Hungarian National Football Team: A Year of Unexpected Highs and Disappointing Lows
By Gergo Varga
As the European World Cup qualifiers group stage came to an end last week, let’s look back at the highs and lows of a very eventful year in the history of the Hungarian national football team. This nation once had one of the best national teams in the world, including the likes of the legendary Ferenc Puskas in their ranks but has since been starved of glory for decades.
By Gergo Varga
The unexpected highs
Let’s roll the clock back to the 12th of November 2020, when Hungary faced Iceland in the final of the play off stage to qualify for Euro 2020. The game was played behind closed doors in the new Puskas Arena due to the restrictions at the time. Iceland took the lead early on through a Gylfi Sigurdsson free kick. However, for the delight of the Hungarian faithful, their national team refused to give up and turned the game around in the most dramatic fashion. Loic Nego equalised in the 88th minute before Dominik Szoboszlai scored the winner in added time to book a place for their nation at the Euros for the second time in a row. All the tough times that were caused by the pandemic were forgotten for a few ours, as a whole nation was sent into jubilation in front of their screens by eleven men on a football pitch.
Only six days later, Marco Rossi’s men were jubilant again at the same venue, this time against Turkey. The 2-0 win meant that Hungary topped their group in Division B of the Nations League ahead of Russia, Serbia, and Turkey. An outcome of which even the most ambitious Hungarian supporters wouldn’t have dreamt of. But once again, this group of players made a whole nation proud again.
One week after qualifying for the top Division of the Nations League, the World Cup 2022 qualifiers started. Hungary was drawn against England, Poland, Albania, San Marino, and Andorra. A difficult group with a couple of big names, however, after the performances of the past months expectations among the fans started to rise. The first game was played against Poland in Budapest which produced a thrilling three all draw. Although initially the fans would’ve taken this result against a good Poland side, Hungary were 2-0 and 3-2 up during the game which made it more disappointing. Unfortunately, some aspects of the match were reminiscing of Hungary’s past decades of mediocracy when they were unable to hold onto a lead every time when it mattered. The next two games that followed were routine victories against San Marino and Andorra. For the first time in a long time, Hungary had a team which could really challenge for that 2nd spot in the group.
Three months after their last competitive international game, Hungary started their journey at the Euros where they were drawn against Germany, France, and Portugal. Although initially the chance of even getting a point form these three opponents was unlikely, qualifying for the tournament was already a dream come true for players and fans alike. Citizens of the country have always dreamt of a chance of watching their nation compete in this tournament on home soil. This dream was realised by 60 plus thousand fans inside the Puskas Arena on the 15th of June. Budapest was one of the hosting cities of Euro 2020 and the only venue at the start of the tournament which allowed full capacity.
The crowd was sent into delirium in the second half, only for Szabolcs Schon’s goal to be ruled out for offside. The Magyars put up a great fight for most of the game against a Portugal side stacked with superstars. However, in the last 10 mins of the game the difference became evident, and Portugal won the match 3-0. Hungary played France next in front of amazing support again in Budapest, and for everyone’s surprise Atilla Fiola put them 1-0 up in the first half. France’s increased pressure paid off in the second half, as Griezmann’s goal put the World Cup holders level. The game ended 1-1, and Hungary earned a draw which felt like victory for their nation.
Due to the results of the other games in the group, astonishingly Hungary still had a chance of making it out of the “group of death.” Although for that to happen, they would’ve had to take all three points from Germany in Munich. The travelling supporters were in dreamland twice during the game, as Hungary lead the Germans 1-0 and 2-1, but Goretzka’s late equaliser meant it was not enough for them to progress to the round of 16. Nevertheless, the team made a whole nation proud again by demonstrating that with heart, desire, and relentless teamwork they can compete against the best in the world. We are only left to wonder what could’ve been if Hungary’s biggest talent Dominik Szoboszlai wasn’t forced to miss the tournament through injury.
The disappointing lows
Following the unexpected highs of tasting Nations League glory in Division B and seeing their countrymen perform well above the expectations against three of the world’s best national teams, Hungarian supporters were slapped back to reality when the World Cup qualifiers resumed in September.
Expectations were understandably higher than usual against a quality side like England after the performances shown at the Euros against similar opponents. However, the match turned out to be a reality check, as England scored four in the second half and took all three points comfortably from Budapest. The behaviour of a select few Hungarian supporters also very disappointing and unacceptable.
Up next was a must win game against Albania away. However, thanks to a very lacklustre performance, which was not seen from this Hungarian team for months, Albania won the match 1-0. The result was a historic low for the national team, as they have never lost or even conceded a goal against the Albanians before. The match was a good demonstration of when Hungary are not the underdogs, and the pressure is on them in a must win game, they look lost and out of ideas. The last result of the September international break was a 2-1 victory against Andorra on home turf, but the performance had no aspects to gloat about.
The slim chances that remained in hope of reaching the play-off stage of the World Cup qualifiers were shattered when Broja scored the only goal in Budapest to gain another historic win for Albania over Hungary. The unacceptable behaviour of a select few fans against England as mentioned, took its toll in this game. The match was played behind closed doors and Hungary couldn’t rely on the backing of the fans’ support which was clearly a disadvantage in such an important fixture.
The defeat meant that the remaining three games of the qualifiers had no real meaning. The three results included a 1-1 draw at Wembley against England, a 4-0 win over San Marino in Budapest and a 2-1 win in Warsaw against Poland.
The admirable away results against England and Poland once again demonstrated that Hungary found a way to perform above the expectations when they are the underdogs and there is no real pressure on them to get a result. The new task for Marco Rossi and his coaching staff now should be to get the team to perform when the pressure is on.
To conclude, regardless of the disappointment of failing to qualify for yet another World Cup since 1986, the highs of the past year show that the Hungarian national team is in good hands and is capable of further improvement.