Desired Greatness, Backdoor Deals and Masculinity: Viktor Orbán’s Questionable Love for Football9 min read

 In Analysis, Central Europe, Politics

Since taking office in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has not been hesitant in broadcasting his love affair with the “people’s game.” With this in mind, this article examines how his mission to revive a particular image of the Hungarian historical narrative is symptomatic of his relationship with football. Considering historical discourse, elitism, and gendered stereotypes, it reflects on how these behaviours form traceable links between the spectacle of football and Orbán’s societal manifesto. 

With his personal history of being a semi-professional player, Orbán’s relationship with football not only transcends that of a casual observer or even an avid fan; it also permeates his politics. This manifests in a visible yearning for the era of Hungarian greatness to return. Whether expressed through his ownership stake in the football academy located in his hometown, or explicitly in terms of nostalgic rhetoric, Orbán’s conflation of football with a bygone era of greatness bears a notable influence on how the populist leader “does” politics in the present.

The Pancho Arena Bubble

One of the more direct ways in which Orbán’s love affair with the “people’s game” has influenced politics is through his involvement in Puskás Academia, and their home stadium the Pancho Arena. An architectural marvel, this stadium is named after the Hungarian icon, Ferenc Puskás (1927-2006) who went by the affectionate nickname Pancho. A Real Madrid legend and masterful goal scorer, Puskás was part of the 1954 World Cup runners-up the “magical Magyars,” a feat which sealed his place in Hungary’s hall of fame and earned him the admiration of many of his compatriots, including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. 

Situated in Felcsút, the small village where Orbán grew up, this flagship development has been the focus of much controversy surrounding its size, funding, and ulterior purpose. Not only does it seat more than double Felcsút’s 1,800 population, but it was also built by a construction company owned by Orbán’s friend, and town Mayor, Lorinc Mészáros. Mészáros was also named CEO of Puskás Academia — though everyone knows that Orbán is the true “owner”.

Moreover, in addition to reportedly being in charge of the “secret wealth” of the Orbán family, Mészáros was instrumental in fashioning Orbán’s conservative propaganda bubble. This bubble has been systematically used to mobilise support for traditional socio-cultural policies, for instance tightening pro-life policies, vocalising anti-LGBTQ inclinations, and “Goulash Cosmopolitanism” which, contrary to the “blurring approach” associated with cooking the Hungarian national dish, is characterised by an illiberal migration policy which endorses a nationalist turn.

The Pancho Arena is also the site of backroom deals which prevent open access and perpetuate inequitable power dynamics which often favour the elite. As Gyula Mucsi, the anti-corruption watchdog, reveals businessmen flock to the football games in order to discuss business with the avid fan. These deals take place in football’s elite, and secluded, observation booth, termed by many as the ‘box’. The ultimate symbol of wealth and privilege, these discussions often concern public investment and the allocation of resources. This blurring of lines between a formal bidding process and the leisure of attending a sporting event is uneasy at best. By conducting business in an environment that is free from bureaucratic regulation, these deals are only offered to a closed audience which can afford the extravagant entrance fee into the elite spectators box, and whereby those who cannot afford this luxury are not allowed to engage in business with the Prime Minister. 

Football is also one of the ways through which Orbán projects his ‘man of the people’ image. This directly contradicts the ‘closed door’ policy of the box and is a blatant reminder of how football, when attended by the elite, can corrupt ‘the people’s game.’

Orbán’s Utopian Universe

Football, both as a participatory activity but also when watched as an invested observer, provides an important insight into Orbán’s utopian universe. This can be visibly spotted by the colours adorned by fans, and the symbols embossed across the teams’ merchandise, as well as by the way the game of football endorses certain behavioural norms — such as physical aptitude, masculine dominance, and tribal chants — which are echoed in Orbán’s political stance.

Arguably, football, or more specifically, “fandementalism”, has a darker side which stokes tribal and nationalist discourses. This often takes the form of the ritualistic wearing of team colours and flying the flags of one’s team. Whilst these conventional fan activities may appear to be in good spirit, practices such as these are not always harmless. They are identity signifiers which can be used to distinguish between those who belong and those who do not. Furthermore, in the case of football fans, this attitude that the other team is the ‘enemy’ can be relatively easily transposed to apply to other out-groups, such as migrants or the elite. This type of binary classification is the bread and butter of right-wing populists such as Orbán. Although ‘us and them’ dynamics are generally accepted within a footballing environment, if they are allowed to infiltrate politics, this sort of tribalism may become more widespread through society.

“Football fandom,” with its roots in a time of Hungarian greatness typically iconised by the “magical Magyars” of the 1950s, is considered to be complementary to the sort of nation Orbán would be proud of. This nation captures Orbán’s utopian idealism and represents masculine norms and ideals. This is reiterated by the observation that football, as a sport, disproportionally features, and is attended by, men. This gendered skew, which involves a strong male focus and women being relegated to the side-lines (of the sport and society) perpetuates male norms. Overwhelmingly, these male-norms can often be associated with testosterone-fuelled outbursts both at the football stadium and in wider society. This, however, is not considered problematic in Orbán’s universe, where his society for ‘the people’ is solely comprised of men. Through visual endorsements, attendance at games, and referencing his former football career, Orbán is able to use his “love of the game” to signify that he is an ordinary bloke, therefore furthering his ‘man of the people’ image. Positioning himself in this manner is central to his populist persona and, consequently, his grasp on power. 

“Magical Magyars”

In addition to the behavioural traits, the role of football in Hungary’s national story is also an important factor which Orbán is able to mobilise. For instance, by naming the football team Puskás Academia, in honour of Hungary’s first international sporting superstar and an all-time great of football, Orbán is declaring that the Pancho Arena symbolises his efforts to re-create an image of Hungarian greatness.

This mission to reinstate Hungarian greatness has been noted by international observers and is viewed as particularly “offensive” in neighbouring Romania and Ukraine. Once part of Hungary’s pre-war imperial territory, many ethnic Hungarians reside in the surrounding regions and are the recipients of Orbán’s efforts to promote their Hungarian heritage and identity. Memorialised on its centenary and lamented as ‘the 100-year wound that Hungary cannot forget’ Orbán’s nostalgic rhetoric often references the substantial loss of Hungarian territory under the 1920 Trianon Treaty, regarding it as the greatest national tragedy to ever befall the Hungarian people. 

However, what is extraordinary is that this extends to football merchandise. For example, in 2022 Orbán was photographed greeting fans whilst wearing a Greater Hungary football scarf which visibly exhibited a contentious emblem denoting pre-Trianon Hungary’s territorial parameters. This emblem is synonymous with a period of Hungarian greatness and thus one could assume that by visibly performing his endorsement via the medium of footballing merchandise, Orbán is attempting to conflate the 1950s era of sporting “greatness” with a pre-Trianon Hungary. 

These two historical periods differ by more than 30-years. However, this has not impeded Orbán’s attempts to illustrate his affiliation with the ‘the people game’. As a result of this association, Orbán has made significant strides to embed the image of a great Hungary — as represented by pre-Trianon territorial boundaries — with the spirit of the successful 1950s team, the “Magical Magyars.” In this sense, one could argue that Orban’s “obsession” with football is symptomatic of a nostalgic longing for a simpler time. 

Beyond the world of footballing merchandise, this desire to reinstate the Magyar spirit can be observed in Orbán’s creation of a zonal ‘media space.’ A tactic borrowed from the toolbox of authoritarian strongmen, such as Vladimir Putin, this media space relies on particular codes of meaning and operates in a space where the competition of liberal media outlets has been crushed. This close-minded attitude echoes that of “hardcore” fans, and their steadfast conviction that their team is the best, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. This attitude is reflected in Orbán’s efforts to normalise an environment which is immune to outsider information and passionately resists information which contradicts or undermines that circulated by Orbán’s propaganda machine. 

In the extreme, this approach condones a society which combats disagreement with provocative chants. These chants — like the hostile back and forth between home and away fans — are the most intense along the barrier between the two stands, or the two societal groups. These barriers — either physical within the stadium, or imaginary in the societal sense —  serve as dividers between these two groups, and the chants which follow serve to vocalise fractious tendencies. 


Orbán’s fixation with football has permeated the way he “does politics.” This goes beyond the problems borne from his involvement in the Pancho Arena project. He uses merchandise as an opportunity to flaunt provocative emblems which express a desire for Hungarian greatness and is actively cultivating traditional masculine norms by normalising tribal fandom.

Orbán has also shown that he regards football as an appropriate vehicle to further his Prime Ministerial mission. Specifically, this involves attempts to conflate the three pillars of Hungarian national image: Pre-Trianon Hungarian territory; the Magical Magyars of the 1950s, and Orbán’s modus operandi of mobilising support for traditional socio-cultural policies. 

Thus, Hungarian politics, in the era of Viktor Orbán, owes a lot to the Prime Minister’s dubious love affair with the ‘people’s game’.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Canva
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