Prime Minister Victor Orban took office with a dream: Make Hungarian Football Great Again. Fourteen years later, with no little controversy surrounding his policies, the country that gave us Puskás has a new generation to shout about.  

Viktor Orbán had an unremarkable football career. 

The Hungarian prime minister turned out for his hometown club Felcsút as a young man and then once again during his first term in office in 2005 after he came out of retirement at the age of 35. 

He also represented lower league outfits Medosz-Erdért and BEAC. There was never any prospect of him emulating his legendary countryman Ferenc Puskás. He chose to retire and channel his energies fully into politics

Yet, Orbán has been directly responsible for an improbable, dramatic and not uncontroversial resurgence of the once-great football nation since hanging up his boots. 

He pledged that his party, the right-wing, national conservative Fidesz, would make investing in the sport a major focus if they were voted into power during his election campaign in 2010. He was true to his word. 

He set about modernising the crumbling infrastructure at both elite and grassroots level, improving the ailing finances of the leading clubs and professionalising the archaic national association. It was a huge gamble at the time. He was ridiculed in his homeland. In fact, his sanity was questioned.  

Rendszerváltás, the fall of the communist regime in the late 1980s, had been catastrophic for football in Hungary. Famous clubs, the likes Ferencvaros, Honved, and Újpest, lost their state support and experienced financial difficulties and even bankruptcies as a consequence. Their once revered and feared national team suffered a dire decline. 

They had featured in the group stages of the World Cup in Mexico in 1986. But after that they plummeted to 86th place, an all-time low, in the FIFA World Rankings. The population of the country became disillusioned and disinterested. 

Orbán, whose regime has been described as autocratic by political commentators, was undeterred by the naysayers. 

He has ensured that in the region of £2 billion has been spent during the past 14 years. His ambitious initiative has not been without its critics. It has led to well-founded accusations of cronyism and corruption. More of which later. There can, though, be no denying that it has had a profound and positive impact. 

“At first, investing in Hungarian football wasn’t a logical project,” said Peter Peto, the editor of and the author of Offside Goal: The Sport Policy of the Orbán System. “When they started, it was a political risk. The national team used to lose just about every match they played. They used to get crowds of 5,000 or 6,000. 


“But after a few years it became more and more successful. The national stadium is now full with 60,000 fans whenever the country is playing at home. It is crazy how much people love football now. MLSZ, the national association, reported that 500,000 people here tried to buy tickets for the Euros. 

“The infrastructure of Hungarian football is fantastic now. The stadiums are wonderful. The players are well paid. There is a major investment in youth football too. It is on another level to what it was not so many years ago.” 

Scottish manager Tam Courts took over at Budapest Honved back in the summer of 2022 after leading Dundee United to fourth spot in the Premiership and a place in Europe. He was immediately struck by the money which had been spent by the Fidesz administration when he arrived.   

“It doesn’t take you long to realise the government are quite heavily involved in football over there,” he said. “Has it been to ingratiate themselves with voters? It is hard to say as an outsider. But the players are paid very well and the stadiums and training facilities are all brand new. It is quite noticeable that there has been serious investment. 

“Honved had a brand new residential training complex. They actually had schooling for their academy players on site. The players lived there. At Dundee United we ran a pretty comprehensive academy programme. But having access to the players 24-7 was another level altogether. It took me a while to get my head around. They were so committed, so involved in the system.” 

Tomasz Mortimer is a half-Hungarian journalist who has written extensively about the rise of football in the country. “I do think the investment has worked,” he said. “Initially, during the first five years of Orbán’s tenure when he was building this policy, he was laughed at enormously by the Hungarian public. 

“For 20 or 30 years after the fall of communism, Hungarian football was seen as a joke. But when Orbán came in to power he said, ‘No, let’s make this proper again, let’s make Hungary what it used to be’. 

“If you met a Hungarian person abroad in the past, especially if you were English, you would know Ferenc Puskás. He was a symbol of Hungary. Orbán wanted to get that back. Hungary is a small country, it is not going to be known for many things. 


“The transformation has been amazing. There are fans at home games, there are fans at away games. The atmosphere of the whole set up just now is just incredible compared to what it used to be. It really is phenomenal how much it has changed. 

“I am far from an Orbán fan. Ideologically, I don’t side with him at all. But without doubt what he has done has worked. The people care, especially the male population. It is a very alpha, masculine state. So it resonates with them massively. It has put Hungary on the map.” 

Indeed it has. Hungary went 30 long years without qualifying for a major tournament after Mexico ’86. They are currently preparing to play in their third consecutive European Championship finals in Germany this summer. There are high hopes they can do well. Those who once mocked him are now cheering on their country on in huge numbers. 

They are not at the level they were when the peerless Puskás was in his pomp in the 1950s and “The Golden Team” were, despite the shock defeat they suffered to West Germany in the World Cup final in Bern in 1954, unquestionably the best on the planet. It is unrealistic to expect them to ever be again. 

Making it out of Group A, which also comprises hosts Germany, Scotland and Switzerland, and reaching the knockout rounds of Euro 2024 in June will be celebrated by their supporters. Still, it has been quite a turnaround from where they were.  

So why has Orbán been criticised? The decision to give companies corporate income tax relief if they ploughed a percentage of their profits into football has resulted in stadiums being rebuilt, facilities improved from youth to senior level, wages rising and clubs flourishing. However, it has been widely abused. 

“It is complicated,” said Peto. “There are a lot of dimensions to this. The financial part of this is crazy. The government policy is complex. A lot of Hungarian oligarchs are interested in the football industry because they can earn money from this project. It is like a playground for them. 

“Every team in the NB 1 (the top division) is owned by one of the government’s allies, every team. There was one team, Újpest, which was owned by a foreign investor until fairly recently. But now a partially state-owned Hungarian oil company owns it. Certain supporters call the NB1 the Fidesz League because now it is oligarchs and their allies who own all the teams. 

“The companies which support Puskás Akadémia, this small team in Felcsút without many fans, without much history, earn a lot of money from the public purse. They receive orders from the state. So there are both political and financial benefits to supporting football. 

“If you want to be a part of the Fidesz system you need to support Hungarian football. But if you invest in football, you will get money for doing so. So this project is controversial. There are advantages and disadvantages.” 

It is believed that Puskás Akadémia have, despite their stadium having a capacity of under 4,000, received over £100 million of government funding during their 19-year existence. Their owner Lőrinc Mészáros, a childhood friend of Orbán, has become one of Hungary’s richest men with a personal fortune of over £1bn.  

The rise in patriotic fervour has undoubtedly helped Fidesz’s approval ratings. But Peto dismisses claims that the investment in football has purely been a cynical attempt to stoke nationalist sentiment among the electorate and ensure they hold on to power. He has witnessed first hand just how obsessed Orbán is with the beautiful game. 

“It is really good for political parties when they are involved in a project like this and there is success,” he said. “But at the heart of this project is his love of football. It is one of the most important things for him. In fact, it is incredible how important football is to him. 

“I was at an NBII match on a Monday night a while back and he was there sitting in the VIP section. Why is the prime minister of the country at a NBII football match on a Monday night? It was amazing to see.” 

Mortimer is not entirely convinced. “Yes, Orbán is a big football fan,” he said. “But I don’t think he’s done it out of the warmth of his own heart. He is a huge nationalist. He has used football as a weapon to promote his nationalist ideas. He saw football as a tool to further his nationalist beliefs and ideology. 

“Almost every single team in NBI these days is owned by a Hungarian government ally or MP. Many of the NBII teams are as well. It is hugely troubling when you think of competitiveness and how that can be manipulated. All of them are owned by a single entity. They are all state owned. 

“It is not the biggest policy that he has. The money which has been invested has been enormous, but it is still a tiny percentage of the GDP. But it is a massive policy. Making Hungarian football great again, to borrow an unfortunate phrase, was always going to have a knock-on effect on the economy and his beliefs. He had to make it work.” 

Kevin McCluskie, a freelance Scottish football writer and scout who originally hails from Stirling but who has lived in Budapest for the past seven years, has witnessed a significant improvement in the quality of club football in Hungary during the time he has been in the country as well as a huge upsurge in support.  

“The very first match I went to over here was the final game of the 2016/17 season,” he said. “It was between Honved, who had just won the title, and Videoton. They were the top two teams in the country, but it was one of the most dreadful matches I have ever seen. The standard was just awful. 


“Now I see a lot of the teams in the top flight playing a passing style of football, trying to build out from the back. There is less route-one football. There are a lot of technically adept players in the top flight. What they lack is confidence and self-belief strangely enough. But there has been a move to open, expansive football. Most teams favour the 4-3-3 system as well.” 

McCluskie added: “There was an apathy towards the national team before. Hungarians are really proud people. But when it came to international football they just seemed to accept that their glory days were in the past and weren’t coming back. 

“You see a big difference now. The Puskás Arena has a 70,000 capacity and they fill it out. The passion has returned. They are a bit like Scotland in that respect. They had gone so long without playing in a tournament that they were almost happy to be there. But now they want to make an impact as well.” 

Strangely, though, the billions which have been pumped into football in Hungary have not, not to date anyway, produced a new generation of gifted footballers for the national team. Their recent successes have been achieved using players who did not grow up in the country and who play abroad. 

“The youth system has definitely improved,” said Mortimer. “But it was almost impossible not to improve it considering the state it was in when they first started investing in it and the amount of money that they have invested into it. 

“But a lot of players in the national team haven’t come through academies there. Not only that, a lot of them aren’t Hungarian. Loïc Négo is from France, Callum Styles is from England, Willi Orbán is from Germany, Milos Kerkez is from Serbia. Once upon a time Hungary didn’t pursue dual nationality players. Now they very much do. Intention and direction can get you a long way.” 

Mortimer, though, accepts that the upward trajectory that Hungarian football is on and the feel-good factor that currently surrounds it has helped to persuade the wider diaspora to pledge their international allegiances to the Magyars. 

“Callum Styles of Sunderland is a great example,” he said. “He has fallen on his feet. He saw Hungary play in the Euros before he agreed to represent them and thought, ‘I would love to play for this country’. It gives him a platform to showcase his talents on, to play on a big stage for a proper nation.” 

Hungary’s undoubted superstar is their captain Dominik Szoboszlai. But even the Liverpool midfielder, who the Anfield club signed for £60m from RB Leipzig in Germany last summer, came through the youth ranks in Austria with Liefering, the reserve team of Red Bull Salzburg. Will the money which has been spent see more of his ilk emerge in the years to come?  

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“It is the great question of this investment,” said Peto. “The infrastructure is done. The atmosphere around football is done. But will we see Hungarian youth footballers become European class or world-class players in the future? It is not clear. 

“We have a lot of talented players, but they come from foreign teams or left this country a long time ago before they had played in a top league. We haven’t seen the results of the investment of the youth set-up yet.” 

Courts - who departed Honved with his team in a respectable mid-table position due to his unhappiness with lack of action taken following the repeated racist abuse of his players - is certain it is only a matter of time before the investment in Hungarian football pays dividends. 

“There is a big appetite for youth development,” he said. “It is a proud country. If you look at their history, they have been involved in a lot of wars, there have been a lot of political takeovers and they are, like Orbán’s political party, very nationalistic. They are open to foreigners, but they prioritise their own, like to see homegrown players coming through. 

“Clubs in Hungary are incentivised to play young players. Firstly, you must have five Hungarian players in your first team squad. Secondly, you must always have an under-21 Hungarian player on the pitch at all times. The government incentivise clubs with money. 

“They were slightly behind from a physical development perspective, but that was something the club was investing in. You could see they had all the raw ingredients. The main difference was they couldn’t believe they were getting the opportunity because nobody involved in the first team had gone near them. They were making progress.” 

The appointment of Marco Rossi – the experienced Italian coach who had led Budapest Honved to the NB1 title during his second spell in charge at the Bozsik Arena – as Hungary manager in 2018 has proved to be a masterstroke by the MLSZ. 

“Rossi is remarkable,” said Mortimer. “When you bring in a foreign coach, in many instances it doesn’t work. It didn’t work out for Berti Vogts in Scotland. Same with Paulo Sousa in Poland. Hungary had Lothar Matthäus and then Erwin Koeman and it didn’t work. 

“But what was different with Rossi is that he had managed in Hungary before. He knew the culture, he knew the players. Not only that, he loves the culture and he loves the country. 

“He is also just a very good football manager. He has played at the top level himself so he has that experience. He is a great listener. He listens to the people around him and is surrounded by some really smart people. He has been a phenomenon. He is a lucky person to have. 

“Hungary are very tactically innovative in the way they play under Rossi. They are positionless in attack, but defensively they are so resolute. They set up defence first a lot of the time, but they are fantastic in transition. They will also bring so much desire and commitment.” 

McCluskie has seen Szoboszlai, who has been hailed as the best Hungarian footballer since Puskás in his homeland, go from strength to strength since scoring an injury-time winner against Iceland in the Euro 2020 play-off final back in 2020 at the age of just 20. He fully expects him to light up the Euro 2024 finals. But he is at pains to point out that Hungary far from a one-man team.  

“That moment in the Iceland game was like his coming of age,” he said. “Since then, he has grown and grown. He is now their talisman. But Attila Szalai has become a commanding figure at the back as well. Their goalkeeper Péter Gulácsi always seemed to have an error in him. But when he plays for the national team, he always raises his game.  

“They followed up their Euro 2020 qualification. They drew with Germany and France. Since then, they have really kicked on. They have a lot of new players and have evolved. They beat England 4-0 at Molineux in the Nations League a couple of years ago. That was a nice one for me to enjoy over here.”  

Scotland will play Hungary in their final Group A match in the MHPArena in Stuttgart on June 23 and Mortimer feels the encounter is just too close to call.  

“It is difficult to know what to expect,” he said. “They are two very similar sides. They are both overachievers, both have a mix of quality and I guess six out of 10 players and both have brilliant managers. I really think it is a 50-50 game, I don’t think there is a favourite.” 

Courts was conscious of Hungarian football’s glorious past during the months he spent working in Budapest. Puskás played for Honved in his heyday and there are numerous murals, plaques, statues in honour of “The Galloping Major”. But he explained the current national team are now paying tribute to their illustrious predecessors in how they play as well. 

“It is very clear they are trying to go back to their roots,” he said. “Hungarian football was pioneering in its time, with functional football and a lot of combination play. If you look at their tactical development in recent years you can see they are actually trying to return to that. They are on a very tactical journey as a nation as well. They have been quite public about that. 

“Organisation and tactical discipline has given them a strong base to build on. But now they are quite far into their journey they are looking at Szoboszlai and how they can make him more potent on the pitch. They don’t want to bring him in from a dominant team like Liverpool and ask him to sit behind ball and chase runners. They want to maximise the players they have got at their disposal and return to their roots. It is fascinating.  

“There are pivotal moments on any journey. Employing Rossi has been that pivotal moment. He is an Italian, but he has really bought into Hungarian society. He has actually just taken out Hungarian citizenship. 

“There is still a very big ultra element in the fanbase. It can be quite direct, quite colourful, quite forceful and quite intimidating at times. Uniting a country with a fanbase like that is really difficult. So all credit to him for the direction he has taken he national team on.” 

However Hungary fare at Euro 2024, it seems certain they will, thanks to their government’s ongoing investment, continue to rise in the years to come.