The Fall and Fall of Hungarian Football since Euro 2016

Hungary have been defeated by Andorra, Luxembourg and Kazakhstan in the past 12 months. What has happened to Hungarian football since Euro 2016? Written by Tamás Cserép

The magical run during the 2016 European Championship is a distant memory for Hungary fans as recent abysmal performances have become an ordinary occurrence for the national team.

Fans were optimistic entering the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup; based on the showing of the Euros, Hungary should have been more than capable of taking on the big guns of Portugal and Switzerland and at least challenging for a place in Russia.

However, the campaign started off poorly with a goalless draw against the Faroe Islands away from home. The strong winds and the artificial pitches were excuses given for the despondent performance, which the fans quietly accepted. The spirit of the Euros – still burning in players and fans – was still not completely put out during the 3-2 loss against Switzerland, when the Swiss grabbed the winner in the last few minutes of the game.

But the opening matches of 2017 marked the start of what ended up being one of the worst years in the history of the Hungarian national team.

In the first game of early spring, Hungary travelled to Portugal where they were well and truly battered 3-0, a fixture in which less than a year ago Hungary managed to score three goals themselves, producing an outstanding 3-3 draw, which turned out to be one of the best games of the tournament.  The defeat marked the moment when Hungarians were dragged back to reality: our national team is not even the shadow of our Euro squad and they have returned to mediocrity, or even worse.

On the 9th of June Hungary hit rock bottom as they lost to Andorra, allowing their opponent to get their first win since 2004. The Magyar’s showing was so pathetic, only the Hungarian word szánalmas’ does it justice. There appeared to be no drive and no creativity from the team as they failed to break down Andorra’s “sturdy” defence. The result against Andorra cost the national team the respect and support of the fans. They were not only disgusted by the performance, but by the players’ attitude on the pitch. After the game Bernd Storck – the national team coach – handed in his resignation, which was not accepted by the Hungarian Football Federation as they wanted to give him one more chance.

That final chance came in the autumn of 2017, when Hungary faced a mediocre Portuguese side. Their game showed some promise, but there was clearly a lack of cohesion amongst the players – including missed passes and poor communication – and were deservedly beaten. A few days later Hungary travelled to Basel where they were hammered 5-2 by the Swiss. Hungary were out of the race for World Cup qualification, and losing the next game would have them finish only 1 point above the Faroe Islands. In the final fixture of the campaign, Hungary beat the Faroes 1-0 in a match that was so dull that neither side deserved any points. Bernd Storck was subsequently sacked as The Federation looked elsewhere to start their Nations League and Euro 2020 qualification campaign – a showing at the latter would be crucial as not making Euro 2020 would be another in the long list of disasters, as Budapest are one of the venues for the tournament.

While this could have been the chance to get some fresh air, Hungary’s form continued under interim coach Zoltán Szélesi. Even though they beat Costa Rica 1-0 in what turned out to be one of the best performances of the year, a few days earlier Hungary fell at the hands of Luxembourg.

Change could not come soon enough, but it did not come the way fans expected. On the 30th of October, the federation appointed Georges Leekens to manage the national side. Previously virtually unheard of in Hungary, quick googling has shown that he has plenty of experience on the international stage as he has managed Algeria twice, Tunisia and Belgium. With regards to Belgium, he is partially credited for the breakthrough of the rise of their current generation. While a large proportion of fans were not pleased with his appointment, his charisma and optimism had helped reduce negative spirits. The months preceding his first games in charge he travelled around the country and the region trying to work out the best squad possible and start writing his chapter in Hungarian football history  

Not a lot can be said about Leekens so far, but one thing is definite – he has already made his mark on the national team and has raised controversy. A meagre 9000 people watched in horror as Hungary conceded 2 goals in the first 10 minutes with Leekens at the helm. The side managed to ‘improve’ the final score to a 3-2 loss, but it did not stop the ultras from walking out half an hour early.  Fans were not just disappointed with the team selection – which did not feature star Ádám Nagy and fan favourite Richárd Guzmics – but with the showing from the players as well; 3-2 down, with 10 minutes to go, there was no sense of urgency from them and one cannot help but think that the empty seats did not inspire them. The strong connection that was between the players and the fans two years ago has dissipated and perished. Players did not say what happened in the dressing room at halftime. The only thing that was revealed by cult hero Dániel Böde is that what was said at the end of the game by Leekens was not translated to him into Hungarian.  Surely if we want greater unity in the national team, instructions from the manager should be understood by all?

Tuesday’s home loss to Scotland came as no surprise to anyone. Even though the team’s play was more dynamic and the players showed greater urgency, their inability to finish clear-cut chances cost them the game. As for the fans, the majority of them have accepted that their national team is below average and they are inside a gaping hole that is getting deeper with no hope in sight. Very few players showed a sense of dedication and leadership, only Balázs Dzsudzsák, Kenneth Otigba and Gergő Lovrencsics looked particularly bothered. The latter broke down crying during a post-match interview, saying that “they are trying to improve things.”

What does the future hold for Hungarians, whose national side won the hearts of fans around the world at Euro 2016? Fans should need to look at the situation realistically; the majority of the players in the squad play in leagues that are inferior to what is required at a major tournament – including the Hungarian League, UAE, MLS and the Chinese Second Division. The only way this team could achieve anything is through hard work, passion and dedication. We do not want a situation that can be found in England, where players are more concerned about their financial situation than representing their country. Players should feel honoured for playing for Hungary, and the only way they can be successful is by embracing that.

Secondly, there needs to be a change of generation. A lot of the players from the Euros are still here, and it is time to incorporate young players. Players such as Guzmics (soon 31), Dzsudzsák (31), Pintér (29), Stieber (29), Lovrencsics (29) Pátkai (30), Szalai (30), Nikolic (30), Németh (29) and Böde (31) have all played in the recent international break. The star of Euro 2016, Nagy did not feature for a single minute in the last two games. With poor results coming match-by-match, it is the perfect opportunity to revamp the squad and bring in new young players – such as Holman and Kalmár. Hungarian football is entering into an abyss, so it might as well hit it head-on with a new young team that can grow into something special. The national team needs to start shaping up with a long-term goal. Let players with flair and passion take the torch from a generation that has done its job and has got Hungary to a major tournament. Players in the current team will end up ageing sooner or later, it is only a matter of time before young players will be called up for international duty.