national broadcaster [MTVA] and the national betting company [Szerencsejatek Zrt.] until the summer of 2021,” says Gabor, the editor of ulloi129.hu, the leading Ferencvaros fan blog.

“So infrastructure and youth development would take a major hit, but first-team wages would be paid out, and the new stadiums would be maintained. I doubt that Csanyi would resign as the president of the MLSz, and his bank, OTP, will not drop its contracts with his own association.”

“For the MLSz, I cannot see much difference. In general, sports might take a hit and we’ll see how big of a hit it is. I think there is a valid danger to the whole of Hungarian sports if there will be a party (or parties) in power, which pulls the plug on the TAO programme,” freelance journalist Gergely Marosi told me. “It can be easily attacked in its current form, and probably a lot of people would agree if somebody promised: “we give less to sport but more to healthcare and education.””