“Every nation must carry this burden on their own. They need to sort this out themselves.”
Those were the words of the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban following the boos that echoed around the Szusza Ferenc Stadium when Irish players took the knee before their friendly with Hungary in June. Yet, as always with Orban, there lay a deep irony at the heart of his expression.
Whereas Gareth Southgate was honest, empathetic and astute enough to acknowledge that England still need to get their own house in order when asked about the Hungarian fans’ disgraceful antics in his side’s 4-0 win in Budapest, there has been nothing of the sort from the Hungarian premier – despite the country’s long, dark past related to this kind of behaviour. Because last night wasn’t the first time, nor the second or third, it was just another time. Indeed, Uefa have already forced a stadium closure on Hungary for the next Uefa-sanctioned game.
Perversely, with this game being a Fifa World Cup qualifier, that didn’t apply last night. From a Hungarian perspective, it was entirely predictable. Racism is an age-old blight on Hungarian society and Hungarian football. A visit to the homes of Budapest sides such as Ferencvaros, Ujpest and Honved is eye-opening. Monkey chanting is commonplace, as are white power tattoos and “Aryan Ultra” flags. The white supremacist element of these fanbases is at the core of what they stand for as people. To see it spill over into national team games is just inevitable, and these roots run deep.
Ever since the First World War, the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the loss of 75 per cent of Hungary’s territory, large swathes of the populace have been enticed by nationalism, and as Hungarian football grew, those nationalist voices took to the terraces. It was Ferencvaros where much of the movement seemed to start. By the 1950s, Hungarian football was becoming a problem. Though the great Mighty Magyar side of that era was orchestrated in part by the state, football itself was never entirely loved by the regime. And at places like Ferencvaros, nationalist sentiment was clear. The government branded them “reactionary fascists”.
By this time, Hungary was run by the Soviets, and the nationalist pride that the Mighty Magyars created was one that concerned the Communist regime. Hungarian football grounds were one of the few places where national pride could be expressed and this was not solely isolated to Ferencváros. Then, when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, Hungarian football was ravaged.
Not only did it spell the end of the Mighty Magyars, but it would also spell the end of prioritisation of football, and Hungarian football slowly became a backwater where the nationalists went to hang out. In 1955, the year before the revolution, the average attendance in Hungary’s top flight was just over 17,000. By the time Communism fell in Hungary, the average attendance had dropped to below 7,000.
Fast forward more than 30 years and attendances have dropped to below 3,000. But what remained were the nationalists, and they had truly spread throughout the nation. Hungarian grounds up and down the land in that time became nasty places. The release of Communism brought with it more freedom, and in that outpouring of expression came real intolerance and real hate. Frequent fan violence, decrepit stadiums and customary racism. The sport itself was almost cast aside by society and it allowed this type of behaviour to thrive in a safe space. People had more pressing issues and Hungarian football was just neglected. The once great footballing nation of Puskas and Hidegkuti felt like it was being run by the hooligans who ruled the terraces. Families and the average fans inevitably walked away.
Yet over the past few years, there have been schemes set up to tackle this issue that’s lay at the heart of the game for decades. Hungarian football is again back in the hands of the state, and Orban’s government know if they’re to be cosy with Uefa then racism isn’t a good look. Ferencvaros, frequent members of the Europa and Champions League group stages, now run by Fidesz MP Gabor Kubatov, have made big strides in eradicating racism at their ground, and though it hasn’t entirely disappeared, things are moving in the right direction.
But Ferencvaros are an outlier. For the clubs who aren’t playing on the European stage, the type of behaviour seen on Thursday night is all too distressingly commonplace. Indeed, the fans who conducted the monkey chanting will almost certainly be on the terraces in Hungary’s top flight next weekend. Because the suspicion is that few in charge really care. This sort of behaviour is rarely punished at Hungarian league games with any kind of meaning, and it’s not hard to spot, despite its prevalence.
But then, it wouldn’t be consistent government policy if they did care. For years the Hungarian government has appeared to spitefully target all those who aren’t white Hungarians, so for them to truly get their own house in order wouldn’t particularly be playing to their strengths. “They need to sort this out themselves,” were Orban’s words – when it comes to racism in Hungarian football, he isn’t even trying.
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