By Antun Katalenić
Having recorded their first European away win in a decade, Rangers must be feeling pretty good about themselves as they prepare to host NK Osijek in the return leg of the 2nd qualifying round of this year’s UEFA Europa League. The early goal by Alfredo Morelos proved enough to beat the hosts and put the Light Blues firmly in the driver’s seat before they take on the Blue-Whites at Ibrox on Thursday. But don’t expect the club from the town on the Drava river to be too upset should they get knocked out – NK Osijek are in it for the long haul.
The town of Osijek is the fourth most populous in Croatia after Zagreb, Split and Rijeka. These towns are also home to the only four clubs that have never been relegated from Croatia’s top division since its inaugural 1991-92 season. For NK Osijek that honour was in serious jeopardy in 2014 and 2015 respectively when the club finished just a point above the relegation play-off spot two seasons in a row. The team’s poor performances on the pitch were just the tip of the iceberg though. Under the surface, the club’s finances were crumbling as the town of Osijek and its subsidiaries, who by then were major stakeholders in a debt-ridden NK Osijek, were ready to give up.
As the club’s debt was starting to eat away at the town’s budget, a decision was made to try and sell the team to a private investor. The alternative was following in the footsteps of their current European opponents who went into liquidation back in 2012.
After two unsuccessful attempts at privatisation, an Osijek-born businessman – Ivan Meštrović – along with his wealthier Hungarian partner Lőrinc Mészáros offered to cover most of the debts and take over the club for the symbolic price of 1 kuna (12 pence) per share which translated to the overall price of 2,5 million kunas or roughly 300 thousand pounds.
Why would a Hungarian businessman help a struggling club in a neighbouring country? Well to answer that, we must first learn who Lőrinc Mészáros is and how he went from a small business owner in his hometown of Felcsút to becoming the eighth richest man in Hungary according to Forbes magazine.
When asked about his conspicuously good fortunes back in 2014, Mészáros responded: “That I have been able to reach so far; God, luck and the person of Viktor Orbán have certainly played a role, though I never privatised and I never took anything — I acquired everything through my work and my mind.” To be fair, Hungarian prime minister Orbán deserves most of the credit.
Mészáros’ and Orbán hail from the same village of Felcsút, where Mészáros is the current mayor. They weren’t friends during childhood, rather it was their love of football that brought the pair together later on as Mészáros was put in charge of Orbán’s brainchild, the grandiosely named Puskás Akadémia FC.
Mészáros has acquired great wealth in the past eight years since his buddy has been in office. The far-right Fidesz party makes sure to take care of its allies and Mészáros is certainly one of those. He has been awarded plenty of public tenders in construction and spreads his business empire doing so, not least in the field of media where he took over numerous outlets further shaping the landscape to the government’s liking.
Lőrinc Mészáros is far from the only crony of Orbán’s who’s been heavily investing in Hungarian football at home and abroad. As the clubs’ investors receive significant tax breaks for their contributions, the state also gladly helps them out with infrastructure. NK Osijek is no exception. While Mészáros is promising a new state-of-the-art stadium will be built with private funds, the accompanying football academy is receiving considerable support – up to 6.2 million pounds – from Budapest. Similar financial backing was given to academies in Slovenia, Serbia, Slovakia and Romania where a Hungarian minority can be found.
Osijek is home to around 500 ethnic Hungarians yet, as the biggest town in eastern Croatia, it acts as a cultural centre for the Hungarians who reside in that part of the country. Apart from football, the minorities in Hungary’s neighbouring countries seem to have been the biggest benefactors of the Fidesz rule as Budapest is pumping vast sums into their communities. Viktor Orbán hopes they show their gratitude at the ballot box.
As for Mészáros, the way to get his money back is through creating an academy that will attract talent from Croatia and beyond; and hope for NK Osijek to become an exporter of world class players much like their rivals Dinamo Zagreb. He even turned his hometown club Puskás Akadémia into essentially Osijek’s feeder club. By the looks of it, Mészáros appears to be in it for the long haul. The fans, watching on with cautious optimism, are willing to wait.
Follow Antun on Twitter @AKatalenic