Liverpool to Damascus via Budapest: Why the future of Euro 2024 dark horse Slovakia rests on four gunshots

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Slovakia is reeling. The country’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, was shot four times last Wednesday in an assassination attempt. Out of this fluctuating political landscape and relations with Hungary and Russia, Slovakian football is at a crossroads. The country may just be the surprise package at this summer’s European Championships.

The suspect of the shooting has, according to a court order, expressed his dislike of the policies laid out by Fico’s increasingly right-leaning national populist party. The country’s recent political polarisation has come from the Left’s unwillingness accept Fico’s attempt at angling towards Russian power rather than the West, as illustrated by his pointed refusal to condemn the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

Further down that yellow brick road to Moscow is Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Since his re-election in 2010, his bold policies (amalgamating to his government’s ‘Orbanomics’ methods) have seen financial progress in Hungary, despite concerns over the distancing from ties to western Europe. It would be fair to say Orban is a nationalist. Prioritisation of his country’s border security during the 2015 migrant crisis and his drive to ‘re-Christianize’ Hungary are testament to this. Another more unusual example is his devotion to football.

Further down that yellow brick road to Moscow is Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban

€2bn. That’s the sum of investment into Hungarian football from 2010-2021 from Orban’s government. Huge stadia have begun to fill the country, most impressively the Ferenc Puskas Arena, which glimmers over central Budapest and was selected as a venue in the pan-European 2020 European Championships. The Prime Minister is said to be fanatical about the sport. He is the current chairman at a regional team and is said to watch six matches a day.

Domestic football has strengthened in this time as the country’s most prominent clubs such as Ferencvaros are finally able to compete in the Europa League and Conference League. However, it is the national team that has seen the biggest leap in performance. Under manager, Marco Rossi, Hungary have qualified for the last three European Championships, even topping their group in 2016. Their 4-0 victory over England in 2022 demonstrates their intent to topple the conventional European superpowers. The end goal is to return the aura of the 1950’s ‘Magical Magyars’ and produce the best players in the world such as Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, and Jozsef Bozsik.

Moreover, Dominik Szoboszlai’s emergence has finally given Orban the jewel in his dynasty-shaped crown. Szoboszlai is technically wonderful, attractive, and now plays for an elite club in Liverpool, meaning he is the perfect poster boy for Orban’s media campaign. Since his government’s ownership of the media has passed 50%, football coverage has increased drastically, almost always praising the development of Hungarian football. Whether or not increased media ownership has curtailed free speech is unimportant to Orban.

A peculiar pillar of Orbanomics is the investment in foreign clubs

A peculiar pillar of Orbanomics is the investment in foreign clubs. The Hungarian government has injected money into some Romanian and Serbian clubs, as well as FAC 1903 Dunajska Streda, a southern Slovakian club based in the ethnically Hungarian town of the same name. The club play in a 12,500 seater stadium, nearly half the population of the town and are currently managed ex-Premier League manager Xisco Munoz. The 2023-24 season is likely to see them finish second for the second successive season behind perennial winners Slovak Bratislava.

Questions have been raised by rival clubs over the legitimacy of a Hungarian funded team, but the league officials have repeatedly stated the legality of the team. Despite a largely Hungarian fan base, Streda’s squad is a fascinating mix of nationalities – Congolese, Estonians, Syrians, and Senegalese all play for them. There are a few Slovakians too, including international midfielder Christian Herc, who could be playing in Germany this summer if things go his way.

Slovakia’s history as an independent footballing nation has been dominated by one man – Marek Hamsik. His jet black mohawk helped him reach worldwide fame, and he briefly held Napoli’s goal record. He still holds Slovakia’s goal and appearance records. Outside observers may be forgiven for thinking his retirement in 2023 spelled doom for Slovakia’s major tournament chances, but in 2024, their squad looks stronger than it ever has.

Martin Dubravka and Marek Rodak are both Premier League goalkeepers. With Dubravka playing starting for Newcastle at the tail end of the season, there hopefully won’t be a repeat of his embarrassing mistake against Spain last tournament. In front of him will be one of the more formidable centre back pairings at the Euros. Milan Skriniar is the famous name, currently plying his trade at PSG, but David Hancko is probably the country’s best player at the moment. Arguably the best player in the Eredivisie this season, Hancko’s performances for Feyenoord earned him the January Player of the Month award and his performances have had Dutch football fans raving all season long.

One benefit Slovakia have is being placed in the weakest group in competition

In midfield, Stanislav Lobotka is one of the few Napoli players who has progressed this season, despite the club putting up the worst Serie A title defence since Torino’s four-in-a-row league winners were all killed in a plane crash in 1949. Lobotka may not be a match winner but he moves the ball quickly and is now an elite level player. Up front, Slovakia are without a prolific scorer, but national team stalwarts Robert Mak and Ondrej Duda may just have enough to propel their team into the knockout stage.

One benefit Slovakia have is being placed in the weakest group in competition. Belgium are beatable and the weakest top seeds, Romania are the weakest team in the whole competition, and Ukraine needed the play-offs to even make it to the tournament. I would back Slovakia to progress beyond the group stage and perhaps pull off a shock result.

Beyond this summer, much hinges on the response to Fico’s attempted assassination. Initially, both sides agreed not to use the event as political ammunition, but members of Fico’s cabinet soon began pointing fingers at the media’s involvement. Should the Right be successful in their positioning as the indomitable force they seek to be perceived as, Hungarian sporting involvement will only increase and Slovakian football could well develop further.

However, should the Slovakian public begin to look left, they would begin to see a strengthening of relations with the Czechs, historically their closest ally following the two country’s many shared years as Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, Russia is a very dangerous country to turn your back on with Vladimir Putin becoming increasingly irrational, and from a purely footballing perspective Slovakia would be less likely to benefit from the fountain of wealth that is the Hungarian sporting investment fund. With the country at its most polarised in years, it is at a crossroads.

What is good for the country may not be what is good for their football.

Image: Вячеслав Евдокимов via Wikimedia Commons

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