Kevin McCluskie with A Celtic State of Mind – How Hungarian Football has reacted to the coronavirus

Coronavirus and Hungarian Football

As a Celt living abroad, I’ve had the interesting experience of watching how the Scottish and Hungarian football /sports press have reacted to the current Coronavirus pandemic and its impact on sports in both countries.

Readers in the UK will be all too aware of the football press’ tendency to sensationalise, make a story out of nothing, and whip up controversy to sell papers or get hits online. The current soap opera around whether Celtic should be awarded the title or not should all 38 league games not be fulfilled springs to mind; who cares if we’re in the grips of a global catastrophe, Scottish football’s tribalism comes first.

However, the sports press in my adopted land of Hungary have taken a more measured and pragmatic approach to the situation. Instead of whipping up a storm to remain relevant, they have chosen to remain calm and report on the facts of the situation. Surprisingly, this seems to work.

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How the Hungarian Sports Press has Handled the Coronavirus Situation

Hungarian football’s first real exposure to the Coronavirus came back on the 27th February when Budapest Honved’s Italian manager, Beppe Sannino, was placed into quarantine immediately upon his return to Hungary from a short visit home to Italy.

The Italian, who had his contract with Honved terminated on 19th March after a poor run of form, tested negative for the virus, however, club officials took the pre-emptive decision to quarantine their manager to limit his exposure to the playing staff and club employees.

Until that point, the Coronavirus had not been a major concern to the game in Hungary and was only mentioned in dispatches as a potential future threat. As the virus grew towards its current pandemic state, reporting of the potential impact on sporting events began to occupy more and more column space. Budapest-based freelance sports journalist Gergely Marosi told me that, “There was no whipping up of panic as far as I could see (in the press), but events were well followed. The sports media reacted well to the situation.”

Indeed, there have been no sensationalist headlines in the Hungarian football/sports media regarding the virus; no polls or columns calling for the season to be declared null and void or to deny current leaders Ferencvaros of a second successive title. For the most part, news stories have reported only the facts and most up to date information when it has come to the impact that the virus will have on sport in the country.

Impact on the Clubs

On the 11th March, the MLSZ (Hungarian Football Federation) announced that all games from the following day were to be played behind closed doors. This was followed on Monday (16th March) with a second statement confirming that all games were to be postponed indefinitely as a result of the pandemic, in line with Government recommendations that all outdoor gatherings of over 500 people were to be suspended.

The witty among us joked that NBII football could continue as most clubs average crowds of less than 500, but alas, the postponement extended to football games at all levels.

Allied with the official announcements, all clubs released statements in support of the decisions made by the authorities, echoing the view that they were made with the best interests of public health and safety in mind. There has been no wailing nor gnashing of teeth; no panic; no hysteria; no cries (yet) for financial assistance – although I suspect that several NBII clubs may face financial difficulties in the near future due to pre-existing financial problems exacerbated by the shutdown, but not caused by it.

Part of the reason behind the Hungarian football community’s acceptance of the call to postpone all competitions for the time being can be associated to the current apathy felt towards the local game.

Hungary is a proud football country with a rich history in the game, however, much like Scotland, over the past two or three decades, the standard of play in Hungary has fallen sharply. As a consequence, a high percentage of Hungary’s youth have grown up following German, English, and even Spanish clubs over their local team.

Attendance at NBI (Hungarian Premier League) and NBII (Hungarian Second Division) fixtures is poor, only Ferencvaros average over 5,000 spectators at a home game. As a result, Hungarian football is not as reliant on match day income as some other leagues in Europe, therefore the options of playing behind closed doors or postponing games all together was always likely to have minimal financial impact on the clubs.

Instead, Hungarian football’s main sources of income include commercial sponsorships, broadcasting rights revenue, and controversial Government TAO scheme that allows corporations – some Government backed – to write off 100% of donations made to sports clubs meeting certain criteria.

As Prime Minister Orban is a huge football fan, the TAO scheme has seen billions of Forints diverted to Hungarian football and helped finance the building of numerous new stadia across the country in the last decade.

Unless there is a Government move to divert TAO elsewhere during the pandemic, and who can blame them should they decide to invest some money in the currently under-financed health and education systems, then Hungarian football should emerge from the Corona pandemic relatively unscathed financially.

Sports Media to Take the Hit

Perhaps the area of Hungarian football that will take the biggest hit as a result of the virus is the sports / football media itself.

Without live football to report on, readership and circulation is expected to fall with the knock-on effect of loss of advertising revenue. For the smaller outlets especially this could lead to job losses or even closure on a temporary, if not permanent, basis.

For freelancers like Marosi, there is large amount of uncertainty over where and when the next pay cheque will come. “I’ve had a 50% pay cut at an assignment; others have been cancelled. My calculation is an income loss of 60-75% for 2-4 months. The projects I worked on for Euro 2020 are off, of course. If I’m very optimistic, it’ll be only a 50% loss, if it’s a worst case scenario, it can be as much as 80-90%,”he told me, as the severity of the situation continues to grow and dawn on us all.

While it is still unclear when we will be over the worst of the pandemic and be able to return to something approaching normality, UEFA has stressed its desire for domestic competitions to be concluded by the end of June; whether that can be achieved, of course, is another thing altogether.

In the meantime, we live in partial lockdown and watch re-runs of classic matches on M4 Sports to get our football fix.

Kevin McCluskie

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