International Competition is Not a Right

Declan Da Barp

A shower of beer cups, racist chants, and monkey gestures rained down on Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham as England trounced Hungary 4-0 in a World Cup qualifying match in September. In response, FIFA fined the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ) 200,000 Swiss Francs and banned fans for Hungary’s next home match.

The MLSZ is all too familiar with this punishment, marking Hungary’s fourth ban in eight years. The Hungarian’s are already serving a stadium ban handed down by UEFA following racist and homophobic chants and banners at Euro 2020.  

The Hungarian hardcore fans or Ultras, referred to as the Carpathian Brigade, stoked by the Hungarian government’s populist policies have a long history of racist and bigoted incidents four stadium bans in the past eight years. (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Homophobia and racism are not unique to Hungarian fans. At Euro 2020, three black English players received a torrent of racial abuse for missing penalties that could have made England the champion. But what makes Hungary so troubling is the frequency of the events and the explicit government approval. Where in England, arrests for racial abuse follow instances of prejudice, the Hungarian Government provides mere excuses, diversion, and even outright support. Following the previous international break, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn said he “agree[s] with the fans” who decried taking a knee as a “provocation”.

The success of the current Hungarian National team is the success of Orbán. Since his party surged into power in 2010, he has created what he dubs an “illiberal democracy.” Judges, ministers, tax authorities, and, most importantly in this context, sporting organizations executives have been taken over by members of Fidesz – Orbán’s ruling party.

The racism that is seen repetitively at Hungarian soccer matches is representative of the same malice within the ruling party. With no action being taken to curb the prejudice internally, the only way to keep the game innocent is by banning the Hungarian National Team from international competition entirely.

Orbán himself has a long history with the game and has used his past as a semi-professional player to connect with the everyday man. This photo was taken of Orbán at a tournament in Felcsút in 2012 while he was playing in the Hungarian fourth-tier.  (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

Hungary is one of the most repressive countries in the European Union with xenophobia, racism, and homophobia commonplace. The countless examples of bigotry inside Hungarian stadiums are a reflection of the country’s lurch to the authoritarian right.

In recent years Orbán has tightened his grip over local media, in passing the “Stop-Soros Laws” cracked down on NGOs who aid migrants, and recent legislation enacted to limit the exposure of minor to “homosexual content” connecting homosexuality to paedophilia. This populist backsliding has led many experts to conclude that if Hungary applied today, they would be rejected from the EU.

And yet, no one has acted against Orbán or his regime.

FIFA and UEFA declare that they allow no room for racism and bigotry in football but allowing the continued participation of the MLSZ has permitted and encouraged these kinds of behaviours.

Ejecting MLSZ from international competition would not be without precedent. 

Referred to as the Wonder-team, the Yugoslav National Team had their chance at the Euros taken away from them due to UN sanctions placed on the country. The Yugoslav National Team made the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup and Red Star Belgrade won the 1991 Champions League. The team that replaced them, Denmark, went on to win the Euros.

In 1992, Yugoslavia was engulfed in a viscous conflict with the states of the once unified Slavic Republic declaring independence. Despite the bloodshed, the Yugoslav national team was preparing for the Euros in which they had a real shot at the trophy. The team was jettisoned from the competition mere weeks before the start due to human rights abuses by Serbian paramilitary forces in Sarajevo. FIFA and UEFA removed all the former Slavic republic from international competitions, in accordance with UN sanctions.

In the case of Hungary, the governing bodies of the sport stand alone. The EU and UN have previously been inactive in combatting the threat of authoritarianism and populism throughout the world. F IFA and UEFA now have an opportunity to defend the beliefs that they claim to hold. If the football associations are serious about rooting out prejudice within the sport, they must bar the MLSZ from a cycle of international competition; all lighter attempts at rectifying the situation have been disregarded. If the governing bodies of the sport choose to turn a blind eye, they are being hypocritical to their own values and are ultimately allowing Orbán to continue his populist appeal through international sport and are complicit in his actions.

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