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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Ball Boys Sing the Blues as Tennis Association Sinks into Red

Tennis matters in Hungary. Even if it's not the prime minister's favourite sport, many in the Magyar 'elite' - politicians and captains of business - play, and socialise over the net and off court. Decisions - or the information needed to make them - are frequently the result of such sporting dalliances.

It's also big money. At least it would appear so, given that in May Hungarian media reported that Lajos Szűcs, president of the Hungarian Tennis Association (MTSZ), had asked for Ft 3.5bn in state support to keep his organisation afloat.

Yup, that's no mathematical typo, it's billion, not million.

Ft 3.5bn – which, given that the debt must have been must have been ratcheted up when the forint was valued at more like Ft 300 to the euro (ie much stronger than today) that equates to something between €11 - 12m.

Here's one source for the story, from Index, when that website was unfettered in its reporting.

Now you might be asking how come Szűcs – who's also incidentally a Fidesz MP – how come he's been allowed to overspend so freely.

According to Index, this was a revelation to other board members, all of whom resigned. Er, weren't they watching the goings on?

Szűcs certainly presided over a fast-expanding operation in his nine-year reign. In 2011, the MTSZ employed seven persons and had total outgoings of Ft 110m. By 2017, those numbers had ballooned to 33 employees and a budget of Ft 4bn.

There must have been a few jollies to fund, of course; there's a photo of him at the Queen's Club, Wimbledon in 2019 for example.

But his time in charge was not all jolly for everyone: he appears to have caused a lot of friction among members, including Hungary's top players.

But let's move on. Early in the summer, reports emerged that Kornél Bardóczky, a former Davis Cup player, was the only candidate for the presidential post.

I have no idea if Bardóczky would be suitable or not for the position, but at least he knows how to clear the net and score the odd ace, so he was probably as good a choice as any.

Except, along the way, it seems Prime Minister Viktor Orbán came to hear there was a job available, and he had the perfect candidate for it: his former right hand man János Lázár, who for some reason has otherwise been downgraded to a mere MP status for his home town of Hódmezővásárhely since the 2018 elections.

If Orbán wants, Orbán gets – if not in Brussels, at least in Hungary. Bardóczky's name disappeared from the candidate's list, and Lázár was duly elected last week.

Whether or not he can still clear the net with his first serve, Lázár certainly knows how to spend money: in May 2014, a report on website Origo revealed Lázár had a taste for expensive hotels amounting to around Ft 0.5m for two-night stays in each of Switzerland, London and Italy. That was about €825 a night at the time.

Equally true, he must be a hard worker, able to get things done, because he could not have headed the Prime Minister's Office for four years from 2014 otherwise, so he may, perhaps, be better suited to sorting out the MTSZ than Bardóczky.

As an insider, the latter might well have favours (in terms of jobs) to return to friends who are not necessarily the best for the posts.

Be that as it may, this whole saga raises a gamut of questions: how did big spender Szűcs get elected and get away with his disastrous policies for so long - and still no word of consequences?

And think of the €11 – 12m losses, and hutzpah of the MTSZ in asking for a quick bail out.

Tennis, being a favourite sport of the elite, plus having Lázár as leader, will almost certainly get saved. Think of what that sort of money could do for schools and sports facilities in poor communities, including Roma enclaves, in the provinces – not that they would have the knowledge of how to write a letter to parliament to ask for it.

(The original article included a plea for a quick transfer of the money in order to pay staff monthly salaries. Er, perhaps the MTSZ should consider some quick downsizing, like the rest of us when income is low.)

Then there is the issue of PM Orbán's interference in the appointment of the Association's president.

Really? Doesn't the PM have enough on his plate without having to worry about such positions? Isn't the MTSZ an independent body?

Well, seemingly many such associations and bodies are of great interest to the political leadership.

In his book The Post-Communist Mafia State, former anti-communist dissident and author Bálint Magyar lists 13 assorted bodies, from the Hungarian Ramblers' Association via the Ski Federation to the Hungarian Chess Federation – all of whom are, or were at the time - headed by friends or political associates of the Hungarian prime minister.

(See my review: )

In Hungary, it seems, the control of such disparate and nominally a-political bodies does matter, even to the man at the top

You'd think the prime minister (who, after all, has the country to run), his MPs (ditto their constituencies) – would have better things to do.

For those who speak Hungarian, here's Lajos Szűcs's official website. The news seems to have stopped in May 2017 – presumably the MP has been so busy trying to sort out the Tennis Association since then he's not had time to update it.

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