Invisible money: Hungarian government’s €14 million grant for a soccer academy and stadiums in Vojvodina spent in a non-transparent way
The Hungarian government gave close to 14 million euros to the Vojvodina Sports Academy in 2016 and 2017. Most of the money was channeled to the Topolya Football Club where a new soccer academy was built and the stadium is being reconstructed. We wanted to find out how exactly the money is spent – who is building what and why. But neither the Hungarian side nor the Serbian side gave us any data or documents. The money was lost in an information black hole between the two countries.
The Hungarian government passed a measure about sports financing in December 2016. Based on this decision the sports academy in Vojvodina was given 4.5 billion forints in 2017. The beneficiary of the grant is called Vojvodina Sports Academy, and it is most probably an umbrella organization because no such organization is registered in Serbia.
To understand how the money is spent, we need to understand that there is only one person in Vojvodina who is said to have a direct access to the Hungarian prime minister, and it is not István Pásztor, the president of the VMSZ party (Alliance of Hungarians in Vojvodina) which forged strong ties with the Hungarian government. It is a billionaire from the town of Topolya in Serbia: János Zsemberi.
Zsemberi has become the key figure in the Vojvodina soccer scene and he is the most important person when it comes to deciding how the Hungarian government’s sports grant is spent in the region.
This is true despite that fact that he does not even formally participate in the management of any of the construction or reconstruction projects financed by the 14 million euro grant.
Even though the Vojvodina Sports Academy received the grant, most of the money from was channeled to the football club in Topolya called TSC. The club was registered in 2005 but the history of the team goes back much longer: the first football club in Topolya was established in 1912.
The main sponsor of the team is Topolya businessman János Zsemberi. He is a football lover: he is a member of the board of directors of the Serbian Football Association. He used to be TSC’s president. When he resigned his post, he remained the main sponsor of the team and coordinated the construction of the new stadium.
The Topolya team operated on a very low budget until the Hungarian government decided to support it. The club’s main sources of income were its sponsor and the local municipality. For years, the team competed in the third division. It only had the chance to step higher recently, when in the 2016/17 season two Serbian teams declined to step ahead into the second division, citing financial troubles. The Topolya team finished the 2017/18 season at the 4th place in the second division, which is a historic success for the team.
Information black hole
TSC has been public about the construction of the academy and the works done on the stadium, but it is very hard to get documents and hard data about how the money is spent. We filed a freedom of information request with both their main sponsor and the president of the club. We were asking them to send us the contract between the Hungarian Football League and TSC, the documents and studies from the decision-making process and the list of the contractors working on the stadium. We also asked for a list of expenses until now and a list of planned future costs. Our request was not answered.
The Serbian data protection ombudsman told us that the football club could not be forced to reveal these documents because it was not a state institution and it does not use Serbian taxpayer funds in any way.
We also asked the Hungarian Soccer Association (MLSZ) but they denied our request saying that they are only an intermediary in the grant. The main partner is the National Ministry of Development and the project is managed by the Investment, Technical Development, Sports Management and Public Procurement Zrt (Beruházási, Műszaki Fejlesztési, Sportüzemeltetési és Közbeszerzési Zrt., BMSK). None of these Hungarian agencies replied to our requests for information.
This means that we do not know how the club is using the 14 million euros that it got from the Hungarian state; we can only rely on publicly available data. According to the 2017 balance sheet of the sports club, its budget was 5.4 million euros: this was the year when the football academy’s construction was started and they also began reconstruction works at smaller clubs. This amount is approximately 40 percent of the entire grant to Vojvodina from Hungary. However, 2.6 million euros of the 5.4 million were used in the next year, in 2018. The budget of the Topolya club was much lower in the years before: it was about 14-15 thousand euros.
Orban admits that the key person in the story is Zsemberi
The Topolya football academy was opened by Viktor Orban on September 27, 2018. The Hungarian prime minister said that Topolya was chosen to be the place for the construction because it was the place where he found a ‘brave and determined partner with a wide scope of imagination who took on the task of taking Hungarian sports subsidies into Serbia and using them reasonably.’ He was talking about János Zsemberi.
The reconstruction of the stadium is going to start soon. During the reconstruction works the team will play in Zenta, where the stadium has already been reconstructed.
Among the Hungarian taxpayer grants given to sports clubs in the six neighboring countries, the grant to Vojvodina is by far the highest. Lendva in Slovenia was given 1.3 billion HUF; Eszék in Croatia was given 2 billion; Dunaszerdahely and Révkomárom in Slovakia got 2.2 billion; Munkács in Ukraine got 2.6 billion and Csíkszereda and Sepsiszentgyörgy in Romania got 3.5 billion from the 2016/17 sports grants.
This means that in those two years the Hungarian government gave 16.1 billion forints to sports clubs in neighboring countries.
Written by Virág Gyurkovics (Szabadka)
English version by Anita Kőműves and Gábor Szabó
You can read the original, Hungarian language story here.
This story was supported by the Center for Independent Journalism.
Cover photo: the football academy in Topolya. Photo by Virág Gyurkovics.