BUDAPEST – Populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long used soccer to advance his right-wing politics, and now widespread international criticism of a new law seen as targeting the LGBT community has turned this month's European Championship into a major stage for his challenge to Europe's liberal values.
Last week, as more than 60,000 soccer fans poured into Budapest's Puskas Arena, an emblem of Orban's famous devotion to soccer, the Hungarian Parliament approved a controversial bill that bans sharing with minors any content portraying homosexuality or sex reassignment.
Human rights groups and liberal politicians in Hungary and from around Europe denounced the law as conflating homosexuality with pedophilia and as a draconian effort to push any representation of LGBT people into the shadows. Nearly half of the European Union’s 27 member countries issued a statement calling it a “clear breach of (LGBT people’s) fundamental right to dignity,” and officials are examining whether the legislation contravenes EU law.
In a direct rebuke to the law, Munich’s mayor and city council called for its stadium to be lit up with rainbow colors in a show of support for tolerance and gay rights when Germany plays Hungary on Wednesday at Euro 2020.
The controversy has turned the game into a symbolic showdown between competing visions for the future of Europe, pitting Orban’s promotion of what he calls “illiberal democracy” against Western Europe’s “liberal consensus.”
UEFA, European soccer's governing body, said that while it understood the city’s intention to send a message to promote inclusion, it denied the request because it considered it a political move. Other stadiums in Germany unaffiliated with the tournament will be allowed such displays and the team captain will wear a rainbow armband.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas slammed the UEFA decision, saying Wednesday he can’t find “any reasonable excuse” for UEFA to reject Munich’s plans.
Orban has been challenging the European consensus ever since he returned to power in 2010: frequently criticizing multiculturalism, curtailing media freedoms, and relentlessly campaigning against the EU itself, portraying Brussels as a modern heir to Soviet Moscow, which dominated Hungary for decades.
His message resonates with many Hungarians who resent interference and perceived condescension from the EU — and he has frequently shown himself adept at maneuvering around its policies, such as when he went out on his own to make Hungary the first EU country to procure Russian and Chinese COVID-19 vaccines not approved by European regulators.
The move — which has led Hungary to have the second-highest rate of vaccination in the EU — offered validation for his strategy of bucking the bloc's dictates, both increasing his power at home and challenging the EU's credibility and liberal values.
Fiercely opposed to immigration, he has blasted European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for plans in 2015 to distribute the burden of that year’s wave of refugees from the Middle East and Africa and refused to accept asylum seekers. His crackdowns on the media have led to “a degree of (state) media control unprecedented in an EU member state,” according to Reporters Without Borders.
More recently, after his ruling Fidesz party broke with its center-right political group in the European Parliament, Orban has embarked on a mission to unite Europe's right-wing forces into a new political formation.
By all accounts a soccer fanatic and a former player himself, Orban has often used the sport as his preferred venue for pushing his political vision and amplifying his image as a man of the people.
Since the days of Hungary great Ferenc Puskas — widely regarded as one of the best players of all time who led “the Mighty Magyars” to the 1954 World Cup final and an Olympic gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Games — the country has never again achieved world-class status in soccer. But Orban has attempted to rekindle some of the old magic.
In 2007, he founded the Puskas Soccer Academy in his home village of Felcsut, where he had played semi-professionally in the 1990s. His government also introduced a scheme where companies may donate money to sports clubs in lieu of paying corporate tax, an arrangement that since 2010 has netted clubs as much as $2.7 billion — money that critics say would have been better spent on Hungary's ailing health care sector.
The government also directly funds the sport, paying for several of the 32 stadiums that have been built or renovated in Hungary since Orban assumed power, making the structures something of a symbol of state largesse.
This major injection of capital into soccer has made games a popular meeting place for politicians and the politically connected. Orban is often photographed at games with some of Hungary's most successful businessmen, including billionaire Sandor Csanyi, Hungary's second wealthiest person who is also the president of the Hungarian soccer federation and a UEFA vice president.
The games themselves have also become battlegrounds for displays of Hungary's values. After a recent game in Budapest between Hungary's national team and Portugal, UEFA received complaints that Hungarian fans were carrying homophobic banners.
Video from the game also showed Hungarian fans chanting “Cristiano homosexual!” at Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo during the match. In 2017, FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, fined the Hungarian soccer federation $22,000 after Hungarian fans directed the same chant at Ronaldo at a World Cup qualifier in Budapest.
Earlier in the tournament, during a friendly match in Budapest between Ireland and Hungary, Hungarian fans booed Irish players as they knelt on the field as a sign of solidarity against racism.
Orban seized the opportunity to denounce the gesture that has swept Europe and the United States amid calls for action against racial injustice. He defended the fans, asserting that “politics has no place in sports,” and chided the Irish national team, telling them not to “provoke the host if you come as a guest.”
Hungarians only kneel before God, their country, and their lovers, he said.
Levente Toth, 45, a Hungarian fan who traveled to Munich to view Wednesday’s game, said that he thought the push to illuminate Germany’s stadium in rainbow colors “has no place in sports,” adding that he thought opposition to the new law was “overblown” and echoing the typical message that the legislation protects children.
“No one wants to harm gays or people who think differently or people of different sexual orientations,” he said.
But Toth said those displaying homophobic banners or engaging in hateful chants at games “should be lifted out of the crowd.”