Bonjour France!

Written by Gaby Kovács

In 1986 I was 12 years old. My Panini World Cup sticker book lay mostly empty other than a couple of pages, Hungary’s. Unsurprisingly, these pages filled pretty quickly as by playground swaps value, the entire team could be had for as little as Gary Lineker or the shiny Brazil badge. As a family, we sat round the television to watch our national team in Mexico whilst the adult males swore, waved their arms around and drank Hungarian spirits. The beauty of being so young meant that if we won, I was elated and if we lost, it didn’t ruin my day. This has served me well as a Hungarian football fan. As Hungary bowed out of the tournament, little did I know that I would celebrate my 21st, 30th and 40th birthdays before we would qualify for a major tournament again.

As the group was drawn for the 2016 European Championships in France, we were given hope that this could finally be our year. Where we found that hope is beyond me as Hungarians are pessimistic by default and we would be starting a qualifying campaign off the back of a painful 8-1 defeat in Holland where our manager, Sándor Egervári resigned before the 90 minutes were up. He lasted a lot longer than our defence who gave up pretty much after kick off. On December 19th 2013, Attila Pintér was named as the new Hungary manager. He was an unpopular choice but looking at the facts, he had just lead Győr to their first Hungarian 1st division title in 30 years and at least deserved a chance. Fast forward to 7th September 2014 and the first group stage game at home to Northern Ireland. The visitors hadn’t won an away game since 2010 and the full house at the brand new Groupama Arena in Budapest was expectant. Hungary dominated and after 75 minutes were rewarded with a goal from Tamás Priskin. I don’t think anybody expected the mood at the point to drop so dramatically, but it did. On 81 minutes, 2nd half substitute McGinn equalised and 7 minutes later, Lafferty had snatched a winner. The crowd turned on Pintér and that would be the last we would see of him. On 18th September it was announced that former international Pál Dárdai would take control of the team for the next 3 matches. Dárdai was working as a youth coach at Hertha Berlin, the club where he made 297 appearances and earned club legend status. He had been capped 61 times for Hungary, scoring 5 goals of which his most memorable was a thunderbolt against England at Old Trafford. One thing became clear pretty quickly, he was a likeable guy with a calm head on his shoulders. There was just one problem. Dárdai said he did not want the job full time.

As baptism’s of fire go, having to take charge of the national team for the first time against bitter rivals Romania in Bucharest must rank highly. Our pessimistic gene kicked into overdrive and the talk was not about whether we would lose, but how many we would lose by. On the stroke of half time, Rusescu put the majority of the 52,000 crowd into a frenzy and everyone was getting exactly what they expected. With the game nearing its conclusion, Hungary were awarded a free kick in a dangerous area which Balázs Dzsudzsák would take as usual. Balázs was a hugely talented winger who made his name playing for PSV Eindhoven in Holland before losing his way in Russia after being lured by the huge sums Anzhi Makhachkala were paying their players. He made just 8 appearances before moving to Dynamo Moscow. He made 89 appearances for the capital club but only showed his brilliance in glimpses. On the 11th October 2014, he fired himself into Hungarian folklore. He struck the free kick so well that the goalkeeper could only help it into the net and the Hungarian end of the stadium went into meltdown. The calm Dárdai was waving his arms furiously at his players, insisting they keep their heads as there was still 8 minutes to go and a barrage was surely coming. The game ended 1-1 and the no hopers had taken a point. Three days later, Hungary won 1-0 in the Faroe Islands and as Zoltán Gera put the ball into the net with 6 minutes to go a month later in Budapest against Finland, Dárdai had given us 7 points from three games and most importantly, hope and belief.

We had to wait until March 2015 for our next competitive game by which time, The Hungarian football federation announced that Dárdai would stay on as manager until 30th November. Dárdai said his son influenced his decision to stay on by saying “without you, they are not going to win”. I think we all believed that as well but Hungary being Hungary, drama was just around the corner. A 0-0 draw against Greece was followed by another late winner, this time in Finland. By the time of Hungary’s next qualifier in September, relations had soured between the Hungarian federation and Hertha Berlin. The German side had appointed Dárdai manager of their first team in February on an interim basis and in May he was given the job full time after a string of good results. Dárdai was given an ultimatum by Hertha, them or us. The lure of the Bundesliga proved too much and we were looking for manager number 3 of our qualifying campaign. Tomasz Mortimer and I attended a Champions League game between The New Saints and Videoton in July and speaking to national team stalwart, Roland Juhász it was very apparent just what the players thought of Dárdai. He had given the players self belief and the sadness of him leaving was very difficult to hide. Roland gave us the name of the next manager that night, Mr Bernd Storck.
Unless you payed attention to all the teams below the full international side, you could be forgiven for not knowing who he was. The media and fans had all speculated about who the new manager would be and names such as former manager Lothar Matthäus had been bandied about. One thing we had all decided on was that it would be someone with pedigree to get us over the finish line and onto France. In June 2015, Storck had taken our under 20 side to the World Cup in New Zealand where despite losing two group stage games, a win against North Korea was enough to see us through. Despite a brave effort in the round of 16, an extra time defeat to eventual winners Serbia saw us return home with just a solitary win to our name. Hardly the pedigree we craved. Storck’s international experience was as manager of Kazakhstan’s under 21’s and full side between 2008 and 2010 before he was demoted to manager of their under 19 side. At club level, he had been assistant manager at Hertha Berlin, Wolfsburg, Borussia Dortmund as well as having full control of FC Alma-Ata in the Kazakhstan Premier League. After a two year spell as manager of the Olympiacos under 21 side, he was announced as Hungary under 20’s manager in 2015. Most Hungarians agreed that once again, we had gone for the cheap option and had given up on qualification. We would crash out, have our scapegoat and search for a new manager while everyone else tucked into snails in France.

A month short of a year since we played Romania, they were the visitors in Budapest as our new man was given the now traditional first game in charge against the old enemy. In the shadows of the refugee crisis that had taken a grip on Hungary, this was the biggest game we would face in many years. There was nothing to shout about. We drew 0-0 and learnt nothing new but amazingly, still had an outside chance of automatic qualification. Rioting fans predictably took the headlines after the game. Next stop for Hungary was a trip to Belfast a few days later to face a side that had automatic qualification in their own hands. They were surpassing all expectations in the group and made our defeat in Budapest look not that bad after all. I will forever thank them for ensuring Attila Pintér got the sack though! Again, there were no great shakes to the team but we saw 20 year old’s Ádám Nagy and Zsolt Kalmár in the side with the former making his debut. Both played under Storck in the Under 20 side. Richárd Guzmics put Hungary ahead in the 74th minute and after Baird was sent off for the hosts on 81 minutes, things were very much going our way. Unfortunately, Kyle Lafferty had different ideas and deep into stoppage time, equalised. Northern Ireland were on the verge of qualifying and Hungary were back on the verge of despair, a place they have sat for 30 years.

October 2015 saw the end of our campaign, or so we thought. Going a goal down at home to the Faroe Islands put us in a bad place and already the daggers were out for Storck. The introduction of Dániel Böde early in the 2nd half changed the tie and his two goals saw us win the game. It wasn’t convincing but the last game away to Greece would be a definite win for us as the former European champions hadn’t managed a single win in their 9 previous games and had only scored 3 goals. Full time, Greece 4 Hungary 3. Under Storck, we had come back to beat the Faroe Islands, drawn 2 games and lost to struggling Greece.

I can’t quite place at what point approaching the end of our qualifying campaign it became apparent that we could qualify as the best 3rd placed team. The maths and scenarios gave every Hungarian a headache that for once was not induced by alcohol. At one point in the group stage, results were going our way so well that we were actually sitting in the automatic qualification spot and even sweeter, knocking Romania into 3rd place. Our hopes of qualification lay at the feet of Spain firstly. They had to win in Ukraine to ensure us of the best 3rd place spot. As Janos became Juan for the night, Hungary’s hopes were in the hands of a nation who owed us one in return for Ferenc Puskás. They delivered, as Mario Gaspar’s goal earned a 1-0 win and Hungary were through! Except we weren’t. Like a sick football version of Takeshi’s castle, there was another challenge. The following night our left eye was on the Latvia vs Kazakhstan game while our right eye was on the Turkey vs Iceland game. Kazakhstan were winning 1-0 in Latvia whilst Turkey were drawing and we were now one minute plus stoppage time from qualification. When things go bad for Hungary, they go spectacularly bad and in traditional Hungarian style, Turkey scored and won the game 1-0. It was the playoffs for us. As if having to endure watching Latvia vs Kazakhstan wasn’t cruel enough.

We have a very short lived history in play off matches. Our last in 1998, ironically to qualify for the World Cup in France, ended with a 12-1 aggregate defeat to the former Yugoslavia. Confidence was back to its usual low level and there was no way we would qualify. As the balls were drawn, Norway was announced as our opponent, a side we hadn’t beaten in 30 years. At this point a journalist and friend at Hungary’s biggest sports newspaper, Matyas Szeli, said to me that for once we don’t have to rely on anyone else and if we qualify, we do it ourselves and take the plaudits for it. This really struck a chord with me and he was right. Let’s not take fear, pessimism and the Hungary team of the 1950’s into these games. Let’s do it with what we have here and now.
On the 12th November, game day in Oslo, news began to break that 21 year old László Kleinheisler was in the starting eleven. Like many young Hungarian players, he has bags of potential that ultimately he hasn’t fulfilled. He plays for the Hungarian champions Videoton but due to a contractual dispute hasn’t played a league match for them this season. In fact, he currently resides in their B team who play in the 3rd division. What was Storck thinking? Ádám Szalai was picked to play up front despite having a dreadful qualifying campaign and warming the bench for his club side, Hoffenheim. Maybe 39 year old goalkeeper Gábor Király earning his 100th cap would be the only thing to celebrate tonight. During my commentary I asked if picking Kleinheisler was crazy or genius and around 5 minutes later, I got my answer. The debutant received the ball just inside the right hand side of the area and immediately struck it towards goal. The keepers hands couldn’t prevent it from going in and Hungary were leading in Norway. Unbelievable. Norway played like a team that needed to win by 6 goals to win as they snatched at every shot and hurried everything. They had 16 corners and enjoyed 67% of the possession but come full time the scoreboard said Norway 0 Hungary 1. Király was fantastic in goal and was backed up magnificently, not by his defence but by former national team goalkeeper, Márton Fülöp. Earlier in the day, the 32 year old passed away after a fight with cancer. He was a much loved guy amongst fans and players and the team could have been forgiven for playing poorly. I wouldn’t have blamed them. There was a huge belief that this would be for Marci though and every single player reacted in a way that would have had him smiling like he always did.

Sunday November 15th 2015. The 2nd leg in Budapest. Most Hungarians were still full of doubt. We almost expected to lose, like we do in all the big games. Bernd Storck named his line up and there was another shock with Tamás Priskin picked to play up front. His reasoning was that he is good at defending in our own box. A bit odd to think that of your striker but we all expected to spend 90 minutes watching our goal being battered. Zoltán Gera’s booking in Oslo meant he was suspended for tonight’s game so in stepped young Ádám Nagy. Filling those boots in a game like this would make some seasoned pros nervous so how would the Ferencváros man react? He was playing at his home stadium at least. Silence for Márton Fülöp, Újpest legend Pál Várhidi and the victims of the tragic terrorist events in France preceded the match and our national anthem was sung like it had never been sung before. We had a very average football team, living in the shadows of former greatness but the pride on show was incredible. With just over 13 minutes played, Priskin collected the ball and ran towards the box before cutting inside, taking out two Norway players and curling the ball into the top corner. It was an incredible goal and one I would never have thought he would score. 2-0 to Hungary on aggregate and 2-0 to Bernd Storck. Norway never really threatened and it was Hungary who pressed on. As time was running out, a Henriksen own goal left Norway with a 3-0 deficit to overturn and only 7 minutes to play. As a Hungarian, the belief was that Norway would score four of course. On 87 minutes, Henriksen scored in the right end as far as he was concerned to make it 2-1 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate. I don’t think there are any words that can justify the feeling at full time. The scenes were unreal. I had never witnessed anything like that on a football pitch before where Hungary has been involved. There were tears of joy, disbelief and relief. 30 years of Hungary’s past sitting upon our shoulders, lifted in an instant. As Bernd Storck was hoisted into the air by the players, the man nobody wanted became a son of Hungary. In his pre match interview, he said “I am now a Hungarian”. You certainly are Bernd.

If you support a major nation where qualification comes as regular as your moans about why you only beat team X by a couple of goals, you will never understand this feeling. I have read a lot since qualification about how the European Championships has been devalued since the expansion to 24 teams was made and personally cannot think of anything better than having the lesser nations involved. They bring passion, supporters that won’t stop singing regardless of how their team are doing and of course, there is always a chance of an upset. I suppose the same people questioning the decision are the same that don’t realise football happens outside the English Premier League. Ask a Hungarian what they expect of us at the finals and the answer will be the same, nothing. We don’t expect a single point, even before the groups are drawn, and that’s just fine with us.

History can reset its clock, from 30 back to zero and I can go back to collecting stickers for my European Championships sticker book.

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