By Anita Komuves and Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Thursday said kneeling to protest against discrimination before sporting events was a custom related to slavery and alien to the central European country, adding that pressuring athletes everywhere to follow suit was "provocation."
Hungary, one of 14 host nations to the upcoming Euro 2020 soccer championship, has been ruled for 11 years by hardline nationalist Orban, who has ruffled feathers with his tough anti-immigrant, nativist rhetoric in recent years.
Orban, who faces his toughest election challenge after three successive landslides against a united opposition next year, said Hungarian athletes were expected to "fight standing up".
Hungarian fans booed the visiting Irish team for taking a knee before their recent game in Budapest, which Ireland coach Stephen Kenny said was "incomprehensible".
Orban defended the fans, however.
"If you're a guest in a country then understand its culture and do not provoke it," Orban told a press conference. "Do not provoke the host... We can only see this gesture system from our cultural vantage point as unintelligible, as provocation."
"The fans reacted the way those who are provoked usually react to provocation. They do not always choose the most elegant form (of reaction) but we have to understand their reasons... I agree with the fans."
England manager Gareth Southgate has said his team would not "just stick to football" during Euro 2020 while one of his players said the squad was united in its stance against racial injustice despite jeers from some fans.
Orban said he had no sympathy for "this kneeling business. I don't think this has any place on the pitch. Sport is about other things."
He said the gesture spread as fast as it did because of a guilt that former slave-holding nations feel to the slaves' descendants living amongst them, adding that Hungary never had slavery.
"This is a hard, serious moral burden, but every nation must carry this burden on their own," Orban said. "They need to sort this out themselves."
(Writing by Marton Dunai; Editing by Hugh Lawson)