BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The deafening roar at the Puskas Arena in Budapest will have been music to the ears of football fans around the world, as a full house of 67,000 fans watched Hungary take on Portugal in their European Championship opener on Tuesday.
Empty or only partly full stadiums have become the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, often creating a sterile atmosphere for players and viewers alike.
But the Hungarian government has bucked the trend, allowing a full-capacity crowd at the newly built arena, at the behest of football-mad Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The populist Orban, in power since 2010 but facing a unified opposition in tough elections next April, has relaxed social distancing regulations to allow fans to sit side-by-side.
He is seeking to make the most of Hungary's moment in the football spotlight with the hosting of four Euro 2020 matches at the Puskas Arena, all likely to be sold out as Hungarians lap up the chance to view live football.
Whatever the reasons, though, it made for a raucous atmosphere and gave a definite lift to the home side against their more fancied opponents, the reigning European champions.
Every touch of the ball anywhere near the Portugal box was met with loud cheers, while the whistles rang out whenever the visitors were on the ball.
Hungary has rapidly rolled out COVID-19 vaccines, partly thanks to being the only EU country to have approved and deployed Russian and Chinese shots before the European Medicines Agency has approved them.
It has weathered a second wave of the virus, with new cases averaging 100 to 200 in the last week, having at one point had the world’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people based on Johns Hopkins University data.
Fans were able to gain entry to the stadium if they showed certification that they had been vaccinated against the virus, while entry times at the gates were staggered to try to keep large groups apart outside the venue.
(Writing by Nick Said; Editing by Hugh Lawson)
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