The Hungarian prime minister has been lavishing public money on his favourite sport for years. Could it be his undoing?

“‘This is my land, which I donated to the club,’ he said, motioning toward the horizon. In fact, the land officially belongs to his wife. ‘Here, here and here, there is room for expansion, there are plans,’ Orbán added. We marked the moment with a selfie.” – Dan Nolan and David Goldblatt with Viktor Orbán at the Felcsut stadium.

With one main street and a couple of grocery shops, Felcsút looks like any other sleepy Hungarian village. That is until you catch sight of the football stadium, which dwarfs the other buildings in this town of 1,800 people, about 25 miles west of Budapest. The Pancho Arena, completed in 2014, is surely among the world’s most striking football grounds, more cathedral than stadium, with a swooping shingled roof, copper turrets and ornate wooden vaults thrusting upward around the interior.

Bearing the nickname that Real Madrid fans gave to Hungary’s greatest footballer, the striker Ferenc Puskás, in the 1950s, the Pancho Arena is home to a club also named in his honour, Puskás Akadémia FC, which was founded in 2007, and was recently promoted into the Hungarian first division. The stadium has a capacity of 3,800, more than twice the size of the town. But much as Puskás himself had little connection to Felcsút – he began his club career in Budapest, and never set foot in the small town – the stadium isn’t really here for the locals.

This much becomes apparent when you enter the complex, where parking spaces have been reserved for an array of Hungarian oligarchs – men of great wealth and noted proximity to the government. There is a space for the banker Sándor Csányi, the country’s richest man and the head of the Hungarian football association, and another for István Garancsi, who owns nearby Videoton FC, and his fellow construction oligarch László Szíjj. There are two spaces for Lőrinc Mészáros, the mayor of Felcsút and the chairman of Puskás FC, who has vaulted into the upper echelons of Hungary’s rich list since his childhood friend Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 2010. And there is one space, of course, for Orbán himself, who spent part of his childhood in Felcsút, and played semi-professional football here for a fourth-division side during his first stint as prime minister in the late 1990s.

When we arrived at the Pancho Arena on an overcast Saturday afternoon last spring, the word around town was that Orbán would attend that day’s match. When he is not travelling abroad, Orbán often spends weekends at his dacha in Felcsút. Since returning to office (he also served as prime minister from 1998 until 2002) in a populist landslide in 2010, Orbán has amassed more domestic power than any other EU leader. He has rewritten Hungary’s constitution, filled the constitutional court with allies and made an erstwhile political colleague the chief public prosecutor. His supporters head thousands of previously independent bodies, including Hungary’s national bank, its election committees, cultural institutes and sporting federations.

Orbán has not been shy about steering funds to the area that is closest to his heart – football. But it is not easy to ask him questions about Hungary’s stadium-building frenzy, because he rarely gives interviews, other than on state radio, where he is inevitably flattered by friendly journalists.

For Hungarian oligarchs and foreign journalists alike, the best chance of an audience with Orbán is a visit to the Pancho Arena, which is why the car park outside the ground fills up with expensive vehicles whose owners are seeking proximity to power. “Even if you hate football, you have to go to these matches,” said Gyula Mucsi of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. “It is the only place that the elite are willing to socialise with anyone outside of their small circle. Big construction and infrastructure development projects and plans which require a lot of money are basically decided in the skybox.”

“‘Even if you hate football, you have to go to these matches,’ said Gyula Mucsi of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. ‘It is the only place that the elite are willing to socialise with anyone outside of their small circle.’”

On this particular Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours before kickoff, Orbán’s parking space was still vacant. But perhaps we would see him walking into the ground. After all, it is only 20 metres from his house.

Now 54, Orbán has been a public figure for more than half his life. Increasingly remote, what remains of the 26-year-old who burst into Hungary’s national consciousness during the 1989 change of regime is best viewed at Felcsút. His obsession with football is legendary: Orbán is said to watch as many as six games a day. His first trip abroad as prime minister in 1998 was to the World Cup final in Paris; according to inside sources, he has not missed a World Cup or Champions League final since.

Inside the Pancho Arena – whose sweeping curves and timber beams embody Orbán’s nationalist fondness for “organic Hungarian architecture” – crowd sizes rarely reach four figures. But the prime minister stares down at the pitch with great intensity, paying little attention to the oligarchs and ministers surrounding him. Still, there is much to be gained from staying close to Orbán: at last count, seven people on Forbes’s list of the 33 richest Hungarians had close government links. Last year’s highest climber – going up to number eight – was Orbán’s pal Mészáros, the Felcsút mayor and football club chairman, who tripled his own wealth and went on a spending spree that included the acquisition of 192 regional newspapers in one day.

With nearly all the country’s media in friendly hands, and a divided opposition struggling to adapt to the new reality, Orbán has entered his imperial phase. Newspapers that challenge the government find themselves closed down; independent NGOs are threatened with police investigations and branded as “foreign agents”. The government is an “expression of God’s mercy”, he grandly declared on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

“Newspapers that challenge the government find themselves closed down; independent NGOs are threatened with police investigations and branded as “foreign agents””.

But if the stadium in Felcsút, where the king is surrounded by his courtiers, looks like a symbol of Orbán’s absolute power, it also threatens to become a sign of imperial overreach – a lightning rod for critics and a target for investigators. The European commission has paid a visit to Felcsút to inspect the vintage railway Orbán built, using EU funds, to connect his two boyhood villages. And the Hungarian supreme court has issued two rulings that will force the government to release closely guarded financial information about its spending on sports and stadiums, which may reveal the true cost of Orbán’s football obsession.

It is an obsession that began early. Most of what we know about Orbán’s childhood comes from interviews he gave more than a decade ago. Initially, the Orbán family – he is the middle child of three brothers – lived in cramped conditions with his paternal grandparents in Alcsútdoboz, the next village along from Felcsút. His father, Győző, thrashed him “once or twice a year”. Győző was a Communist party member, but political discussions were not encouraged at home. “The milieu from which I sprang had no specific traditions whatsoever,” Orbán said later. “I came from such an uncultured, from such an eclectic … something.” It was his grandfather, a one-time docker who had fought on the eastern front during the second world war, who turned him on to football. The young Orbán no doubt heard many a story about Hungary’s heroic teams of the interwar years, and their gallant World Cup final defeats in 1938 and 1954.

When he was 10, the family moved to Felcsút. Orbán worked in the fields at harvest time, sorting potatoes and pulling beets. It was back-breaking work. “You have to hit the rats hard the first time, or else they run up the spade and bite you,” he learned. When the family moved again, up the road to nearby Székesfehérvár, he saw warm water come straight from the tap for the first time, at age 15. Although academically gifted, Orbán described himself as “an unbelievably bad child: badly behaved, impudent, violent”. By force of will, rather than talent, he got into the youth side of the Videoton, a top-flight team based in Székesfehérvár, who reached the Uefa cup final in 1985. Orbán enjoyed the social opportunities that football offered: “The game brought together people from different backgrounds. Every time I changed team, I also changed cultures.”

By 1988, Orbán was a law student in Budapest, where he and 36 other students founded Fidesz – the party he still leads. As communism crumbled in 1989, Orbán rocketed to prominence as a youth leader. As some 250,000 people gathered in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square for the reburial of Imre Nagy – the former prime minister who was executed for his role in the 1956 Hungarian revolution – Orbán delivered a famous speech denouncing the Soviet Union and demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungary. It was a moment of nerve and opportunism – the speakers that day had allegedly made a gentleman’s agreement to sidestep the subject of Russia’s departure – but with it, he entered the history books.

“A lesser-known detail of that tumultuous era is that the Fidesz leaders who currently occupy Hungary’s three most powerful posts […], all played together on the same five-a-side team.”

A lesser-known detail of that tumultuous era is that the Fidesz leaders who currently occupy Hungary’s three most powerful posts – Orbán, President János Áder, and László Kövér, the speaker of the national assembly – all played together on the same five-a-side team. On Friday evenings in the late 1980s, Hungary’s future rulers turned out for the goofily named law-student side Fojikasör – loosely translated, it means “the beer ish flowing”. Zsolt Komáromy, who regularly played against Orbán with a rival squad, recalled that for the prime minister, “playing football was a way of releasing his aggression. One time he took the ball out of play. When everyone else stopped, Orbán said, ‘It’s not out’, and carried on, and scored. He was overwriting the laws: sort of ‘I’ll tell you when it’s in or out.’”

Orbán became an MP in 1990, and quickly established himself as the leader of Fidesz, then a liberal party. He mixed with pro-European liberal intellectuals, who recognised his talents, but teased him over his smalltown ways. But when Fidesz was unexpectedly wiped out in the next elections, Orbán dropped liberalism and rebranded his party as the flagbearer of a new right-leaning middle class. After a successful election campaign in 1998, which promised “two kids, three bedrooms, four wheels”, Fidesz formed a coalition government with two smaller parties – and Orbán, then 35, became Europe’s youngest prime minister.

Fidesz politicians “started coming to the games in black cars, and bodyguards would stand next to the pitch,” recalled Imre Wirth, another former five-a-side opponent. While his colleagues stayed with The Beer Ish Flowing, the prime minister decided to play semi-professional football for Felcsút, then in the fourth division. After a narrow election loss in 2002, Orban turned further toward nativist populism, refusing to concede defeat on the grounds that “the people” could never be in opposition. He ceased attending parliament, and set about targeting the votes of those “left behind” in the transition from communism.

When a scandal engulfed the Socialist government in 2006, Orbán grabbed his opportunity and took to the streets. As the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution approached, rioters – many of them security guards from Ferencváros, Hungary’s biggest club side – channelled the spirit of ’56 and stormed the national television headquarters. On 23 October 2006, the first day of the official commemorations, Orbán gave a speech at the end point of a radical nationalist march. Riots broke out again, and police officers without ID badges shot plastic bullets at protesters. A leaked US diplomatic cable worried that Orbán was “liable to play with fire”.

The next year, Orbán and Mészáros set up the Puskás Academy – on 1 April 2007, which would have been Puskás’ 80th birthday – with initial capital of just €500. Meanwhile, Mészáros, along with Orbán’s wife, Anikó, and his father, began to acquire more land around the club. Three years later, Hungary’s political centre lurched to the right, and Orbán secured an outright majority. Armed with a constitution-changing mandate, Orbán proclaimed a “ballot-box revolution” and promised to complete what he called the “unfinished regime change” Hungary had begun in 1989.

Felcsút has not been the only beneficiary of Orbán’s football construction boom. In Budapest, we paid a visit to the new stadium of MTK, a venerable football club whose president, Tamás Deutsch, is a co-founder of Fidesz and one of the party’s representatives at the European parliament. “This is not a stadium, it’s a football castle – it’s a new concept,” Deutsch told us, sitting on an Italian sofa in his own executive box. Deutsch goes back a long way with Orbán, and they regularly kicked a ball around at that fabled law school in the late 1980s. He was always a “demanding teammate”, even in these casual kickabouts, Deutsch said. “When somebody made an unforced error, he would shout at them,” he recalled.

MTK’s slightly curious new ground – it has concrete walls behind each goal, rather than stands – was built for €27m (£24m), 50% over budget. It was funded through Orbán’s controversial TAO scheme, which allows corporations to divert taxable profits, with minimal disclosure, to sports clubs and cultural institutions. Meanwhile, direct state funds have built a new 24,000-seater stadium for Ferencváros, the Groupama Arena in Budapest, for an official cost of €63m (£55m), and the 20,000-seat Nagyerdei Stadion in Debrecen for €55m (£48m).

The Pancho Arena was a relative snip at €12m (£10m), but the Felcsút club also receives around €10m (£9m) per year through the scheme. In Mezőkövesd, a town of around 17,000 in northern Hungary, a new 4,200-seater stadium was built for the local club – whose chairman is the Fidesz deputy minister András Tállai, also head of the national tax authority. Tállai showed his gratitude by commissioning an oil painting of Orbán and Puskás.

Deutsch defended the stadium-building scheme against critics who note that 40% of households in Hungary still live below the breadline. “If we gave the financial support only to sports, this argument would be fair,” he told us. “But we also give to education, health, infrastructural development and so on.” The government’s critics might reply that it currently spends more on sport than on teachers’ salaries.

To understand the significance of football for Hungarians, Deutsch explained, you have to look at their history. At the beginning of the 20th century, he said, “Hungarian football was one of the leading cultures”. Indeed, in the interwar years, Hungary was part of a wider culture of sophisticated passing football – known as the Danube school – which included teams from Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Bratislava. This style reached its highest expression in the legendary 1950s Hungarian national team, the “Magical Magyars”. Captained by Puskás, the most prolific international goal-scorer of the 20th century, the team was tactically innovative and rich in individual talent, including Nándor Hidegkuti, the revolutionary “false number nine” after whom Deutsch’s stadium is named.

The Magical Magyars, known at home as the Golden Team, dazzled the football world in a four-and-a-half-year unbeaten run. That 31-game sequence included a gold medal win at the 1952 Olympics, and a victory in what was then dubbed the match of the century, a 6-3 thrashing of England at Wembley in 1953. To prove that was no fluke, Hungary humbled England 7-1 in a return fixture in Budapest the following year. That glorious run ended with a shock defeat to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final – “the biggest success of Hungarian football history and the saddest day of Hungarian football history”, in the words of György Szöllősi, the editor-in-chief of Hungary’s leading sports daily. (The legend of the 6-3 victory lives on in the nation’s collective memory – it’s the name of a pub, a betting website, and a brand of spritzer.)

The Hungarian revolution of 1956 brought the Puskás era to an abrupt end, as many of the Golden Team’s players, on tour when the uprising broke out, did not return. The decline was slow but steady. “We had many tragedies,” Szöllősi said. Perhaps the bitterest of all came in Mexico at the 1986 World Cup. “The Hungary team was top of the European rankings,” Szöllősi recalled. “The first group game was against the Soviet Union and we lost 6-0. Against the Soviet Union, in 86!” he said. The defeat spawned a bestselling literary post-mortem called Gyógyíthatatlan – a punning title that can be loosely translated as “Terminally Six” – which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, many of which appear to reside in secondhand bookshops in Budapest.

“If you want to understand Viktor Orban’s relationship with football,” Szöllősi said, “you must see that between the two world wars, football was very important.” Once memorably described as “Orbán’s football megaphone”, Szöllősi is Hungary’s football ambassador, with official diplomatic status granted by the prime minister. “Viktor Orbán wants to ‘make Hungarian football great again’,” Szöllősi said.

“Once memorably described as “Orbán’s football megaphone”, Szöllősi is Hungary’s football ambassador, with official diplomatic status granted by the prime minister. “Viktor Orbán wants to ‘make Hungarian football great again’,” Szöllősi said.”

He acknowledged, though, that Orbán’s football habit is seen as a liability among his largely deferential party colleagues. “Before the 2010 election, the campaign leaders told him that he was not allowed to go to the Champions League final, because this is a really unpopular thing in Hungary – starting to build football. Everyone says: ‘Oh no, it’s absolutely impossible, you cannot do that, because Hungarian football is shit.’”

Orbán’s campaign to make Hungarian football great again has attracted attention, but not for the reasons he might have hoped. (Attendance at most clubs remains poor, with grounds usually less than 20% full.) For opposition parties, however, the stadiums have become a ready symbol of Orbán’s hubris. “You can talk about constitutional law and people get bored, but show Felcsút and people know exactly what you are talking about,” the opposition activist Gábor Vágó said. In May 2017, near the end of the football season, Vágó organised a protest of about 300 voters outside Orbán’s Felcsút house, where they threw counterfeit money depicting Orbán and Mészáros into the air.

At the protest, Ákos Hadházy, the co-chairman of a centrist opposition party, Politics Can Be Different, declared: “2018 is the last chance to defeat Orbán. The press is under pressure now. Populism tells Hungarians: ‘We will steal your money, but we will defend you from the terrorist refugees.’ But we will have a few million forints, and the government will have 10bn,” Hadházy said.

Orbán’s opponents scored a victory in February 2017 with a petition against the government’s bid to host the 2024 summer Olympics in Budapest, which Orbán had personally endorsed two years earlier. A campaign called Nolimpia argued that healthcare, education, rural infrastructure, housing and poverty were more pressing issues than sports stadiums in Hungary, and collected more than 266,000 signatures from Budapest residents for a referendum on the Olympic bid. The prospect of a humiliating defeat at the ballot box spooked Fidesz so much that they retracted Budapest’s candidacy – and the petition drive launched a new centrist youth party, Momentum, in the process.

More recently, Hungary’s supreme court has also ruled – after a series of actions brought against ministries, sports federations and local councils – that corporate contributions to the TAO scheme, which had been shrouded in secrecy, were indeed public funds, and must therefore be disclosed. In the course of the legal battle, the government had attempted to classify the donations as “tax secrets”, but the court ruling means that Puskás Akadémia, and other clubs, will now have to divulge the names of the companies supporting them. The government has not yet released this information, and activists expect it will wait until after the next elections, which will be held in April or May this year.

Back at the Pancho Arena on matchday, the setting offered more drama than the football. There were about 400 people in attendance, but half of those were in the VIP sections and executive boxes, while the press section was appointed in a manner that might be expected at a stadium 10 times the size. Orbán emerged from his executive box as the game began, accompanied by one of his ministers, Miklós Seszták, who owns a second-division club in the north-east. Mészáros, the mayor and chairman, watched from his own box nearby.

After a scoreless first half, we approached the club’s press officer with an interview request – and a copy of David’s 2006 book The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, hoping that it might establish our footballing bona fides with the prime minister. “There is very little chance you will get to meet Mr Orbán,” she said. Orbán did not emerge for the second half, and when Puskás Akadémia broke through in the final minutes, their manager vainly looked up at the executive box for approval. Still, Orbán was nowhere to be seen.

But as the players trundled off the pitch, the club press officer, looking astonished, invited us to Orbán’s box, where we found him facing the pitch, with the book in hand and Szöllősi standing beside him. A tray of petit fours stood on the counter, behind which three young, uniformed servers stood in a sleek chrome kitchenette.

“I’m just breezing,” Orbán said, thumbing through the book. It soon became clear that the book’s epigraph, by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, had secured our audience. “‘A style of play,’” Orbán read aloud, “‘is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different.’ I like that, that’s very important!” he said. “I don’t know whether we have Hungarian football – but we must have!

“Football,” he continued, “is a strange combination of being free and being a soldier. You have to be in the squad, but it’s also creative. Because this is the dilemma of all modern societies: to be organised and to be free. On the pitch I can find it, in politics it’s more difficult.”

“Football,” he continued, “is a strange combination of being free and being a soldier. You have to be in the squad, but it’s also creative. Because this is the dilemma of all modern societies: to be organised and to be free. On the pitch I can find it, in politics it’s more difficult.”

For Orbán, the connection between football, politics and national greatness was obvious. “Hungarians have a critical approach to all civilisations,” he said, “and we think that modern society is very dangerous for the kids. Sport is good for the dangers of modern civilisations.

“Now we made a good progress [in reviving Hungarian football], but everybody is critical here. Nobody will agree with me, everybody says it’s shit, but the fact is we are improving very well, and probably we are progressing – isn’t that right, Gyuri?”

“Absolutely Mr Prime Minister,” Szöllősi replied.

“Why is this not published in Hungarian? We should do that Gyuri, we should publish it,” he said, waving David’s book at Szöllősi. Warming up, Orbán articulated his theory of football. “This academy – this kind of stadium and all the surroundings – it’s part of a concept. My concept, it’s my concept anyway, my concept is that football does not belong to business. Football belongs to art – look at the stadium, it is art.

“Don’t calculate your next agreement with your agent and that kind of shit – that is not the essence. The essence is art, the ball and the team. So that’s my concept, and this is the concept of the academy – football belongs to art.

“My grandfather used to tell me,” Orbán continued, “when you see a good match, you have to hear the music – if you don’t hear the music, it’s not a good game. So therefore, in Hungary, whatever championship the Germans win, we will never say it’s a good football, because what we are hearing is not a music, but a robotic technological noise.”

At this point, Orbán put on his coat and said: “Let’s have a look at the academy from the top.” He led us out of the box. “Look,” he said, pointing to one of the wooden fan vaults holding up the roof. “It is art.”

Behind Orbán, we clattered up a steep flight of metal stairs. On reaching the top, he opened a trapdoor and climbed up on to a track that runs around the roof. We stood there, alongside the prime minister of Hungary, surveying his football stadium. “This is my land, which I donated to the club,” he said, motioning toward the horizon. In fact, the land officially belongs to his wife. “Here, here and here, there is room for expansion, there are plans,” Orbán added. We marked the moment with a selfie.

By now, the sky had darkened a little. Unfazed by the drizzle and the vertiginous drop, Orbán, in a long black coat, continued the tour. “This is my house,” he said, pointing down at his dacha. “My wife hates the stadium: she says it ruins the view from the kitchen window.”

Downstairs, the prime minister led us across the courtyard in front of the stadium into a room in the academy building that was dominated by a pair of three-metre photographs of Puskás – one as a naive debutant, the other as the stalwart Madrid proto-galactico. In the floor, Orbán pointed out, are Puskás’ footprints, illuminated under glass. Slightly lost for words, one of us remarked that they were unexpectedly small. “Yes, it’s better to have small feet, you can get under the ball,” said Orbán, himself a short man, kicking the air.

“Sooner or later we will set up the ‘Puskás Institute’, because here we have an academy, we have schools, so it’s a small universe. Now we have a team, but we would like to set up a museum, an education centre and a publishing house also. For the people.”

He began to reminisce about his own playing days. “When I was first-time prime minister, in 98, I even played in the team of the village. It was in the fourth league … and I played every week with the team. Can you imagine, in the small villages – you know, the shouting? You can’t imagine [the abuse] – until I scored!” His face lit up with satisfaction, and he launched into another story, about receiving a phone call from the president of the US after Hungary became a member of Nato in 1999. “I was training,” Orbán said, “and somebody said: ‘Bill Clinton is calling.’ I said: ‘Don’t joke, I have training, call me back in five minutes.’ He had called me because of the war with Yugoslavia, he had some proposals to discuss. I stood there on the phone [on the pitch] … like a pig.”

Fifteen years later, Clinton called Orbán an “authoritarian capitalist” during an appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart: “Usually those guys just want to stay for ever and make money.”

As our surprise tour neared its end, Orbán described his plans to expand his “academy concept” across the borders into Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine – eventually, into all of the lands that once belonged to “Greater Hungary”, before 1920. “We are doing it for the kids … on the territories where the Hungarians are living.” At home, meanwhile, he continues to build.

A 68,000-seater national stadium – named for Puskás, of course – is being readied to host four matches during the European Championships in 2020, with a budget in excess of €600m. It will be similar in size and design to Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, at roughly four times the cost. But on the evidence of Hungary’s failed World Cup qualification campaign – which included a draw against the Faroe Islands and a loss to Andorra – the national side may not even qualify for the Euros.

Thanks to his symbolic role in the fall of communism, Orbán has been a legacy politician from the off, keenly aware of his place in history. But Hungary and its neighbours are littered with pharaonic follies of the past, built by rulers keen to erect their own monuments. Across the border in Romania, the home village of the unlamented dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu boasts a 30,000-seater stadium, now used by a team languishing in that country’s fourth division.

Even in Orbán’s inner circle, some fear the Pancho Arena may eventually be regarded as a folly. One friend of the prime minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, candidly recalled the moment, over dinner, when Orbán announced his plan to build a stadium in Felcsút. “We were a little bit like, ‘Do you really need this stadium here?’ This is his child side, he’s a fanatic, he’s enthusiastic about soccer … but it’s too big. I don’t think this is the best place – in 10 or 20 years, I don’t know how they will maintain and manage this building. I don’t think it was a good decision.”

But as Hungary’s most powerful football supporter led us out into the centre of his Neverland complex and bid us farewell, there was no sign of buyer’s remorse. “May I confess,” he said with a smirk as we left, “the Parliament building is nicer.”