A nation rejoices

The final whistle in the Groupama Arena against Norway heralded a sense of euphoria that has been forgotten in Hungary for a generation. After a 44 year absence the nation will once again compete amongst Europe’s elite at this summer’s Euro 2016 in France. And while it has been a long and arduous wait, ravaged by adversity and disappointment, the nation can once again rejoice at the country’s success.

Following the game against Norway, celebrations in Budapest and all across the country took long into the night, fans flooded the streets with the colours of red, white and green and a plentiful of palinkas were consumed to quench the dry throats of elated supporters never ceasing to sing, a few by none other than Hoffenheim striker Adam Szalai. However the emotions were still raw, the celebrations felt surreal and beyond reality. Often we Hungarians had to pinch ourselves to make sure we hadn’t been engulfed in a dream, and relief flooded our systems when we awoke (wherever) the following day to the same news. Hungary are going to France! But now with time for the achievement to properly sink into our brains’ and comprehended by our minds, it is fair to ask just what can we expect?

I will begin with a customary statistic; only one player (Gabor Kiraly) from Hungary’s starting eleven against Norway was alive when the country last competed in a major tournament at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. And only six (Kiraly, Vanczak, Juhasz, Leandro, Bosnjak and Gera) from the entire squad. Hungary is a nation with a paltry of experience at the elite level. Even more accentuated by the country’s lack of representatives in Europe’s major leagues, two in the Bundesliga (Zoltan Stieber and Adam Szalai), one in the Premier League (Adam Bogdan) and LA Liga (Balazs Megyeri), while the Serie A and Ligue 1 hosts not a single Hungarian. Even the above mentioned are merely fringe players in their squads, and rarely see themselves in the starting eleven. While the rest ply their trades in the lower leagues across Europe and the world, notably clubs in Poland, America and China.

Notwithstanding this inexperience, Hungary is also a nation full of potential. In 2009, the country finished 3rd in the U20 World Cup, a fruition that rewarded an extensive youth project that has been gradually expanding across the country since the early 2000s. And a system that has produced the likes of Krisztian Nemeth, Tamas Kadar, Laszlo Kleinheisler and Adam Nagy – all crucial players in Hungary’s route to qualification. As well as clubs like Puskas Akademia – an academy founded in 2007 who commenced their history in Hungary’s third division, but have since gone onto reach the Nemzeti Bajnoksag, Hungary’s first division, six years later in 2013, and have remained ever present from thereon, providing the national team with players such as Kleinheisler as well as Adam Gyurcso and Attila Fiola. This supplemented by a manager in Bernd Storck bold enough to offer youth players a chance at senior level, provides a sense of optimism for the future that Hungary has seldom seen in previous decades.

The latest crop of youngsters offers a new hope. Players like Adam Nagy, Zsolt Kalmar and Laszlo Kleinhesler are what epitomises the modern footballers of today, they are players of versatility and flair. They are game changers, unpredictable in a good way, players who have the capacity to pull, so to say, ‘the rabbit out of the hat’; they are what gets the fans out of their seat, jumping with joy. Kleinhesler typified this point with his outstanding goal conjured out of nowhere in Oslo against Norway in the first leg of the Play Offs, when a whole nation erupted with glee back in Hungary. However the above trio are only a few players amidst an abundance of talent seemingly thriving in Hungary and are yet to be tested at senior international level such as: Bence Mervo, a strong agile goal poacher who was awarded with the silver boot at this summer’s U20 World cup; Mario Nemeth, a diminutive lithe number ten reminiscent of Philippe Coutinho; Laszlo Pekar, a robust midfielder with already six goals to his name this season, including a terrific effort against Videoton; and David Markvart, a midfield technician with an impeccable eye for a pass.

Bernd Storck, who also had a short stint at Hungary’s U20 side, is familiar with these up and coming players and has not been shy of handing debuts to his youngsters, Adam Nagy for example was involved in all of Hungary’s last five qualification matches playing a steadfast role. With Storck’s faith in youth, Mervo, Nemeth, Pekar and Markvart alike have an outside chance of making the squad for the Euro’s, and will undoubtedly be key components of Hungary’s squad in the long term.

The squad is also built from the players of the 2009 World Cup bronze medallist generation. Players like Krisztian Nemeth, Zoltan Stieber and Tamas Kadar offer unfulfilled potential dying to finally burst onto the international scene. Kadar and Nemeth both tipped to be the stalwarts of a new Hungarian footballing age, endured torrid spells during their youth in England at Newcastle and Liverpool, blighted by severe injuries that would have crippled most players. However Kadar and Nemeth have come through their adversity to make good careers for themselves at Lech Poznan and Kansas City respectively and will undoubtedly be highly coveted with impressive displays at the Euro’s in the summer. Whereas Stieber is yet to find his level in Germany with a mixed level of spells for various clubs, his current one at Hamburg has proved futile to say the least. Nonetheless at international level he too has shown glimpses of his potential, a cathartic and astounding late winner in a tense game against Finland was a goal many Hungarians will not forget for a while and showcased what Stieber athleticism and agility can provide. For these players, the Euro’s will be an opportunity to come to the fore of the footballing world once again.

Meanwhile for the old guard, the likes of Kiraly, Gera and Dzsudzsak, the Euro’s will herald a chance to vanish their former qualification dismays and bow out of the international stage in style. It will be an opportunity to finally justify their hype to the sceptics who have dismissed their achievements at club football due to such scant to show at international level.

To cast our minds back into the long forgotten past, in Hungary’s last appearance at the Euros in 1972, the nation finished fourth, hosting legends such as Ferenc Bene and Ballon d’or winner Albert Florian amongst their ranks. The incentive is there for the players to do well once again, though the notion of emulating such former greats is understandably farfetched and naive. The truth is expectations are difficult to surmise, with nothing to compare to from previous tournaments, nobody is quite sure what will ensue in the summer. This element of surprise is perhaps Hungary’s greatest advantage and something that can be capitalised on. Norway underestimated the country and were thoroughly humiliated with back to back defeats. Come the draw on December 12th I am sure many countries will be vying for our name with similar agendas. Let’s hope they too will be left with crimson cheeks by the end of the summer.

Lastly a note to those who claim to diminish Hungary’s qualification with the argument for the newly expanded 24 UEFA team system, while this conviction is true and may perhaps made qualification less challenging, it is also disputable and should come to moot when one assess the quality of the teams who still failed to qualify such as Greece, Bosnia, Slovenia and Denmark – whom have all competed at major tournaments in the past decade. And of course not forgetting Holland, the 2010 World Cup finalists, who a little over two years ago thrashed our nation 8-1 in one of Hungary’s most humiliating defeats at the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Journalists dubbed the result as the country’s lowest footballing moment and called for a crisis point, doubts were raised whether Hungary would ever compete in a major tournament in our life time, while the manager at the time Sandor Egervari was axed. Three managers and a qualifying campaign later; those doubts have been cast aside. Now the roles have juxtaposed with the Dutch having to endure the tournament from their sofas at home, while Hungarians will be celebrating in France. Football truly is a bizarre and beautiful game.