On the face of it there was nothing unusual when, in October 2018, Viktor Orban attended the opening ceremony of a rural town’s new football academy. Hungary’s prime minister has long pumped vast amounts of money into his favourite sport, modernising its infrastructure while other elements of the government’s activity regress deeper into authoritarianism, and he was present to see the fruits of another new project. Orban watched a tournament between under-14 teams at the €9.5m facility, staying long enough to hand the winners their trophy.
The twist: Orban was in a different country. He was visiting Backa Topola, a small town in northern Serbia nearly 30 miles from the border with Hungary, to show his backing for its local side TSC. The surrounding region, Vojvodina, contains nearly 185,000 ethnic Hungarians and many are eligible to apply for citizenship, voting in the country’s elections. At the last count they made up 58% of the club’s surrounding municipality.
TSC had recently been promoted to Serbia’s second tier at the time of Orban’s ribbon-cutting. They have barely stopped rising since. It is one of the continent’s most startling success stories: last season they broke up the near-permanent duopoly of the Belgrade giants Red Star and Partizan, finishing second in the SuperLiga, and after seven games they sit top of the 2023-24 table. On Thursday they will face West Ham at the London Stadium, kicking off a Europa League group stage campaign that would have been unthinkable at most points in their 110-year history.
West Ham are overwhelming favourites but unpicking TSC’s identity may be less straightforward. “This is a Serbian club helped by Hungarians to reach this level where we are now,” says the TSC president, Janos Zsemberi. “The Hungarian government assisted us, and we have their support because of the Hungarian community living here and nearby. But we are a Serbian club.”
Zsemberi, a wealthy businessman, was pivotal to TSC’s rebirth in 2013. They had, under various different prefixes, been a competent presence in Yugoslavia’s second and third divisions, but fell into disrepair during the early 2000s while named AIK. The relationship with Hungary’s political elite was partly brokered by the late Ferenc Arok, a former Australia national team coach who was born in the area and became Orban’s football adviser. TSC are now sponsored by the Hungarian oil and gas multinational MOL; their academy was part-funded by Hungary’s FA and a wider modernisation has come with a cash injection of about €30m.
It is a figure confirmed unabashedly by Zsemberi, who points to the smart but tiny TSC Arena that was completed two years ago with about half those funds. There is no doubt they have used the money cleverly: their impressive young manager, Zarko Lazetic, has built on the work of Zoltan Sabo, who died in December 2020 after taking TSC to their first Europa League qualifiers, and the club’s work is a picture of clarity in a Serbian football scene that tends towards the chaotic and corrupt. “We love to learn from others,” Zsemberi says. “When someone wants to learn how to become better, then it is easy. But the problem here in Serbia is that few people want to learn new things.”
They have plenty of brains to pick. TSC work closely with Puskas Academy, a lavish project based across the border in Orban’s childhood village, Felcsut, that has its own successful senior team, and the network extends more widely. Serbia is not the only country with large Hungarian pockets: there are greater numbers in Slovakia and Romania, where similar heavily funded football projects have sprung up in such communities.
Hard borders offer little resistance to soft power. The Transylvanian club Sepsi has been heavily financed by the Hungarian government and companies from the country; having risen through the system since its creation in 2011, they have won the past two Romanian Cups and narrowly failed to reach this season’s Conference League group stage. DAC Dunajska Streda, a hitherto unremarkable club to the south-east of Bratislava in Slovakia, have become consistent title challengers after nearly a decade’s involvement with Oszkar Vilagi, the deputy CEO of MOL and a close Orban associate.
The more established Croatian club Osijek returned to European competition after Lorinc Meszaros, an oligarch who heads up the Puskas Academy’s operations, entered the picture in 2016 and spent heavily. A slew of other, less prominent clubs and academies abroad also benefit from Hungarian assistance.
“We all receive money from the same sources, so we know each other from those meetings,” Zsemberi says. “Our coaches and players share experiences and always can hear and see something different. I love that kind of cooperation, and I hope we will improve it more and more.” It is not multi-club ownership but the common links are inescapable. Some of the benefits for Orban are clear: in creating gleaming, efficient football facilities and structures that have few rivals regionally, Hungarian nationalism and economic influence among its ethnic communities become dramatically more pronounced. But the amount of money in effect being sent abroad by his own country’s taxpayers, at a time when satisfaction with public services is low, has not necessarily escaped attention back home.
The arrivistes’ success inevitably inflames local tensions. In Romania, a match between Sepsi and Universitatea Craiova last January was abandoned because of anti-Hungarian chants from the visiting fans. TSC have not been immune either. “A couple of times I heard rival fans at away games screaming at us: ‘Hungarians, Hungarians,’” says Nenad Lukic, whose goals fired them into Europe before he moved to Honved and his current club, Changchun Yatai. “But no one was bothered about that. We didn’t pay attention to those idiots.”
The broader sense is that, certainly in comparison with their peers elsewhere, TSC are viewed favourably within Serbia. In a country where pitches and stadiums are poorly tended, clubs underfunded and players often not paid on time, they point the way to those seeking a route out of seemingly terminal decay. “People recognise a healthy sports project in which the club president invests lots of money and energy,” Lukic says.
Orban and his partners have struck a chord, giving success-starved areas something they want. “I know there are some Serbs who say they don’t want to support TSC because it’s financed by the Hungarian government,” says Djordje Lakic, a TSC fan since the lower-division days and a former footballer. “But I always ask them why no one from Serbia did that before. Why they, as local Serbs, didn’t organise themselves and get some money to help the club. They had plenty of time.”
Perhaps that is true, although they would not have shared Orban’s political imperative. For now, TSC present a bridge between two countries that have forged stronger political ties under Orban and Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, confirming a strategic partnership last year. This season’s squad is overwhelmingly composed of ethnic Serbs, and Serbian is the language spoken during the working day.
Few expect TSC, who were soundly beaten by Braga in the Champions League playoffs, to make a dent on a group that also includes Olympiakos and Freiburg. But Lazetic’s team play bold, slick attacking football and have the capacity to pose questions.
Zsemberi has a swift answer to another; one that has little precedent on this stage. When TSC line up opposite West Ham, will they be representing Serbia or Hungary? “Both countries,” he replies. “We have invited both the Serbian and Hungarian ambassadors to be our guests in London, and they said they will come. Our country, now, is Serbia-Hungary.”
Additional reporting by Jovan Terzic