Israel’s Euro 2024 games in Hungary spotlight far-right bonds
As longtime allies, both Netanyahu and Orbán share a similar approach to populist politics, including overseeing a democratic backsliding in their countries. Now they’re bonding over football.
Welcome to Sports Politika, a newsletter and media platform focused on the intersection of sports, power and politics. This newsletter was founded by investigative journalist and researcher Karim Zidan and relies on the support of readers.
If you have not done so already, please consider becoming a paid subscriber.
As Israel continues to wage war on Gaza through relentless airstrikes—a war that have led to more than 11,000 deaths, two-thirds of which are women and children, and the displacement of approximately 70% of Gaza’s 2m population—Israel’s national football team is attempting to qualify for its first ever appearance at the UEFA European Championship.
Israel played its first of four Euro 2024 qualifying matches on Sunday in Kosovo, with local police stationed at the security perimeter and the audience banned from carrying “unauthorized or dangerous items.” Kosovo police also banned pro-Palestine rallies ahead of the match, which led to calls for a boycott of the match.
The match had originally been scheduled to take place on Oct. 15 but was postponed following Hamas’ incursion into Israel on Oct. 7, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1400 Israeli citizens and led to the outbreak of the war. At the rescheduled match, Israel was booed during the national anthem and the team went on to lose 1-0.
“Our country is more important than football,” Israel coach Alon Hazan told reporters after the match. “We cannot separate the war from us. But we have to play football and we want to represent our country very well.”
Given the ongoing war, Israel’s upcoming home games against Switzerland (Nov. 15) and Romania (Nov. 18) will take place in Hungary, emphasizing the close relationship between Israel and Hungary’s far-right governments, especially through their respective prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Viktor Orbán.
As longtime allies, both Netanyahu and Orbán share a similar approach to populist politics, including overseeing the democratic backsliding in their respective countries.
Hungary has witnessed the continued erosion of its democratic institutions under Orbán, leading the European Union to file numerous legal procedures against the government for its treatment of LGBTQ+ peoples, which included placing restrictions on LGBTQ+ content under the guise of protecting children. There are also concerns abut Hungary’s migrant and asylum seekers policies, including reports that border officials had carried out over 90,000 unlawful pushbacks to Serbia between January-August 2022.
Orbán has positioned himself as a champion of supposedly traditional Christian values, which has made him popular with the American right. The Hungarian president received an invitation to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas last year, where he gave a speech railing against immigration, globalism and trans rights, describing an ideological “battle for Western civilization.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has spent the better part of the last year attempting to instigate a judicial overhaul in Israel that would remove the power of the Supreme Court (and lower courts) to overturn or cancel government decisions. Critics say the reforms will shield Netanyahu from ongoing charges of alleged corruption, and destroy the only tool for keeping the government’s use of its powers in check.
Netanyahu also leads Israel’s most far-right and religious government to date. The coalition government comprises two ultra-Orthodox parties and three far-right parties, one of which is the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party. Prior to the ongoing war, Israel’s government approved plans for thousands of new illegal settlement homes in the occupied West Bank, defying international law and U.S. criticism.
Several officials in Israel’s far-right coalition have also expressed aspirations of ethnic cleansing and Jewish supremacy, encouraging tensions and more violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Amidst the ongoing war, Israel’s far-right minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir has loosened gun regulations, making it easier for Israelis to acquire firearms. He is also reportedly establishing volunteer civilian squads and arming private militias.
While there are plenty of similarities between Netanyahu and Orbán’s governments, their close relationship still comes as a surprise to some given the Hungarian government’s extensive propaganda campaign targeting Jewish billionaire George Soros—a campaign that Soros himself deemed to be “antisemitic tropes reminiscent of the 1930s.”
Yet despite claims of antisemitism, this anti-Soros campaign suited Netanyahu, who holds the view that Soros and his organizations have been funding the Palestinian cause, and has accused the billionaire of supporting antisemites himself.
This view became even more apparent in January 2023, when Netanyahu’s son, Yair, spoke at a media conference in Hungary, where he slammed the “global elite,” claimed that Israel’s media is controlled by radical leftists, and insisted that Orbàn’s anti-Soros campaign was not antisemitic.
Hungary’s antisemitism problem extends beyond its treatment of the Hungarian-born billionaire. While Orbán has claimed that Hungary is the safest place in Europe for Jewish people, a survey from May 2023 suggests that over 37% of the people polled in Hungary have “extensive” antisemitic beliefs. There have also been several cases of Hungarian officials revising Holocaust narratives and celebrating Nazi collaborators.
In September 2023, a senior Hungarian government minister attended a memorial ceremony for Admiral Miklos Horthy, a notorious Nazi collaborator whom the minister referred to as a “true patriot.” The comments drew condemnation from Israel’s embassy in Budapest, as well as from Washington. Netanyahu, however, remained silent on the incident.
Nevertheless, Orbán’s love of football and his close relationship with Netanyahu played a pivotal role in luring Israel’s team to play their upcoming games in Hungary.
“We have a very good combination of personal connections and relations (and) sheer love of sports and football in the Hungarian government,” Israel’s ambassador to Hungary Yacov Hadas-Handelsman told The Associated Press.
The enduring alliance between Netanyahu, Orbán, and their far-right governments underscores the hypocrisy of populist foreign policy, where genuine concerns are sacrificed in favor of partnerships against perceived political adversaries. In this instance, Netanyahu favors a fascist ally, who gained popularity by targeting a Jewish billionaire and destabilizing Hungary's democracy, in the name of finding a “true friend of Israel.”
Sports Politika is a newsletter about the intersection of sports, power and politics. If you like what you see, upgrade to a paid subscription ( or gift a subscription if you already have your own). We would appreciate if you could also like the post and let us know what you think in the comment section below.