Hungary in modern football are compared to the likes of Serbia, Ukraine and many other smaller nations in Central and Eastern Europe with little or no history. Hungary hadn’t qualified for a major tournament in almost 30 years until a few days ago. In fact, there isn’t even a single Hungarian player plying his trade in any of the top 5 European Leagues regularly. But some 50 odd years ago, Hungary were spoken in the same breath as footballing heavyweights like Brazil and England. So what exactly has gone wrong in a country where football was at the forefront of its thoughts.
The Match of the Century
Hungary are one of the oldest teams in world football having played their first FIFA world cup in 1934. Influenced by the footballing school of thought in neighboring Austria, Hungary were disciples of the W-M. In their second attempt at FIFA’s grand prize, Hungary exceeded all expectations losing only to favorites Italy before Hitler decided to wage war. Post World War II, Hungary were transformed to a dynamic and tactically superior team finally emerging out of the shadows from neighbours Austria. The Magyars went on one of World Footballs longest undefeated runs from May 1950 and clinching Olympic Gold in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
In 1953, their impressive form earned them a friendly with England at Wembley where the hosts had not lost a single game since the inception of football. Sebes, the Hungarian coach at the time was facing a certain dilemma – Hungary lacked a strong No.9 who was required to lead the line in a W-M. The resulting tactical switch changed football forever and gave us in terms of modern football, the no 10 or the trequartista (play-maker). Hidegkuti started vs England in the withdrawn position and scored within the opening minutes in front of 105,000 home supporters. England were clueless. Accustomed to the 2-3-5 numbering system, the hosts were caught unaware as to how far European football had come. With England chasing shadows Puskas, Hidegkuti, Bozsik and Kocsis ran riot, Hungary won 6-3 and sent shock waves across the world. England were stunned by their European counterparts. It is said that Hungary were tactically and physically so superior that some consider them the per-cursors to Holland’s total football philosophy. After what came to be known as the Match of the century, the Hungary team who captivated world football came to be known as the Magnificent Magyar’s. Hungary went on to defeat England 7-1 at home the following year before defeating Germany 8-3 in the 1954 World cup group stages. The Magyars unfortunately, missed out on football’s grand prize losing 3-2 to Germany in the final.
Hungary exited the group stages in the 1958 World Cup partly due to Soviet occupation back home; the first of many political setbacks in Hungarian football history. Despite their troubles, success in the global stage had not eluded them and Hungary went on to win 2 more gold medals in the Olympics in the 1960’s and finished in 3rd place in the 1964 European Championships. The Hungarians also managed to finish 4th in the last European Championships they took part in 1972. The factors contributing to their gradual decline have been enigmatic and numerous. Politics though surely has been the biggest factor. The end of the Communist rule-proving to be the final nail in the coffin.
With its own ministry, its own minister and government officials, and alas its own budget, sports in Hungary was at a standstill. Economic crisis loomed with education and sports neglected as funds started to pull. Many Hungarian clubs were declared bankrupt and many others in financial turmoil. The 2 political uprisings played a major role in the decline of Hungarian football. Though they recovered once immediately despite losing of a lot of lives, bouncing back from the second setback proved to be more tumultuous.
Hungary were placed in a mediocre group alongside Euro 2004 winners Greece, Northern Ireland and neighbors Romania. Having started the campaign rather insipidly with a loss at home to Northern Ireland Attila Pinter was sacked as head coach and replaced by Pal Dardai. A draw away to neighbours Romania followed as things looked rather bleak and uninspiring. 2 consecutive wins followed, but Hungary only managed to score a meager 6 goals in the 8 opening games. The standards at the moment were so low for Hungary that no eyebrows were raised against the coach or the team. Pal Dardai, the coach was expected to lead the team at least until the end of the qualifiers, but his club commitments with Hertha Berlin had the Hungarian board to look in a different direction as they looked to appoint a third coach amidst the qualifying campaign. Storck a German who was technical director of Hungary at the time was appointed an interim head coach with just 4 matches remaining in the qualifying campaign. The Barren run in front of goal continued until their last match of qualifying in which they lost 4-3 to Greece. 3rd place was secured and a playoff awaited. Drawn against Norway, Hungary looked set to miss out on another major tournament as Norway just missed out on Automatic qualification themselves.
Before the playoffs, the temporary manager Storck took a couple of gambles, first he fired the backroom staff and replaced them with a German assistant. And two he called up Laszlo Kleinheisler who had never made an appearance for the Magyars and was playing in the Hungarian 3rd division. Luck and defensive solidity which they had maintained throughout the qualifying campaign helped them to a 1-0 win in the first leg away at Oslo. Kleinheisler had scored giving the nation unlikely hope of qualifying. The 2nd leg much like first proved to be 1-way traffic as the Norwegians bombarded the Hungarian goal and managed to hit the bar once in either half. Coupled with fantastic saves from Kiraly and an own goal from Henrikson 7 minutes from time finally helped settle the tie in Hungary’s favour. Hungary had qualified for Euro 2016 in France.
Once upon a time considered one of the greatest teams in the world, Hungary has literally crawled their way into a major tournament almost 30 years since they took part in one. Puskas and Hidegkuti have long gone and replaced by unknowns like Kleinheisler, Although Hungary have a long road ahead of them, it is good to see footballs’ pioneers back where they belong – among the best Europe has to offer.