György Szöllősi: Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, gave an exclusive end-of-year interview to Nemzeti Sport which ranged beyond the past year and across a number of other fields. From the interview it emerged that the system of support for academies is changing, the Prime Minister does not “expect” the national football team to qualify for the knockout stages of UEFA Euro 2024, and he is uncertain about the Olympic prospects of the Hungarian canoeing and swimming teams.
Viktor Orbán was speaking to our newspaper in his office at “The Karmelita”, the former monastery in Budapest. We began with the topic that is perhaps of most interest to Hungarians.
Do you share the view of Hungarian Football Federation [MLSZ] president Sándor Csányi that we should qualify from our group in next year’s UEFA European Championship?
I wouldn’t dare to say that. It’s an open group, in which anything can happen. And whether we go through in triumph or have to go home with our tails between our legs could hinge on just one or two moments. Those two moments will definitely have to be good ones for us. It could be decided by a lucky or unlucky own goal – as we’ve already experienced – or a missed chance. Anything could happen. It’s a group that will be decided by divine intent. I’d like to see three memorable games.
Which was the bigger risk: in 2010 to promise one million new jobs, or to have unshakeable faith in the recovery of Hungarian football, when for a long time it seemed to be in a completely hopeless situation?
I’ve never doubted for a moment that Hungarian football could recover. I’ve occasionally doubted about the one million jobs, but never about football. Yet it was in football that I made the biggest mistake of the last ten years: we built a 60,000-seater stadium instead of a 90,000-seater stadium. We were faint-hearted, and that was a mistake.
So I’ve never had any doubts about Hungarian football, having spent more than thirty years in locker rooms – from the football teams of Felcsút Egyetértés MGTSZ SE [“Consensus” Sport Association of the Felcsút Agricultural Cooperative] and MÁV Előre [Hungarian Railways “Onward”] to that of MEDOSZ-Erdért [Agricultural, Forestry, Food Industry, Water Industry and Hospitality Trade Union and Erdért Timber Products]. I’ve been in locker rooms in villages, small towns, cities and the capital, in big clubs and in small clubs. No one can convince me that there’s no chance of a revival in Hungarian football.
But many have tried.
Even if Hungarian football was officially buried, we can be sure that it will come back from the dead. I’ve seen and I know what football is capable of, and what it brings out of Hungarians. Like Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin], Hungarian football lived, lives, and will live forever.
Okay, but you must be familiar with the theory – which is often voiced in public – that the reason the Hungarian national team is good isn’t because of improvements in Hungarian football in recent years, but in spite of them.
These are commie explanations conceived in desperation. In a country, things tend to move in a good or bad direction together. Hungarian football isn’t good because the system of academies has suddenly become better, or because our coaches have become better. Of course, everyone’s slightly better than they were before, but the reason is that the whole country’s moving together in a particular direction. We’re moving upwards. I’m not only talking about the Hungarian economy, but also about culture, art and science; recently we’ve had two Nobel Prize winners, and you could say that this has happened in spite of the Hungarian system – but that would be absurd. The Hungarians as a community – these ten or so million people – have begun to move upwards together. The community is capable of greater achievements. It expects more from life. It’s not saying that things are good if they don’t get worse, but it’s saying that it wants more, it wants to get ahead. It’s finding a calling or purpose in life. This is coupled with a kind of spiritual elevation. In Hungary the desire for a higher life has appeared – in most people’s personal lives as well as in small communities. So it’s not a question of how much the development of one player or another is linked to the academies – although in that respect we’re doing well; but it’s that Hungarian football as a whole is moving forwards and upwards.
Well, yes, the academies. Are we really doing well there too?
This weekend, for example, I was very happy when I went to the Fehérvár-Paks game and saw that Fehérvár had eight Hungarians on the pitch. Together with all eleven from Paks, the match started with nineteen Hungarians out of the twenty-two on the pitch. There’s also been a change in the academy system. We have a state academy system that embraces several sports. The only one of these that I’m closely involved in – because I have some experience in it – is the football academy system. The foundations of this were designed with György Mezey, who’s unfortunately no longer active. We’ve now reached the threshold of a new era. Up until now we’ve had to help the academies and regulate processes – i.e. determine what training methods, periodisation, coaching and youth football philosophy should be adhered to. We have more than ten years of experience in this. Now all the academies have found their own philosophy, their own professional concepts, they have their own facilities, and they’ve found the right specialists. What’s needed now, as they say in our profession, is to focus on the output. The way academies are run and funded will be significantly transformed, with a focus on performance, on what comes out of them. We’re no longer concerned with what happens in the academies, but with what comes out of them. How many players from each institution play in its adult team? How many play for the national team? Now we measure support against that.
But is all this still directly supervised by the state and not the Federation?
For now. The system of flagship academies in basketball, handball, football and other sports will remain within the remit of the State Secretariat for Sport. There may come a time when we can end that too, but we’re not there yet. We’re now moving to an output-focused system, and if that works we can think about another arrangement. But that work isn’t done yet. We’re on the right track, but we haven’t arrived yet – we’re just entering a new stage. I look forward to returning to the era we remember from our childhood: back then there were no academies, there were clubs. And the clubs were able to organise the entire Hungarian youth system because they covered the whole country. When I was fourteen I finished primary school in Felcsút and went to high school in Székesfehérvár, where someone came up to me saying he was from MÁV Előre. And Videoton came for our team captain. This was because the clubs knew that there were talented children playing somewhere in the county championship. The best went to Vidi [Videoton], and those who weren’t as good went to MÁV Előre. Today clubs are under so much financial pressure that if they have to choose, they’ll focus on their first team rather than the youth team. They don’t yet have enough money to afford to run academies. Therefore we must protect Hungarian football from focusing only on today at the expense of tomorrow. The academy system is a guarantee for tomorrow, and in this sense it’s a great help to sport. We’ll need this crutch, the state academy system, until the clubs are strengthened.
But to sum up the sporting year, there’s plenty to talk about in addition to football successes – including Ferencváros’s continuing European run. We could start with the World Athletics Championships, which were staged here, and continue with our nine world titles in Olympic disciplines, from wrestling and fencing golds to polo and sailing. To quote you from another context: we’re doing well.
Our 184 Olympic gold medals are not happenstance: in terms of character, sport and Hungarians are a good match. Hungarian sport should return to where it once was, i.e. to 100 per cent of its potential. In recent decades conditions have been difficult. In a few years we’re now trying to make up for thirty or so years of neglect – leaving aside the deformation of sporting life we experienced under socialism. It’s impossible to restore continuity with the sporting life that existed in Hungary before communism – too much time has passed. We cannot simply restore things: we have to rebuild everything in a more modern way. And the driving force, the fuel for this, is Hungarians’ special affinity for sport. After all, in football we’ve been in two World Cup finals, and there are sports that would be meaningless without Hungarians: swimming, pentathlon, canoeing, wrestling, or water polo. The relationship between sport and Hungarians is a mysterious one, based on love. In this age of uniformity and materialism, there are very few positive, uplifting and beautiful things left – but that’s exactly what sport is, and this is why it’s worth saving. Moreover, sport is linked to the problems faced by parents, to the question of bringing up children. We weren’t easy to bring up, but now it’s even more difficult for parents. Compared to our childhood, there are not only many more opportunities, but also many more associated threats and dangers. Parents are struggling with how to raise their children to be the good, decent people that they want them to be, and sport helps them to do that. It’s worth looking more at sports subsidies as a way of supporting parents in raising their children. Because if a child plays sport, first of all he or she has to arrive punctually at a specific place, with a coach waiting for him or her – someone who’s in a superior position, enforcing clear rules. The coach is the master, who tells you what you must do, what you must perform; and if you’re playing a team sport, you have to cooperate with your teammates, and you have to sit together with them in the same dressing room. You’re not interacting with other people online, you’re interacting with them in the physical world – and these days that in itself is something of great value. Then you have to perform out on the field, you have to push yourself to breaking point – especially in training – and at the weekend you have to be prepared to die for your team. These are all things that rarely happen to you outside of sport. And it’s something our kids don’t encounter anywhere else. So sport is essentially a matter of upbringing, a matter most closely linked to the human, spiritual and intellectual quality of the next generation. This is how it should be seen. In other words, the Hungarian government is not “sports mad”, but family-friendly or “children mad” – if one can say such a thing. In terms of character-building power, artistic education can also be mentioned in the same breath as sport, but the latter reaches a much wider scope. And, most importantly, it’s open from the bottom up – so in sport there are places for children from the most difficult backgrounds. And if we can combine this well with school education, we can really help parents. Our stars – our world champions and our Olympic champions – are important. They are our best selves. When someone stands at the top of the podium, we feel that we’re there through our ambassador, who’s representing us Hungarians in the world. But it’s even more important that our children have ideals and idols. This is why I don’t regret even the huge sums of money spent on annoyingly overvalued football stars; because they’re actually the ones whose appeal brings our children into the world of sport. This is worth every penny.
In this respect, this year has brought a breakthrough, a new dimension: a Hungarian – Dominik Szoboszlai – is playing a decisive role in one of the world’s biggest football clubs.
Yes, and leading a pack. He, of course, has burst into the biggest club; but meanwhile there’s the 20-year-old Kerkez, Sallai in his prime in the Bundesliga, and then Schäfer – God help him stay healthy. I can see the individuals from which the coach can build the great team of the future. On 1 January I start every year by watching “6–3” [Hungary’s historic victory over England in 1953], because one should start the year with a victory. On 1 January I’m already in heaven. This year I watched it on its anniversary, on 25 November. The more you see it, the more obvious it is that Puskás was the king; but then again, Hidegkuti and Bozsik were geniuses too, and so were the others! Now all the focus is on Szoboszlai, but there are also outstanding players behind him. We have a team in which not just one person can play football, but everyone. Everyone can play very well, and at most one can play better than anyone else in the world. This feeling starts to come back when I watch the Hungarian national team playing. There have already been matches in which we’ve beaten major European teams not because we’ve produced bravura performances, but because we’ve had the better players. What I remember aren’t the glamorous and spectacular footballing successes of the past year, but a feeling that reminds me of the old days.
What’s more, Puskás wasn’t able to come home from Real Madrid to play for the national team, Hungarian children couldn’t watch his matches on TV every week, and back then tens of thousands of Hungarian fans couldn’t cheer on the Hungarian national team in world championships. Looking at it this way, in some respects Hungarian football is in a better position than ever.
Let’s be happy that we’ve come this far, but let’s look upwards, to the mountain peak where we should be, to where Hungarian football has always deserved its place. These past thirty years have been very difficult: a period in which sports clubs were left derelict after the collapse of large-scale socialist industry; one in which our athletes and coaches tried to do their best in a way that deserved every respect, only to be engulfed by a tidal wave. But let’s not focus on that for now – let’s aim for the mountain peak!
In its scale and purposefulness, the intensive and large-scale development of sport over the past decade is comparable only to the post-Trianon construction period of a hundred years ago. The efforts from that time, the momentum of which continued into the 1950s, paid off with two third places in Olympic medal tables and appearances in two football World Cup finals. Can we reach those heights again?
Why shouldn’t we? We’ve done everything we can. We’ve given recognition to coaches; it was unjust that the coaches working with our children were receiving a pittance while doing world-class work. We’ve put sports facilities in order, giving the children and the athletes what they deserve. We’ve brought big international competitions here so they can compete on home soil in competitions worthy of the work that’s been done. We’ve created national sports television, which can be watched in every home. We’ve saved the print version of “Nemzeti Sport”, because – despite the agonies of traditional newspapers around the world – there’s no Hungarian sport without Nemzeti Sport, as everyone of my age knows. For Hungarian sport, the sports daily is like the country’s crown: if the crown is lost, the country is lost. We’ve done everything we can to bring to the surface Hungarians’ commitment to sport. Now we’re waiting for the results. And they’re coming. I also follow youth sport – and there, too, great forces are at work. I’m optimistic, but it’s also important that we – as politicians and people responsible for economic policy – continue to deliver the kind of performance that will generate the financial basis for sport. Without this we’ll fail – especially in this open world. If we don’t appreciate sportspeople in Hungary, they’ll sail away into international waters and disperse. The Hungarian economy needs to be buzzing. This isn’t the responsibility of the athletes, but of us.
In addition to big, long-term goals, the Paris Olympics are just around the corner. Are you counting the possible gold medals?
For now, I’m just anxious. It’s not like me, but I have an unsettling feeling. I don’t see what we can do in canoeing, and I don’t see what we can do in swimming. Yet our performance in these two disciplines has a decisive influence on our Olympic medal tally. I hope that we can find the successors of the world-beaters who have won gold medals at previous Olympics, but who are no longer competing. There’s also a generational dimension in successful sports. There are sports that do well for a long time and then suddenly weaken. Then they come back again. This is why you can’t expect all sports to perform at world level at the same time. We had a fantastic period in canoeing. At other times fencing was at a low ebb, and now recently the tide has risen with the generation of Áron Szilágyi. Whether there will be some sort of calm or whether the tide will continue to rise is impossible to say. Katinka [Hosszú] won’t be among the swimmers, and we don’t know what’s going on with [Kristóf] Milak. We hope that Hubert Kós, who’s training in America, might work a miracle. At one time wrestling was in a downward spiral. But for me the most uplifting experience this year – the one that took me out of my daily routine – was the belated award of a gold medal to Dávid Losonczi [after an earlier mistaken refereeing decision was overturned]. Down into the depths of hell, and then – when justice prevailed – up to the heavens. In wrestling, too, we’ve come back from the dead. Then there’s boxing: when I was a child, not a year went by in which we couldn’t reel off the names of at least three or four great champions. We used to look forward to the national team championships: Somodi, Edőcs, the Orbáns and Gedó. And then somehow the field thinned out. But the other day I watched the national championships, and it was like a new generation had emerged. Somewhere in the back rooms, in the training gyms, there are fanatical coaches who are unknown to the Hungarian public but have fantastic determination, and who are conjuring up new pupils from nothing. This is why it’s good to be Hungarian: someone comes from an unexpected place, from deepest Hungary, without any warning, and before our eyes becomes the best in the world. A good example of this is our two new Nobel Prize winners. Following the Hungarians is the most entertaining and thrilling thing in the world. Since we’re the only ones who speak our language, the rest of the world is completely missing out on this adventure. This is our privilege.
Unfortunately, that’s not true for next year’s Olympics. After seeing the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, and before that seeing that Paris can’t even host a Champions League final properly, doesn’t the fact that we’re not hosting the Olympics this summer hurt even more?
I also have a bad feeling about this. It hurts when we know that we’d be able to do something, but we still aren’t having a shot at it. But we also have to accept that the nation has to move in unison. There are always people, groups of people, who in the nation are like the “ill fate” in “Himnusz” [the Hungarian national anthem]. Unfortunately this is unavoidable. The bigger problem was that Hungary didn’t have sufficient immunity to them in this matter. They weren’t told to go to hell, they weren’t offered tickets to that warmer climate; instead a large proportion of the public said, “Well, maybe there’s something to this mutiny…” And this was taken advantage of by defeatist pettifoggers, those who want to turn great Hungarians into small Hungarians. We needed to acknowledge this, and that’s why we didn’t enter the fight, and I didn’t enter it myself. One can’t organise an Olympics like that. An Olympics can only be organised when the majority of people feel that the moment has come.
And now the opponents are happily taking photos of themselves at international matches in the stadium that they’ve been slagging off all this time.
Fallibility doesn’t discriminate on the basis of party membership. Things have changed now. All the important facilities needed for an Olympiad have been completed. An Olympic village wouldn’t be an obstacle either, as we’re building student accommodation on a huge scale – the city will need it, regardless of the Olympics. The time has come when Budapest can hardly develop further on a large scale without the Olympics. Budapest is at 160 per cent of the European Union’s average development level, while there are regions in Hungary that are at only 50 per cent. All money should go to the less developed regions. So large-scale state urban development in Budapest can only happen if it comes up with something that’s important to all Hungarians. In the absence of this, we can only expect progress at crawling speed. In the past ten to thirteen years, all the development in Budapest has been carried out by the state. Government development has put the capital city back on the world map. We can look back on the World Athletics Championships, which sometimes faced headwinds generated by the capital city. If Budapest wants to go to the next level, government resources can only be paired with this if there’s a big goal. The Government doesn’t want to force Budapest to host an Olympics, because the city has to be ripe for the idea. I think fate owes the Hungarians an Olympics in Budapest. The question is whether the people of Budapest want to honour this debt.
And is another sign that we aren’t abandoning this dream the fact that Hungary, the Hungarian Olympic Committee, has nominated Balázs Fürjes to the International Olympic Committee [IOC]?
We have sports diplomats everywhere who are capable of bringing big events to Budapest. Hungary is now strongly represented in these organisations – not only in football, but also in the Olympic movement.
There was a headline in the press that Viktor Orbán went to the IOC with Balázs Fürjes.
This is only said by those who aren’t familiar with our sometimes very fiery and spirited debates.
After the International Judo Federation and World Aquatics, are we expecting other big sporting organisations to come to Budapest?
The world’s in turmoil – whether we’re talking about public safety, migration, or economic instability. For international sports federations today, there’s no better place than Budapest. We’re cheaper and more competitive than Switzerland, and safer than anywhere else in the world. Both Easterners and Westerners love this city, they feel at home here, and everything favours Budapest as a venue for international peace initiatives and organisations. Diplomacy, culture, sport. It would be folly not to take advantage of it.
You’ve mentioned Katinka Hosszú. Her rather offended tone of communication suggests that she resents the fact that the Government hasn’t set up a swimming academy. Won’t there be one?
Of course there will. Since Hungarian elite sport’s greatest asset is its world-class participants, anyone who wants to stay in the sport after retirement and set up their own workshop will be given the support to do so. We’ll give everyone the opportunity to set up their own academy, provided the framework is reasonable and the conditions are fair. And for those who don’t want to stay in the sport but have achieved great results, there’s the opportunity to enter public service: from the military to foreign affairs, there are many athletes working in Hungarian state administration, because they’re trained, disciplined, tenacious, strong people.
We’ve heard a lot about the renewal of Hungaroring, but will there be a MotoGP track in Hajdúnánás?
What puzzles me is Hungarians’ insurmountable fascination with everything that buzzes: cars, motorcycles. Hungary is also a country of engineers and car manufacturers. In the minds of Hungarians, cars and motorisation are closely linked to freedom. You don’t feel free until you have some kind of vehicle. These are expensive sports, and so are the facilities. But as Hungaroring has been created, we must make sure that it retains its appeal. We’ve taken a stab at the MotoGP circuit, but twice we’ve come a cropper. It can be expected that we’ll take a third stab at it.
Isn’t Hungaroring the solution for that too?
Budapest isn’t the solution for everything.
If there’s still room for improvement in Hungarian sport somewhere, there’s still plenty in our school sports – even after the introduction of daily physical education classes. Can we expect progress in this area?
It’s a fiendish mechanical puzzle, and we haven’t yet found the key to it. In Hungary, sport is essentially played in clubs, and linking school sport with clubs was a problem even when I was a child. Gábor Balogh, our Olympic silver medallist, has done a promising job as the head of the Hungarian School Sport Federation. Now he’s been drawn away again by pentathlon, but I hope he’ll continue the work he started with the Government.
Speaking of pentathlon, there have been major reshuffles in several sporting federations recently, not always without scandal. These have included pro-government politicians in presidential positions being replaced.
Things have taken a turn for the better. I’m glad that former athletes, representatives of the new generation, have grown into national sporting leadership.
How satisfied are you with the renewed state governance of sport?
We’ll count our chickens after they’re hatched. We’re still in the early days…