Football: Hungary's Orban seeks glory days again

Football: Hungary's Orban seeks glory days again
A local holds a placard showing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a football player with the lettering 'Game over!' as several thousand participants protest against the policy of Orban's government in front of the building of Hungarian National Opera in Budapest.

BUDAPEST - In the 1950s Hungary were world football kingpins, famously thrashing England 6-3 at Wembley and going unbeaten - except for an upset in the 1954 World Cup final - for six years.

But those days are long gone. The lone surviving "Mighty Magyar" from that golden era died this month and Hungary last made it into an international tournament way back in 1986.

Its clubs barely feature in European competitions and play in crumbling stadia to dwindling crowds after decades of under-funding.

But football-crazy Viktor Orban, prime minister since 2010 and a former amateur player himself, has been trying to put Hungary back on the map.

Despite a recent recession, his government has pumped some 450-500 million euros (S$691-767 million) of public money into football, with dozens of new or renovated stadia either already up or in the pipeline.

"This is a great day for Hungary," Orban declared last August as he opened a glittering 22,000-capacity new stadium at Budapest's Ferencvaros, Hungary's biggest club, for a sell-out friendly against English Premier League giants Chelsea.

But so far, the money has not translated into bigger crowds.

Instead attendances have been falling as many of the organised fan groups called "ultras" are boycotting games, unhappy about the modernisation drive that they say is taking the soul out of the sport.

Long road ahead

A nationwide ID card system and a biometric hand-scanner at turnstiles at Ferencvaros - where the average gate so far this season has slumped to 6,500 compared to 9,000 last year - has sparked particular fury.

"They treat us like criminals," Adam, a Ferencvaros "capo" or ultra leader, told AFP in a nearby bar where the fans watched the last game of 2014 - attended by just 3,500 - on television.

"Passion is not welcome anymore, they want us to clap politely and buy expensive drinks at half-time like we're at the theatre," said Imre, a fan since the age of six.

At half-time several hundred ultras left the bar to protest outside the stadium with smoke flares and angry chants at the club director and Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ).

"The stadia won't be full overnight, there's a long road of recovery ahead," Jeno Sipos, MLSZ spokesman, told AFP.

Without the ultras and with no sign of any influx of new types of fans - families, corporate sponsors - Mihaly Muszbek, a sports economy professor, says the stadia are several multiples too big.

MTK's ground will hold 5,000 though their average gate is barely 700.

Honved, the former club of the late, great Ferenc Puskas, "Mighty Magyars" captain, will get a 8,000-capacity home in 2016 despite an average crowd eight times smaller.

The stadia "are being built on dreams that it can be like the 1950s again," Muszbek told AFP.

"Back then though, there were no games on TV, and tickets cost no more than a kilo of bread," he said.

Protests

The stadia have also been used by anti-government protestors to bash Orban, one of Europe's most controversial leaders, who has suffered a slump in popularity in recent months.

The 4,500-capacity one opened last year in his home village of Felcsut - population 1,700 - comes in for particular ridicule.

"Supersize grounds are a luxury when most hospitals have bad heating, old machines and awful food," one protestor Erika Ruppel told AFP outside parliament during a recent demo.

Journalist Gyorgy Szollosi says some of the stadia may be too big but argues football funding is only catching up with the vast amounts already spent by governments on cultural facilities.

The real problem he says is the absence of quality at any level: players, coaches, or club directors.

"It might be too late to save Hungary's late great football culture no matter how much money is spent".

At Ferencvaros, a seller of sunflower seeds, a traditional football snack, says the football on offer inside isn't worth the new higher ticket prices.

"I watch proper football from Spain on TV instead," he shrugs.

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