BUDAPEST: Hungarian fans wave their national flag behind a banner which reads “Orok igazsag (Eternal truth)” during the friendly football match Hungary v Cyprus in Budapest on Friday, in preparation for the UEFA European Championships. – AFP

BUDAPEST: Excitement is building in Budapest, the only Euro 2020 venue without COVID-19 attendance limits, with thronged stands expected for Hungary’s first ever hosting of a major tournament despite concerns it could trigger a fourth wave of the virus. Two of Hungary’s group matches, versus title holders Portugal on June 15 and world champions France on June 19, will be played at the 68,000-capacity Puskas Arena. The new stadium, opened in 2019 but mostly empty since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, will also see France play Portugal on June 23 and a last-16 tie on June 27.

“Hungarians are really looking forward to hosting a tournament like this, and in a modern national stadium,” said Gyorgy Szollosi, editor-in-chief of the Nemzeti Sport daily newspaper. “It is a liberation not only from the virus crisis but also from a half century of problems in Hungarian football,” he told AFP.

Football fever
The last tranche of tickets made available to Hungary fans were snapped up within two hours of going on sale on UEFA’s website in April. During Hungary’s distant glory years in the 1950s and 1960s “there was no chance for the supporters to follow the team,” said Szollosi.

“Then after the communist-era Iron Curtain was lifted in 1989 and the borders were opened Hungary didn’t qualify for big tournaments,” he said. When the Magyars finally made it to a European Championship in 2016 — their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup — tens of thousands of Hungarians followed their team to host nation France.

“After 500 days we can at last return to the stands,” said a statement by the “Carpathian Brigade” ultras group that supports the national team, referring to Hungary’s closed-doors games since the pandemic began. The group organized matchday marches through cities like Marseille at Euro 2016, and promises “spectacular” ultra-choreography at the Hungary ties. Raucous home support could also help the team challenge its formidable Group F opponents, according to fans on the group’s Facebook page. “We will be there,” said many comments.

The Hungarian football federation (MLSZ) says fans will only be allowed to enter the Puskas Arena if they can prove they have been vaccinated with an “immunity certificate” while foreigners will have to show a negative PCR test. According to the government, Hungary’s swift vaccine rollout, partly thanks to its use of Chinese and Russian vaccines alone among EU members, means the games will be safe.

With over half of the adult population having received a first vaccine dose Hungary is the “safest country in Europe” said Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose favorite sport is football. “We have beaten the third wave,” he said while announcing the lifting of most restrictions last month.

Calculated risk
But some government critics are alarmed at the prospect of full houses at Euro 2020. Hungary was hit with one of the highest death rates in the world in March and April, which threatened to overwhelm hospitals. Although new infections have since dramatically fallen, Gabriella Lantos, a health expert with an opposition party, still says that packing fans into the Puskas Arena is “irresponsible”, particularly as fan numbers will be restricted at other Euro 2020 venues.

“We are still not yet at herd immunity in Hungary, while the appearance of the variant (identified for the first time in India) could spark a fourth wave,” she told AFP. A year before a general election that is expected to be a tight race, Lantos says Orban wants “to make people forget about the pandemic and the deaths”.

According to Peter Bernau, a sports journalist with the Nepszava newspaper, the immunity cards do not prove that the holder is fully immune, while physical distancing will be impossible in a packed stadium. “68,000 lives could be in danger at each game,” he wrote. Similar worries were voiced last September when Budapest hosted the Super Cup between Sevilla and Bayern Munich where attendance was limited to 20,000 fans. Critics accused UEFA and Budapest of conducting a “human experiment” although the squads and visiting fans were strictly cocooned from the general public.

This time, Hungary’s decision is “a calculated risk” according to Gergely Marosi, a football journalist in Budapest. “There is little sign that the danger will be large, but then again there haven’t been full stadia before,” Marosi told AFP. – AFP