György Szöllösi: It was a stunning final, in which Lionel Messi finally ascended to the world football throne. Is the old debate settled – is he the greatest? This is the question we asked Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who was there in person at his seventh consecutive World Cup Final since 1998, when French president Jacques Chirac invited him to the Stade de France.
The debate is settled, Lionel Messi is the greatest – and literally speaking the smallest boy has become the greatest hero. As it is written, the least shall be the greatest, the last shall be the first. There is hardly a purer Christian story than that. In the final we also saw the new heir to the throne, and a generational change taking place before our eyes: Messi won the match twice for Argentina, scoring twice; while Kylian Mbappé gave France renewed hope twice, and scored three goals.
A match that will be remembered forever, and one which brought to a close a much-criticised World Cup.
In every way it was an extraordinary, singular World Cup, the like of which we’ve never seen before. It was a departure from the traditional football world of Europe and the Americas, the first time a World Cup was held in the Arab world, and the first time Arab football – through the Moroccan national team – showed its true strength. For the first time the Western world had to learn to behave according to different rules. Now it wasn’t the host but the guest, and yet it attempted to impose its customs on its host, who in turn thought – though perhaps not consciously – along the lines of an ancient European wisdom: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. In the West, colonial instincts have led people to forget this ancient wisdom, dating back more than two thousand years. So if you’re in Arabia, behave like the Arabs – who, for example, told us that the World Cup shouldn’t be about wanton destruction. Wanton destruction related to the World Cup took place in Europe, far from the site of the matches. When it comes to the cost of the World Cup, many people criticise the wealthy Qataris – partly out of envy, of course. But I look at it another way: they could have spent that money on anything else, so let’s be glad that they spent it on football. They could have set up another investment fund or built another sixteen skyscrapers. Instead they chose to spend all that money on hosting the world. This was a generous act, and the football world should be grateful for it. The day of the final coincided with their national holiday, which is a little like our World Athletics Championships and 20 August : on Hungary’s birthday we’ll also be playing host to the world. For Hungary Qatar is a friendly country, and we’ve enjoyed excellent relations for a long time. They have some major investments in Budapest, with probably the most beautiful hotel in the capital – opposite the Opera House – opening in a few days, and with Qatari capital invested in the BudaPart project, which includes the MOL Campus. And we’ve also signed agreements with them on gas supply and financial cooperation.
A lot of people talk about this on the basis of political prejudices, but was the final on Sunday the last match of a good World Cup or a bad one? Did the African and Asian teams make a breakthrough? Or, on the contrary, did everything stay the same, with the stars – who had been exhausted in Europe – starting a little tired, only to see the top places again taken by European and South American teams that have dominated in the past?
In the top European championships we see players from ever more parts of the world – from Japan, Korea and Morocco for example; and this raises the standard of the sport everywhere, reducing the differences between the national teams. Morocco was close to a breakthrough – or maybe even achieved it. The cardinal rule of football, which is also its attraction, is now also true for Africa: anyone can be a good footballer if God has given him talent and enough drive. The French league is full of African players, but there are also many in Spain.
And there are also European national teams which, if you like, are still exploiting the bygone world of colonial times? For example, Switzerland beat Cameroon with a goal from the Cameroonian-born Breel Embolo, and Kylian Mbappé’s father is also of Cameroonian origin.
This phenomenon certainly exists, but now the opposite is also true, and FIFA’s Hungarian vice-president, Sándor Csányi, has a huge role to play in this: at his initiative there’s a rule that even if someone has played for a youth team somewhere, they can still play as a member of the adult national team of their country of origin. This is why there are a number of footballers in the Moroccan and other African national teams who as youngsters played in the French national team, for example. I think this is a good trend, which is globalising football and lifting up new regions.
So the World Cup has become a world championship in a literal sense?
We’re not there yet, but perhaps this was the closest we’ve come to it.
In a post before the tournament you said that the Serbs would be the world champions. I’d like to raise this with you now.
Every World Cup has a dark horse, and I thought that now this would be the Serbs; but it was the Moroccans. The technical reason for the mistake is quite obvious: I didn’t think that the Serbs’ defence would be as porous as it was. If you were once a forward, you can’t help looking first and foremost at forwards. In partial absolution for my mistaken guess, I’d say that one of the classic moments of the tournament was Aleksandar Mitrović’s headed goal against Switzerland. Perhaps the only more classic and perfect flourish from a striker was Mbappé’s shot for his second goal in the final. But Mitrović’s goal is a sign that the Serbs have something to give to this sport, and we can expect to play some good matches against them in the qualifying group for the European Championships. But for now it’s more important to express our condolences on the death of Siniša Mihajlović. He had many admirers in Hungary, and I’m one of them.
But our other former Yugoslav neighbour Croatia is back on the podium after 2018. Did you ever think that this would happen?
But Croatia isn’t a dark horse: it’s one of the world’s elite teams. Their success wasn’t unexpected: let’s not forget that even in 1998 they came third. Croatian football has a strong consistency – in style, in the youth game, in the way the game is played, in the way professionals are trained. Croatian football hasn’t surprised us, this is where it belongs. It’s just like Uruguay, which is a country of three and a half million people, and yet it belongs among the world’s elite.
With its recent success, does the Hungarian national team deserve to be there?
When we talk about football in Hungary, I always avoid two words: one is “deserved” and the other is “fair”. These words are used to explain something that hasn’t succeeded. The laws of football are different: you have ninety minutes in which to win; be good when and where you need to be. That’s all that matters. We Hungarians are able to talk about this. There’s no doubt that the best team of the 1950s was the Hungarian national team; but Hungary isn’t there among the countries that won the World Cup, and Germany is. But the Dutch could also talk about ‘74. It’s not enough to be good: you have to win; you have to be able to win. We didn’t get to that level because we weren’t able to win when we needed to. What I’ve seen tells me that we could have held our own. But first let’s get there, and then we’ll see. I think there’s a path of development in Hungarian football: we were at the World Cup in ‘78, ‘82 and ‘86; and if it hadn’t been for the match-fixing scandal, we could have been there again in ‘90 with György Mezey. The tragedy started with the fall of communism, when the state structures behind football and sport fell apart and nobody ensured that something replaced them. And so we fell into the abyss. All sports collapsed, but – as the most expensive and biggest sport – football suffered the most. Following this there were decades with all sorts of confusion, until in 2010 we started to emerge from the darkness. By 2016 we were back at the Euros, and again in 2020–21. In the meantime we’ve fought our way up to UEFA Nations League A, we’ve managed to stay there, and now we need to get to the next Euros and then the World Cup. We were going deeper into the woods for at least twenty years. It will be another twenty years before we get out of them.
If I look at the destruction of infrastructure, the deficit could be as much as fifty or sixty years.
At all events, we’re now on the way to restoring Hungarian football to its former glory by 2030. I’m not saying that we’ll have as deep a squad as the Brazilians or the French, whose second- and third-choice men in a given position are just as good as the first-choice. Because of our smaller population we’re unlikely to have such a deep structure, but with our best team we can compete with anyone and get there. Of course, as we’ve seen now, that may not be enough in a tournament; but it could be enough to get us there. By the way, when we were among the best in the world – in the ‘50s and ‘60s – our B and C teams would also have been among the best in the world. We can’t get back to that before 2030, but we can get our first team up to being among the best. We must leave something for the youngsters, and they’ll create the necessary depth in Hungarian football.
Nevertheless, this year in football has been an unparalleled success: after last year’s European Championships, we’ve beaten two former world champions; Ferencváros is the first Hungarian team to qualify from the group stage of the Europa League; and it’s now a matter of course for tickets for international matches to sell out in a matter of hours, with the Puskás Arena always at full capacity.
Football is beautiful because everyone sees their own conception in it. The Hungarian team plays the way Hungarians think about life. And the Germans play according to their conception, as do the Brazilians. Football is an essential expression of every national culture. And because it’s not a high art, but a language that’s understandable and accessible to everyone, it’s extremely popular. When they cheer for their own team, everyone falls in love with their country. Argentinians play football the Argentine way, Hungarians the Hungarian way.
We’ve again seen the emotion and passion that’s unique to the World Cup – which can’t even be produced by club football, where the money, profits and professionalism are concentrated.
In sport money helps a great deal, but if there’s too much it can destroy it. This isn’t a new phenomenon: it can be traced back to the history of the ancient Olympics. Club football is vulnerable to this. But football will continue to be national for as long as there are nations. Club football is spectacular, but the last refuge from the destructive influence of money is national teams. No amount of money can outweigh the value of the national shirt. Money can outweigh the value of a club shirt, but never the value of a national shirt. Of course the best footballers are human, they like to be world stars, and it’s good for them to have their names known all over the world. But what really counts is where they feel they belong: in their own country. Everyone loves Ronaldo, but Ronaldo belongs to the Portuguese. And we all bow down before Messi, but Messi belongs to the Argentinians. Players don’t want to be part of world history; they want to be part of their own nation’s history. Football is a global game, but it’s played on a national basis.
This year we’ve been given many great experiences from not only football but Hungarian sport in general: from our first individual Winter Olympic gold to Kristóf Milák’s world record, water polo medals, Áron Szilágyi’s first World Championship title – and the list goes on.
The extraordinary strength of Hungarian sport is shown by its ability to achieve these results in such a turbulent time for preparation and competition: a pandemic, lockdowns, boycotts, postponements, matches behind closed doors, war, skyrocketing energy prices, closed swimming pools. Under difficult circumstances, Hungarian sport has had a very successful year.
Will we win another Winter Olympic title any time soon? You met the Liu brothers – who are leaving us – in person.
It’s always sad when something falls apart. As someone who doesn’t know the world of skating, what I do understand is that in Hungary the cores of clubs are formed by workshops, and they keep Hungarian sport alive. Fencers, swimmers and skaters all have workshops, and at the heart of these workshops are coaches, the masters. The problem [with the Liu brothers] started when we couldn’t keep their coach, Lina Zhang – or we couldn’t replace her with someone of the same quality. It’s a simple consequence that competitors have to follow their mentors. While they were in the spotlight they took Hungarian skating to world heights, and now we’ll see whether in the meantime the professionals were working in the background, in the workshop. If they were, we won’t disappear from the world skating map.
Meanwhile, sporting administration has a new structure and new management. Has the change worked?
We definitely needed to make changes, to find the right division of responsibilities between the new Olympic management and sports administration. The seven-year development programmes launched with the sporting federations have now expired and they need to be assessed individually, to see who has husbanded their development funds well and who hasn’t. This review is coming to an end, and now we’re concluding new contracts with everyone for two Olympic terms. It will take another year to judge whether or not the new sports governance system has lived up to expectations. In the meantime, unfortunately, the consequences of the war, problems in operating sports facilities and high energy prices will remain with us.
After seven years of plenty, will we see seven years of scarcity in Hungarian sport? Will it be possible to organise as many world championships as earlier, and will we need to spend as much money? After all, the infrastructure is in place, although it’s becoming increasingly challenging to maintain.
In 2023 and 2024 we won’t be able to bring any new major events to Hungary. The whole Hungarian economy needs to move into a new era. Pandemics, war and high energy prices have changed the environment in which national economies operate. The Hungarian economy must now lay the strong foundations on which it can stand in the next decade. It was the same between 2010 and 2012, when the global financial crisis was followed by a decade of laying the foundations, and only after this could major sporting developments and events begin. Fortunately we didn’t listen to those who wanted to put sport on the back burner, and in the past eight to ten years we’ve built and organised everything we could. The crowning glory of this is the new athletics stadium and the World Athletics Championships. By then we’ll have organised everything that can and should be organised – apart from the Olympics.