Hungary’s Nationalist Politics Belies Its Sporting Multiculturism

Club values

According to Hungary’s national sports paper Nemzeti Sport, for the first time more than half the minutes played in the Hungarian football league last season were played by players from overseas.

At Ferencvaros, a club historically known for its far-right leanings, it’s rare to see more than three Hungarians on the football field.

Gabor has been running the Ferencvaros fan blog Ulloi129.hu for 13 years. “A club’s values, patriotic or otherwise, do not come from the players; it’s the values of fans and the connections between the Fradistas [the nickname for Ferencvaros fans] that matter,” he explains.

“Football has become a middle-class pastime in the last decade across the world, and this has happened in Hungary too. Thanks to the new stadiums, the match-going experience is on a par with Western clubs and that helps to create a more positive atmosphere at the games, while the club for the last 10 years has worked on a yearly campaign of inclusion,” he says.

A Ferencváros advert from 2020 promoting inclusion has the Norweigian Tokmac Nguen, born in a refugee camp in Kenya to a South Sudanese father and an Ethiopian mother, state in the first line: “From the first moment, I found a family in Fradi.”

To those familiar with Ferencvaros’s past, it’s an enormous step. Whereas racist incidents do still occur in Hungary, at Ferencvaros they’ve practically been eradicated.

“Any player that respects the club and works for it will be loved,” argues Gabor. “One of our most beloved players was Somalia [of Brazil], and 99 per cent of Fradi fans were celebrating when Tokmac decided to sign an extension a few weeks ago.”

“There’s a shortage of skilled workers in many fields, including football. While most wish that the Hungarian youth system would produce better players, the reality is that we could not perform as well as we do now without foreign players. True Hungarian talents are rare and, as such, they are hugely overpriced – we can’t compete on wages with Bundesliga clubs,” he says, referring to the much richer German league.

This view comes against a backdrop of the Hungarian government’s attempt to use sport as a political tool to further a nationalist agenda. It’s estimated that over €2 billion has been spent on football since Orban came to power over a decade ago, with 11 new stadiums and a raft of new and renovated academies.

While the match-going experience has vastly improved, the calibre of footballers produced hasn’t yet, and the best quickly become sought-after, creating a dilemma for the local clubs: pay high to keep top local talent; or buy something equally as good from abroad. The majority choose the latter.

“It’s hard to talk about because Hungarian football salaries aren’t public stats,” Adam Feko, a journalist for the independent Hungarian news website Azonnali, tells BIRN. “But if you want to make a successful team, it’s much cheaper to buy some medium-class players from Serbia. The fans always love to see Hungarian players, but they know the main problem: the Hungarian football system’s academies can’t raise players who are good enough to bring teams to a higher level.”

The same is true for the Hungarian national team, where the spoken language in the changing room is English due to the Italian head coach and the smattering of non-Hungarian speaking players.

“It’s not at all that different to the situation at club level, due to the deficiencies in our youth system,” says Gabor. “Most will recognise that we need quality players. At the national team level, though, many would appreciate it if they spoke at least some Hungarian.”

To the outsider, this reliance on migrant labour for both the Hungarian league and the Hungarian national team in Orban’s favourite sport feels contradictory to the beliefs of the prime minister. But both Gabor and Adam, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, refute the charge.

“Hungary has been and will be open to people who want to work or study here,” opines Gabor. “So, no, I don’t think that having quality foreign players is in any way contradictory to Orban’s ideas.”

While Adam observes: “Not really, it’s because of the football fan and the ‘ultra’ mentality: you love the team and some players, but fans are more important and represent better the club or nation than the players.”

Gergely Marosi, a sports journalism lecturer at Budapest Metropolitan University, agrees: “I don’t think the two are tied. One is Orban’s vision of how the world is, the other is pretty strictly utilitarian.”

“The Hungarian clubs have the money and pay foreign players well. As for the national team, it’s a pretty open-door policy. I don’t think the two are in contradiction – one is a more theoretical, political thing; and the other is who is playing better or needed more on the pitch. The two do not necessarily clash,” he explains.

Though football since its inception has consistently been used for political purposes – never more explicitly so than in Hungary today – the on-pitch representation in Hungary, against the political backdrop, continues to free itself of isolationism and prejudice.

Racist incidents are still way too common, though. Most black players playing in Hungary will speak of receiving abuse due to the colour of their skin. But, in sharp contrast to Hungarian society, the consensus of how they are treated by those within the game is with an attitude of tolerance and acceptance.

In many ways, this sporting egalitarianism is one of the remaining innocents left in Hungarian society – even in a society so awash with ethnocentrism.

In Hungary’s famous 1-0 win over England on June 4 (bettered by a 4-0 defeat of England 10 days later), Loic Nego was voted Hungary’s second-best player by a poll ran by the Nemzeti Sport newspaper. He also garnered high praise from English pundits.

Due to the Hungarian government rhetoric, Nego’s inclusion in the national team is often met with curiosity by the foreign press. Nego himself, though, has spoken in glowing terms about his adopted nation.

“I have been living here with my family for many years and I really feel at home,” he told Nemzeti Sport following his goal against Iceland in 2020. “I can’t really describe how I feel, but I have great respect for the Hungarian coat of arms. From the very beginning, everyone in Hungary has been very kind and friendly, they have never treated me like a stranger.”

Nego’s publicly stated experience is certainly not one that many others have found. Like migrants across the world, their experience of the adopted nation differs from person to person. And nowhere is this difference starker than in today’s Hungary.

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