Hungarian prime minister says Irish players provoked fans in Budapest
Viktor Orban has backed fans who booed Irish footballers for taking the knee
Hungary’s Bendeguz Bolla stands while the Republic of Ireland’s James McClean takes a knee at Szusza Ferenc Stadium, in Budapest. Photograph: Trenka Atilla/PA
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has backed fans who booed the Republic of Ireland team for taking the knee before this week’s match in Budapest, accusing the visiting players of “provoking” their hosts and failing to understand their culture.
Ireland’s manager Stephen Kenny described the booing before Tuesday’s game as “incomprehensible”, and the crowd’s reaction to the protest against racism has thrown a spotlight on Hungary as it prepares to host several Euro 2020 ties.
“I am not in the least sympathetic to the kneeling - sport is about something else and there is no place on the field for that,” Mr Orban declared on Thursday.
“If you’re a guest in a country then understand its culture and do not provoke it. We can only see this gesture system from our cultural vantage point as something unintelligible, as a provocation,” said the nationalist leader, who during 11 years in office has sought to build what he calls “illiberal democracy” in Hungary.
“The fans reacted the way those who are provoked usually react to provocation. They do not always choose the most elegant form (of reaction) but we have to understand their reasons. I agree with the fans,” he added.
Mr Orban argued that such protests against racism stem from guilt felt by former slave-owning states, and so are anathema to Hungary and its people.
“This is a hard, serious moral burden, but every nation must carry this burden on their own. They need to sort this out themselves,” he said.
“We do not expect the Hungarian national team to get on their knees but to fight, to win and, if they fail, to die standing up,” he declared, adding that Hungarian men kneel only “before God, the homeland and their beloved when they propose marriage.”
Mr Orban portrays himself as a football-loving man of the people who defends conservative “Christian values” in Hungary while protecting it from mostly Muslim migrants and the meddling of a dangerous liberal European Union, which has clashed repeatedly with his government on rule-of-law and democracy issues.
Critics also accuse him of presiding over corruption and question the vast sums of money that he has pumped into Hungarian sport - and particularly football - in recent years, through projects that include the construction of a 3,800-seat stadium in his home village, which has a population of only 1,700.
Kenny defended Ireland’s decision to kneel before the match in Budapest, and said the crowd’s reaction “must be damaging for Hungary with the Euros.”
The issue is likely to be a talking point throughout the competition, with some teams pledging to make the gesture regardless of the response from host fans.
A row over Ukraine’s kit for the tournament also intensified on Thursday, when Uefa ordered the team to remove part of a slogan from its shirts after complaints from Russia.
Moscow is furious that the shirt features an outline of Ukraine that includes Crimea - which Russia illegally annexed from its neighbour in 2014 - and the phrase “Glory to Ukraine - Glory to the heroes”.
Russia says the slogan pays homage to Ukrainian independence fighters of the second World War, some of whom collaborated with the Nazis against Soviet forces. It entered widespread usage in Ukraine during its 2014 revolution, however, when protesters ousted the country’s then Kremlin-backed leaders.
Uefa said “Glory to the heroes” should be removed because it had “clearly political” and “historic and militaristic” connotations - but ‘Glory to Ukraine” and the map of the country could remain on the jerseys.