What is wrong with Hungarian football?

Written by Tomasz Mortimer

Just under two years ago Hungary were preparing for their first major tournament in 30 years. 24 months on since that magnificent opening win over Austria, Hungary have beaten just four sides – Latvia, Faroe Islands, Andorra and a depleted Costa Rica. They’ve lost to Belgium, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland, Scotland, Andorra, Luxembourg and Russia. But before finding out what went wrong, we need to first quickly look at what we went right.

The campaign to get Hungary to the finals was a strange one – three managers, a loss to bottom of the table, just four wins from ten games – yet following Attila Pinter’s sacking after an opening day home defeat to Northern Ireland, Hungary rode their way through qualification on a huge wave of optimism. The optimism spawned from one man, Pal Dardai.

Dardai has been at Hertha Berlin for three seasons now, but when he took over the reins of the Hungarian national team he had never managed a single senior game. His first test was away at bitter rivals and group favourites Romania but looking back at it now it was far from a baptism of fire, as it was billed at the time. Motivating a team for a game against your biggest rivals couldn’t be easier.

Hungary drew the game 1-1, Balazs Dzsudzsak scored an 84th-minute free-kick equaliser and the players celebrated the tie by listening to a rendition of Himnusz which echoed around an empty National Arena, save for a few thousand Hungarian fans. For Hungary, the draw was a catalyst for the successful campaign. For Dardai, it was a catalyst for a top Bundesliga job.

By the time Dardai had handed over power to Under 21 coach Bernd Storck following his appointment at Hertha in the summer of 2015, the relatively unknown German only had to carry on the good work, stabilise the side and delicately navigate the squad to a third-place finish which seemed quite straightforward. Momentum was massively behind the side and the tough task awaiting Storck would be to make it through the playoff. Yet Hungary sailed through beating Norway 3-1 on aggregate thanks in large part to some miraculous tactical decisions from Storck. The German became a Hungarian icon following the game.

Euro 2016 came and Hungary performed well beyond expectations, but that became a problem in itself. The overachievement left Hungarian fans and Hungarian players with an inflated self-worth, and self-expectation. Storck too.

Hungary started with a dominant performance over Austria, then followed it up with a gritty draw against Iceland before finishing the group in mesmerising fashion by drawing 3-3 to eventual winners Portugal. A 4-0 hammering from Belgium came in the Last 16, but it wasn’t really seen as a reality check, it was seen more as an unfortunate consequence of a gung-ho attitude.

Hungary’s side during the Euro wasn’t particularly great or particularly young, but there were exciting prospects sprinkled throughout the side like Adam Lang (23), Adam Nagy (21) and Laszlo Kleinheisler (22) who all ended up playing football in a ‘top five’ European league following the Euro while at home the climate was really starting to warm toward a more football-centric model following huge investment from the government.

Since 2014, six different clubs have had brand new stadiums built with help from the Fidesz government and a brand new national stadium will also be completed in 2019. Along with academy refurbishments, the government’s estimated football expenditure stands at over €1bn.

Yet almost exactly two years on from that magnificent win, Hungarian football arguably stands at its lowest ever ebb. In FIFA rankings not so much, Hungary still stand at a respectable 49th – in 1996 they were 87th – yet in 2017 Hungary became the first team to lose to Luxembourg and Andorra in the same year and just the fourth side to ever to lose to both. It was just the second competitive match Andorra had ever won, their first in 13 years.

Sometimes bad games can be just anomalies, but these aren’t anomalies. Four months after losing to Luxembourg, Hungary were well beaten by Kazakhstan at home. These problems run deep.

The confidence had been sapped. Following the incredible high of Euro 2016 where the Hungarian public and players celebrated group wins and draws like they’d won the tournament, reality soon came back to bite when in the first qualifier for the 2018 World Cup Hungary failed to beat the Faroe Islands.

After being on such a high, it is understandably hard to motivate yourself when you’re playing a game three months later in front of less than 10,000 fans on a 3G pitch in Torshavn. The players are human beings afterall. But the momentum built up during that incredible run to the Euros and the tournament itself died that night.

A devastating last-minute loss followed a month later at home to Switzerland and qualification was all but over. The subsequent games were devised as tryouts for the young members of the squad but every trial they had ended in a disaster; an inexperienced Hungary side went to Andorra and ended up losing. After the game the players threw their shirts into the crowd. The shirts were thrown straight back at them. Storck took the blame and the halo that he accrued by guiding Hungary to the Euros had been well and truly shattered, but Hungary were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Young players needed to be integrated into the side, yet the fans wanted results. Either way, Hungary should never have lost that game so Storck handed his resignation in which was rejected by the MLSz. The players should’ve taken the blame but by this point the fight was gone and the confidence was below empty. To this day it’s never recovered.

The losses to Luxembourg and Kazakhstan felt inevitable. The swashbuckling, free-flowing football that Hungarian fans were wowed by at times by this very same crop of players is long gone. Hungary now need a restart. They thought it would come with Georges Leeken following Storck’s eventual departure in the winter of 2017, but the age and the baggage hasn’t been dispended of – it’s still whirling around on the carousel in the dressing room. Only Adam Nagy, now a bit-part player at Bologna and Laszlo Kleinheisler, now at Astana, were under 28 in the starting XI vs Belarus last night.

The performance was again abject. If it wasn’t for Peter Gulacsi, Hungary would’ve deservedly lost. Leekens has now been in charge of two losses – Kazakhstan and Scotland – and one draw. There is no way he turns this around.

Hungary’s squad as it stands is ghastly, it’s a side that wilts in the shirt and it’s a side that already feels like it doesn’t want to play for the manager. Nemanja Nikolics retired after playing just 7 minutes vs Scotland and Daniel Bode said following the Kazakhstan game that he didn’t know the team instructions because no one translated Leekens’ teamtalk into Hungarian for him. Akos Elek said last night the team has no common voice under Leekens.

The Belgian lasted just 5 games in charge of Algeria in his last managerial role, his only win came in a friendly over Mauritania. This was with a side that had Riyad Mahrez, Sofiane Feghouli and Yacime Brahimi at his disposal. No current Hungarian player gets near any of those three – Hungary’s best player plays in goal.

The future generation however does look fairly promising, but it’s hard to get excited about Hungarian youngsters after so many have failed to live up to expectation. Dominik Szoboszlai and Daniel Salloi do look like top talents, yet there’s this consistent nagging feeling that something will go wrong. And don’t even get me started on Hungarian club football.

I know we’ve been here before, at what is seemingly the lowest of the low, but to be in this position two years after the wild ride of Euro 2016 is just unbelievably miserable. And the outlook is so damn gloomy.

Budapest is hosting four games at the Euros in 2020 and there’s next to no chance Hungary will be there. How Hungary recovers from this mess is anyone’s guess. It felt like things couldn’t get any worse after that loss to Andorra, yet somehow, it has.

Thirty years Hungary waited to qualify for a major tournament. Am I being too pessimistic in thinking that the wait might just be as long again?