HUNGARY’S FOOTBALL RACISM SHAME: THE SOUND OF SILENCE

On March 22 Hungary took on Romania in Budapest. An important qualification match for the Football World Cup which will be held in Brazil in 2014 and both countries are in their best position in many years to reach the sport’s showpiece event. The Ferenc Puskas Stadium, which holds over 50,000 people, should have been bursting at the seams with noise and color, uniting a country to cheer their countrymen on to victory.

Instead, there was silence. Deafening and, for Hungary, embarrassing silence. At the start of the year FIFA, world football’s governing body, announced that Hungary would play its next home match behind closed doors as a punishment for their fans’ anti-Semitic chanting before and during their match with Israel last August. On Friday, Hungary was held to a potentially damaging 2-2 draw by Romania in a decidedly odd spectacle. After scoring goals, the Hungarian players ran to celebrate in front of a crowd that wasn’t there. Confusion soon overrode initial joy.

Meanwhile, outside the stadium a large group of balaclava-clad protesters waving Jobbik flags had to be dispersed using tear gas by riot police. The beautiful game was marred by these ugly acts.

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A match between Hungary and Romania would be a heated encounter in any circumstances with a long rivalry between the two countries, and a significant minority of Hungarians living in Romania. From a football perspective it is a clash between two re-emerging nations with an exciting new generation of players. However, the match wasn’t marked by any rivalry or technical brilliance. It was most notable for an empty and eerie atmosphere which exposed the country’s pervasive but seldom addressed illness: racism. The Hungarian Football Association, which stands to miss out on over 100,000 euros as a result of the ban, reacted, not by condemning the vile chants, but by appealing the decision. It claimed the punishment was “harsh” and “disproportionate”. Yet in the same statement the association vowed to “expel extremist voices from Hungarian football”.

A mixed message no doubt. On the one hand they want to rid the national game of racism. On the other, when an international incident of racism is perpetrated by their own supporters, in their own stadium, they react weakly and leniently. It was a woefully missed opportunity to take a stand against racism. Their appeal was unsurprisingly rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Jews were the subject of the abuse in August but racism and hatred against Roma and black players have been rife in Hungarian football for years.

I attended my first match in Hungary in October 2011 at the Florian Albert Stadium, home of Budapest’s most popular club Ferencvaros. The game itself against Videoton was instantly forgettable. But what I saw and heard on the terraces was not. “Cigano” (Gypsy) yelled a couple of Fradi (Ferencvaros) supporters to my right as an opposition goalkeeper ran towards our end of the stadium.

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This cry, I soon learned, is a crowd favourite. It is used for almost every seeming infraction. The referee made a contentious decision: “Cigany!”. One of the Ferencvaros players made a mistake: “Cigany!”.  The opposing supporters arrived at the stadium: “Cigany!”.

Such chanting has been made illegal but the police that day did nothing. If they had enforced the law by the letter, there would have been thousands of arrests.Across the city, at Ujpest, such chants were slightly less common in my experience but they did exist. At the same time, “monkey chants” and discriminatory booing were vociferously directed at black players. Self-policing in the stands is seldom encountered. Indeed, it would take a brave man to tell his fellow supporter that his racist chanting is unacceptable, and bravery is a rare commodity in modern-day Hungarian football.

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The coach of a well-known Hungarian club, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me that it would be “career suicide” to sign a Romani player in Hungary. Examples are everywhere. In 2008-2009, Trinidadian goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams joined Ferencvaros. What should have been an exciting move to a once-famous name in European football quickly turned sour as Williams was subjected to frequent racial abuse, even by his own “supporters”.

He recalled what he described as the worst experience of his life: “From the start, fans, both ours and the opposing team’s, abused us racially. There were monkey noises, “go back to Africa” chants as wells as posters and signs.” Supporters and players of MTK Budapest, who were founded in part by Hungarian Jews, have been subjected to horrific abuse, perhaps the most disturbing being the ‘hissing’ (imitating the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps) carried out by Ferencvaros fans during a match in the early 2000s.

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In recent years, the demise of Hungarian football and its subsequently limited appearances in Europa League or Champions League matches, has kept this rampant racism a domestic issue, hidden behind Hungarian borders. Now and then European or World authorities will step in with punishments but domestically the reaction to racism in football is alarmingly limp.

Hooligans from a range of Hungarian clubs are known to be affiliated with the far-right Jobbik party who move quickly to profit from the punishment. In the demonstration that took place during, before and after the match outside the stadium, Jobbik were on a recruitment drive among Hungarian fans aggrieved by the ban.

Supporters of the Hungarian far right Jobbik party march during a demonstration at the Avas apartment projects in Miskolc

This is a test for Hungarian football supporters. Will they feel unfairly punished as a group and echo the extremists’ cries of victimization? Or, will they stand up against the racists whose behavior undermines the progress of Hungary’s best batch of young players for decades?

Time will tell, but if self-inflicted damage to their World Cup hopes doesn’t draw more active resistance to racism, then I’m unsure what will. It is sixty years since the greatest Hungary team (known as the magical Magyars) enjoyed their finest hour, beating England at Wembley, inspired by the great Puskas.

What a travesty then, that the stadium named after him was barren but for extremist protestors as racism goes unchallenged in Hungarian football.

By Alastair Watt