Instantly after the event the chairman of the Referees' Committee of the Slovak Football Association (SZLSZ - Szlovák Labdarúgó Szövetség) admitted that they were all mistaken, especially the referees in the VAR-room. The tensions gathered around the abolished penalty kick, the built pressure from the 12 000 Hungarians who pilgrimized to the venue, the security service who intervened in the fight that was started to unfold among the players, and the carefully built barricades between the two chanting camps. A rather extreme view for an outsider but not so rare when Slovakian and Hungarian football teams get together.
It may be worth thinking of the underlying causes of the relations and whether these disputes pose a more serious threat to the country or its inhabitants as well. The Hungarian minority question has been a complex and evolving issue that appears in several fields in the everyday life of citizens, for instance in education, language use, or cultural interactions. Slovakia is home to a sizeable Hungarian minority. In the population census 2021 (most recent) 422 065 citizens identified themselves as primarily Hungarian. Despite the sharp decline since the Trianon Treaty was signed (890 000 Hungarian), the pressure of ethnic “otherness” did not ease completely and there have been many atrocities publicly ever since.
This essay principally focuses on the phenomena occurring within the walls of stadiums. In recent years there have been several attempts from the side of policymakers to reshape the frames and organizational surroundings of football matches, sometimes at the expense of the Hungarian ethnic-based teams. In this paper, these actions of precaution are to be examined whether they were brought into existence to serve security measures or something else. Whether these events are carrying a real risk and threat to the coexistence of the minorities and did the severity of them increased or decreased over time.
The Intensity of National Rivalries Applied to Football
Sports are one of the strongest and most popular forms of national performance in today’s world as it can stoke up rivalries between nations, groups no matter if its ethnic or regional. Even through the storms of history, sport has been a gap between private and public worlds. As E. J. Hobsbawm phrased: “Between the wars sport as a mass spectacle was transformed into the unending succession of gladiatorial contests between persons and teams symbolizing state-nations, which is today part of global life”. There is also an identity that can be built up around a football team. Having its key features like identification (name), its ancestry (heritage and what it stands for), history (its heroes and traitors, glorious victories and tragic defeats), culture (chants, colors, songs), homeland (city, region, stadium), and the common sense of togetherness and solidarity. This concept of identity is built on the model of Hutchinson and Smith that was originally adopted for ethnic identities.
In the case of the football club of Dunaszerdahely (Dunajska Streda) every item draws strong strings between the team and its fans and them collectively to Hungary being their previous homeland. Especially in the light of its historical background and today’s symbolic significance the power of identity can accelerate within its member stakeholders.
According to Domwski one of the most common rivalries existing among football teams is among native citizens vs. legally recognized minorities because the matches often involved ethnopolitical context. In the times of the Soviet Union, ethnic and nationalistic sentiments were often notably expressed in these events, especially in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia for example. In the latter, it even developed into a symbolic spark that put into motion the state’s collapse.
The question is whether these phenomena go beyond a border and are considered as a security threat? The matches themselves are not inherently a national security threat. However, certain circumstances surrounding football matches can potentially pose security challenges and risks. For example, these can be hooliganism and violence, terrorism and targeted attacks, crowd control and safety measures, political protests, and unrest.
What has to be taken under examination is that in recent times in Slovakia, there have been changes in the regulatory system and considered changes which served supposedly security purposes. However, were these serving national interests or were they just examples of securitization or legal ways of oppressing minorities?
The Battles of Felvidék and its Armies
What is considered to be aggressive behavior mostly appears in the form of one of the following items: spectators penetrating at the matches, conflicts both verbally and physically, throwing objects to the field and each other, and manifestation of disorder, vandalism, or occasionally extremism.
According to Smolik, in the Visegrád countries, there is a serious increase in the number of incidents in the last 20 years. Few existing hooligan groups in Slovakia often appear at matches of SK Slovan Bratislava, FC Spartak, and a few others. Other games also displayed actions of isolated spectator violence when the Slovakian national team played in the UEFA Cup and the opponent, Hungary, and once England was attacked. Various provocations have also been recorded such as racism, xenophobia, and national chauvinism. However, these groups are undergoing a generational shift and the future of them is hard to predict right now.
Hungarian fans following the frames of the Italian model developed groups, the so-called “ultras”. They usually form strong relationships with the top management of the clubs and often receive funding.
An important clash of football teams happened on the 1st of November 2008 as part of the Slovakian premier league. The earlier mentioned DAC Dunaszerdahely (Dunajska Streda) and Slovan Bratislava were the opponents. On both sides, ultras showed up in force. The events of hooliganism, ethnic intolerance, and political extremism led to serious consequences. 31 people were taken to the police station, paramedics had to assist around 50 people and thousands of policemen took part in it. Hungarians were deeply astonished by the events and the actions of the police to the extent that even the Prime Minister of Hungary, Ferenc Gyurcsány declared his disagreement and claimed that the taken actions were disproportionate. The Slovakian side rejected the accusations. It is worth mentioning that in 2006 and 2007 many diplomatic misunderstandings arose revolving around the circumstances and rights of Hungarian minorities living in Slovakia; therefore a peak of social and ethnic tensions was already providing a basis for the escalation.
Still, at this point, the provocations and implications did not seem to end. Hungarian political formulations (Jobbik, Magyar Gárda) were also involved in the provocations and the incident had a serious spillover effect on politics. Many influential political figures made pronouncements (Prime Ministers, ministers, Chairmans etc.). Conflicts of vandalism like painted signs over certain municipalities and the appearance of the Hungarian Guard in National Guard uniforms (Nemzeti Őrsereg) occurred after the football match. In front of the Slovakian Embassy of Budapest, 100-400 members of the Hungarian Guard and football hooligans gathered. As the police presence eliminated the possibility of physical escalation, symbolic provocation still happened in the form of burning Slovakian flags and chanting. Even the border crossings were blocked. These connotations no doubt are considered to be security issues.
This incident is a bigger milestone among the unpleasant encounters of football matches between the two nations which at times led to politicization or securitization.
However, the position of DAC is unprecedented in Slovakian football. Club owner, Világi Oszkár after the match played on the 7th of May (2023) noted: “In Dunaszerdahely, people go to football matches because they love it and they hold on because they trust that it will end one day. There are fewer spectators in other stadiums - not because they don't like football, but because they have given up hope” and added “altogether 12 thousand spectators and additional hundred thousand spectators accompanied with attention the match of DAC and Slovan”.
The games of DAC are rooks of nationalistic declarations and strengthening forces of Hungarian belonging. Its biggest rivalries are Slovan Bratislava and Spartak Trnava. Fans are streaming into the MOL Arena carrying Hungarian symbols everywhere. Outlines of Greater Hungary and slogans like “Voltunk, Vagyunk, Leszünk” (We have been, We are, We will be) are rather common.
A big issue Világi Oszkár highlighted is racism. According to him, there is no football match without insults. The most common one is: „bi a bi Maďara do hlavy” (crack the Hungarians’ head). The peculiar thing is that SZLSZ approved the use of this slogan claiming it as a part of Slovakian folklore. Slovakians innately see a threat in the gathered crowd which sings “Nélküled” each year as one.
The song is repeated each year as children walk around in the stadium and sing the song that is so meaningful and profoundly touching to Hungarians. It is crystal clear where their nationalistic allegiances lie.
Allegations and suspicion
Many Slovakians spectate the successes of DAC with suspicion, and it is also not a secret, that the club receives significant support in the forms of funding from the Hungarian government. Hungary’s largest multinational company, the MOL Group also made serious contributions which are evidently visible in the recently built Arena for example. Similar ethnic Hungarian teams in Serbia and Romania also get financial support through legal channels of investments.
Romania claims that it is going against European Union law and is discriminatory although, this was not confirmed by the European Commission. However, they did say that: The respect of the rights of persons belonging to minorities is one of the founding values of the European Union and is a principle explicitly mentioned in the Treaty on European Union. Any discrimination based on ethnic origin or membership of a national minority is explicitly prohibited.
Despite this failed attempt to stop the streams of support, Slovakians initiated an investigation. Investigative reporter Roman Cuprik was asked to do the job by the largest news portal in the country, SME. Nonetheless, there were no signs of anything illegal or possible abuse of funds. What can be drawn as a conclusion is that targeted investigation is only commenced if the assumption of neglecting the law stands. Breaking the law furthermore means the assumption of someone is a threat to society or exploiting its members.
The Criminalization of the Hungarian National Anthem
In the year of 2019, on March 27 the Slovak National Party pushed through an amendment to the law on state symbols at the National Council of the Slovak Republic. In the Slovak media, the only thing that has been presented about this law is that it is about enshrining the protection of the national emblem on Slovak sportswear. The amendment also included a provision in the case that any natural or legal person who commits this “crime” and allows themselves to sing the national anthem of another country is to be fined. It imposes a value of 7,000 euros for singing the anthem with the exception of official foreign delegations. The legislation should have entered into force on 15 May.
While the law was initially proposed by the nationalist junior coalition partner, the Slovak National Party (SNS), under the pretext of protecting Slovak state symbols, critics argue that it specifically targets Hungarians.
During the discussion of the bill, Ondrej Dostál, who is part of the SaS parliamentary group argued the rigidness of the proposed legislation. Dusan Tittel’s (SNS) response was the following: Dostal has probably never been to a football match at the MOL Arena, "I would recommend you to go to a match in Dunaszerdahely, I would be happy to go with you when the 9,000 DAC fans sing the Hungarian anthem... We can try it, and I don't know if it will make you feel good."
This comment without leaving doubts demonstrates the root cause of why some parties want to pass the legislation. It is often referred to as lex DAC also for that reason.
The legislation stirred enormous outrage. Public interviews gathered the opinions of Hungarian fans on the upcoming legislation. As Világi Oszkár also claimed: they will keep on singing the Hungarian anthem even if it comes with a price. In that case, they will pay its price.
Not long after entering into force, the amendment to the law on emblems was adopted by the legislature in a fast-track procedure, which means that the criminalization of the singing of anthems should not be an issue.
Still, this case shows that with the right political support behind it, Slovakia can enforce such laws which significantly constrain the actions of minorities to perform manifestation of national identity. Often Slovak political parties (in this case the SNS) use these motions to create political momentum for themselves.
This case hauntingly represents securitization in the context of politics. The definition refers to the process by which politicians or governments frame certain issues or policies as security threats in order to justify measures or actions. In this case, the justification of attempting to oppress minority behavior happened implicitly.
Other measures towards ensuring security were implemented throughout the past 20 years. This trajectory of respecting sportsmanship is also among the major guidelines of the UEFA and other international football leagues. They highlighted the importance of safety and security of the game which plays a crucial role in its future. This approach includes anti-racism (suspension or else), zero tolerance, effective partnerships with police and authorities, and collective effort.
The politicization of security has significantly transformed the perception of security threats and the intended recipients of social control.
An interesting development can be observed where the processes have contributed to the redefinition of approaches, especially in terms of police cooperation. It is noteworthy that this approach had already been given priority in the counter-hooliganism policy put forth by the authors of the 1985 European Convention and then embraced by UEFA officials. Not only did these actors exert substantial influence in terms of quantity, but they also aimed to reshape the nature of cooperation. Their impact transcended conventional police collaboration as new forms of collaboration emerged over time, operating both at the national and international levels.
Observing some of the cases in the recent past, this rethought approach of increased priority of local cooperations can be perceived. In 2017, the organizer of the football match between SK Slovan Bratislava and DAC Dunajska Streda held in Bratislava’s Pasienky stadium identified the sport event as risky, therefore security measures will involve members of the riot police, traffic police, and criminal police. Citizens were asked to respect instructions and obey top security measures. The aim was to ensure public order, and protection of life, health and property of inhabitants and spectators.
Another example can be the match between DAC and FCSB Bucharest in 2022. The police of Dunajska Streda have taken several measures and asked fans of both teams to refrain from unsportsmanlike behavior. “As the match is marked as a risky one, the penalties for troublemakers are doubled, the maximum amount being 1,000 euros in block proceedings," said Mária Linkešová, regional police spokeswoman.
These restrictions have become a common feature of DAC matches and can be considered justified given past and present riots and hooligan behavior. According to reports from participants, from the latest Slovan - DAC match held on 7 May, the two sets of supporters would not even have a chance to get into a physical altercation for the reason that they were so isolated from each other. In assessment, these restrictions serve fully the safety of players and spectators as well as providing the flow of unbothered traffic and urban life.
The matches themselves are not inherently a national security threat. However, certain circumstances surrounding football matches can potentially pose security challenges and risks as these spillover effects to politics and ethnic relations were experienced in the past. However, the quantitative and qualitative manifestation of these phenomena significantly decreased.
Overt conflicts are rare, and the security measures introduced play a big role in reducing these, which are a real responsibility for the cause and not a meaning to restrict minority movements or the exercise of national identity. However, attempts to decrease self-expression in the name of protecting Slovakian symbols, as it was in the forms of banning foreign symbols and anthems were questionable. Evidently, these do not impose a threat on national security even if it is announced like that.
Generally speaking, these riots do not have a vital impact on the daily coexistence of society and minorities. The mass attendance at DAC matches is more a way of commemorating tradition and maintaining common bonds than an open protest.
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