Men in black

Hungary’s Carpathian Brigade spread fear during the Euro 2016 in France. Tonight they may see their team lose for the third time in three matches.

By James Montague

I kept my mouth shut and walked forward, looking down at the broken-glass on the floor and avoiding eye contact with anyone around me. Riot police in body armour, bearing truncheons and carrying strange two-foot long canisters full of tear gas, were on the front foot. They expected trouble and formed a wall either side of the wide boulevard, funneling us forward towards Romania’s Arena Națională. A police helicopter hovered above, whipping up the match day detritus from the concrete and creating a mini tornado of glass and dirt. The three thousand or so men – and it was almost all men, dressed in black – marched forward, their chants still audible over the rotor blades:




It was a hot early autumn day in 2013 and a World Cup qualifier was about to take place between Romania and Hungary in the capital Bucharest. At the time I was writing Thirty One Nil, a book about the qualification campaign for Brazil 2014. This match was full of meaning. The two neighbours had a long and complicated history, with its modern roots in the post First World War settlement that carved up the Austro-Hungarian empire. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon redrew borders that saw Hungary lose three quarters of its territory. Millions of ethnic Hungarians were, overnight, assigned to a different country than they were born in.

Romania regained large swaths of Transylvania – where, under Ottoman rule they had a majority, but where over a million ethnic Hungarians still lived today. Communism suppressed any nationalistic fantasies of righting what some Hungarians believed to be historic wrongs, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall, nationalistic grievances became an increasingly potent political force across almost all Eastern European, post communist societies.

The humiliation of the Treaty of Trianon was a core narrative for Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s radical right wing, pro-Putin and increasingly authoritarian government. Orban and his Fidesz party had openly courted Hungary’s “exiled” populations, offering citizenship to millions in Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and beyond, which had caused political friction with his neighbours. Orban is also obsessed with football and made the game a matter of state. But, as is often the case, football has also become the forward operating base for a country’s darkest id. And so Hungary’s fans arrived in Bucharest for their World Cup qualification match, on a train from Budapest painted with images from the country’s glorious footballing past; of Puskas, Kocsis and Czibor.

They arrived at Bucharest Gara de Nord station, hanging out of the train windows with smoke flares and chanting against the țigani, or gipsies, an extremely derogatory phrase in Romania. A stream of skinheads in black t-shirts poured first out of the carriages, clashing with the waiting riot police. Some waved Nazi salutes. Another clip, repeated endlessly on Romanian TV, showed one supporter spitting in the face of a police officer as the crowd was corralled away to somewhere that might, nominally, be safer.

That night Hungarian fans rioted and smashed up the old centre of Bucharest. There was panic on Romanian TV. Who were these people? The next day I found myself walking alongside them, more by accident than design, as they marched under a blazing sun. I kept my mouth shut and tried to blend in. It was, I would later find out, the first, unified international outing for a group of ultras who would terrify those who first encountered them at the 2016 European Championship, and will no doubt provoke the same reaction in Germany this summer.

Congratulations, you’ve just met the Carpathian Brigade.

“Bonjour faggot French”
Officially, the Carpathian Brigade was formed in 2009 as an attempt to generate a patriotic atmosphere for Hungary’s home matches. Although as Hungarian football writer Tomasz Mortimer points out, unofficially Fidesz had met with leading ultra capos and encouraged the group to be formed as a way, he believes, to control rising neo-Nazi sentiment on Hungary’s terraces.

Still, it is rare in the world of supporter culture. Most ultra groups are aggressively and proudly local; supporting the neighbourhood, their city and their region before their country. There are only a few genuinely respected national team ultra groups, often representing countries whose people have settled far from their homelands, and which has generated a more singular and romanticised feeling of home. Amongst them the Tifozat Kuq e Zi (the Red and Black Fans), a sort of international confederation of ethnic Albanian ultras from across Europe. And the Horde Zla (Hordes of Evil) from Bosnia.

“The Bosnians are very organised,” added ‘Gabor’, a member of the Carpathian Brigade who I contact via social media. The group, he said, does not speak to journalists, which is a common position amongst all ultra groups. Journalists are as much part of the establishment, and as much the enemy, as the police. He declined to be interviewed, as they were often asked “boring political questions” but suggested we might speak after the tournament. “There is one fact, that is not secret,” he wrote. “We are a small, closed group, about 30-40 members. Fans usually believe that we are an organisation of thousands of people.”

Around that hardcore of patriotic supporters are a constellation of groups from other clubs, namely Ferencvaros, and their far right ultras group the Green Monsters (to this day they fly a banner that says “Aryan-green”, latter referring to the colour of the team’s shirts the former to the colour of their supremacism). But it wasn’t until Euro 2016, three years after I had first seen them in Bucharest, that they became a truly international phenomenon. It was the Hungarian national team’s first international tournament in decades and the Carpathian Brigade arrived en masse, dressed in black. “I remember how they marched through the French cities and chanted ‘bonjour faggot French’,” recalls Pál Dániel Rényi, a Hungarian journalist and author of Győzelmi Kényszer (Compulsion to Win), a book about Orban’s deep love of football and his political relationship with the game. “It was a debate in Hungary, how frightening that looks. But the team made it to the European Championships for the first time in 30 years, so most tried to ignore it and have a big celebration.”

The author David Goldblatt was in Marseille in 2016 when the Carpathian Brigade arrived before their group game against Iceland. “Suddenly these noise bombs started going off,” he recalled. “It was coming our way. You could just sort of feel it and then you heard the raucous chanting. They went past all wearing black shirts. Man, I was like, who the fuck is this? They looked aggressive, I thought they’d got that down to a fine art. Whereas you literally have 10 percent of the population of Iceland, also in the stadium, doing sort of heartwarming loveliness. It was a really interesting contrast.”

Hungary won the group, and were knocked out of the last 16 by Belgium. But the Carpathian Brigade had become infamous thanks in part to its homogenous look, homophobic chants and occasional acts of violence. More would follow. At Euro 2021 the group displayed anti-LGBT banners and made anti-LGBT chants. They booed players who took the knee against racial justice. A few months later, a game against England ended in violence with players being targeted with racial abuse. When the Hungarian FA were punished by Uefa both Orban and his foreign minister went to great lengths not to criticise the fans, but to admonish Uefa for showing double standards. Orban, who goes to every football match he can, made a pointed decision not to go to the 2-2 draw when Hungary played Germany, because of German criticism of a recent anti-LGBTQ law that was passed in Budapest.

“The Carpathian brigade is a place where far right elements from different hooligan groups from domestic teams come together,” says Michael Colborne, a journalist at Bellingcat who has investigated the far right connections with the group. “I don’t think everybody who’s involved in that large firm is, you know, explicitly part of the far right or even explicitly far right. But we can really be splitting hairs there.” As one representative of the Hungarian neo-Nazi group Legio Hungaria told Bellingcat: “Football fan society is basically nationalist in Hungary, and we are proud of that.”

Hungary’s authorities and government controlled media are loath to criticise the Carpathian Brigade out of fear of losing a vital ally in the ongoing culture war at the heart of current-day Hungarian society. “Fidesz wants to just exploit the aesthetics and pageantry of the Carpathian Brigade for their own purposes, their own propaganda,” said Colborne. “These football matches feed into the propaganda machine, and he [Orban] wants and loves these images of all these mostly men chanting in uniform in unison for the country.”

The power of football
Viktor Orban is perhaps the most football obsessed leader in world politics. Even as he rose to power as a young, idealistic, anti-communist activist, he harboured dreams of playing the game professionally. Even during his first stint as prime minister he was still playing for his semi-professional home town club. There is a story he tells, a possibly apocryphal tale, about having to come off the pitch during a game to take a call from Bill Clinton, who was informing him of NATO’s decision to bomb Belgrade. 

“It is difficult to differentiate the two there because there is nothing else in his life but football and politics,” said Pál Dániel Rényi. “If you ask him about the most important things in life it is football. He was going to be a footballer and I think he still feels tragic about not being a footballer. Even after 1989, when he became a politician, he still had fantasies about being a coach. His grandfather shaped him most, with the legend of Puskas and his generation. He still has the desire to bring back the golden era.”

And like most populists, Orban has always understood the power of football. His government has handed out tens of thousands of Hungarian passports to those ethnic Hungarians whose families (and descendents) were left marooned in neighbouring countries by the Treaty of Trianon more than a hundred years ago. But that policy has gone hand in hand with huge investments in the football teams of ethnic Hungarian communities in Croatia, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia, amongst others, who have often gone on to enjoy success on the pitch. Last season FK TSC, a Serbian team from the small town of Backa Topola, which has a large ethnic Hungarian population, finished second in the league, made the Champions League play offs and eventually qualified for the Europa League group stage.

Orban has also invested millions closer to home, in new stadiums, new academies and the Pancho Arena in his home village of Felcsút. Those projects have been essential in enriching his cadre of oligarchs that help keep him in power, but also useful when it comes to foreign relations. When Israel could not play its home qualifiers for Euro 2026 because of the fallout from the 7 October atrocity, it was Orban who reached out to his fellow right wing populist Benjamin Netanyahu to offer to host the games.

“He funded a  football academy. He has influence in all the teams. He has a stadium in his village in his house. The Puskas academy,” said Pál Dániel Rényi. “He is there all the time. He knows youth academy products by name. That is the only thing that turns him off from politics. There is an unwritten rule about Orban. If you want to maintain a relationship with him you do not speak business at the stadium!”

The Hungarian national team, whilst not quite up to the level of the Golden Generation just yet, is enjoying its best form in years. They will go to the European Championships in Germany confident of getting out of the group stage. Like in 2021, they will play Germany which will likely once again be a flash point. The Carpathian Brigade will of course take centre stage. Orban might even show up for this game. “The two [Carpathian Brigade and the government] share the same view: It is us against the world,” said Pál Dániel Rényi. “We think differently. We know better.  We are not the liberal mainstream. We are patriotic, and anti the LGBTQ way of life. It reflects to how the government spreads their ideas in the country.”

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