Monday, November 29, 2021
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Football in Hungary: Return of the Magyar Magic?


Hungary football association crest (via Wikipedia)With the first international break of the new season, the perfect time has come to look at a fallen titan- indeed, one to which I feel a sort of personal connection in that its countrymen & women helped me learn to take my first steps (I should mention that I have cerebral palsy).


In a roundabout manner, Hungary led to football played for both disabled & relatively able teams from my college days to the office kickabout, owing to the great work of the specialists at Budapest's Peto Institute. While I have not yet been able to experience a game in Hungary, if the chance came up I would not hesitate to take it in- the terraces then obviously not the best place for a boy of only two or three years old! Though looking forward now as a man of 32, there are encouraging signs of a mini-resurgence...


Some years prior to my stay in the late Eighties the national team had enjoyed a reputation among the best the world had to offer. Runners up spots at both the 1938'54 World Cups, the second of those containing the majority of the Magyars who could have been considered magical, are probably the high points. 


Ferenc Puskás is most likely the player who would jump off the teamsheet to catch the eye of the casual observer, thanks to his later exploits with Real Madrid, having emigrated to Spain following the Revolution of 1956. His 84 goals in 85 games for the Nemzeti Tizenegy (National Eleven), as well as an Olympic gold medal from the 1952 Games, is nothing to be sniffed at. His 1945 début against Austria bought the first of those goals in a 5-2 win for what would become known as the Golden Team.


There is of course, though, no I in team. And the players rightly celebrated alongside him deserve their due credit- Nándor Hidegkuti, Jószef Bozsik, Zoltán Czibor & Sandor Kocsis slotting in to offer a credible attacking threat as England found to their cost not once but twice! A 6-3 win at Wembley on November 25 of 1953 was followed up by a 7-1 spanking for the Three Lions in Budapest in May of the following year at the Nepstadion (People's Stadium, renamed in tribute to Puskás in 2002).


Such was the appetite for its construction that the national government put forward the proposal of a sports tax to help pay for the building works but this was never actually implemented & so no money was diverted from the people who would later fill its stands, though several would volunteer to help out as labourers.


It would stand in the Zuglo area of the national capital until 2007, when it was demolished. In a nice bit of circularity, a new Puskás-Arena is being planned to eventually be on roughly the same site, Ferencvaros's Groupama Arena standing in as a home ground until its completion.


….The question now though is surely whether Hungarian fans & indeed the rest of the world will ever see the national team hit such giddy heights again? The root of the decline can arguably be traced to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, their similarly relatively unsuccessful 1958 group stage campaign ending after a 1-1 draw with Wales was followed by a 2-1 loss to the hosts. A win over Mexico would then prove something of a last hurrah as the Welsh beat them again in a play-off to decide who would go through behind the Swedes after the two sides finished level on points….


Olympic football at least continued to bring with it a level of success- bronze came after beating hosts Italy in the Games of 1960, following a semi-final loss to Denmark after a clean sweep of wins in their group stage matches, brushing aside India, France & Peru in Group D of the competition. Two years later at the World Cup in Chile they would make the quarter finals before losing to Czechoslovakia, the group stage having seen them beat England once more though by a much narrower scoreline of two goals to one!


The style of old was then turned on again to beat Bulgaria 6-1 before a scoreless draw with Argentina. A measure of revenge for the Olympic defeat by the Danes would come two years later at the 1964 European Championship in Spain, triumphing 3-1 after extra time in the third place play off.


Interestingly the pattern of World Cup quarter final hoodoo would again come into play when the Magyars qualified for a '66 return visit to England. The Soviet Union winning 2-1 at Roker Park after an opening Old Trafford group stage defeat by Portugal had been followed up with wins over Brazil at Goodison Park then Bulgaria, again at the Theatre of Dreams.


They then became the most successful side in Olympic football history with a third title win at the Mexico '68 games- yet again beating Bulgaria in the final by four goals to one after easing past Japan in the semis. That had come after they ground out a 1-0 win over Guatemala in the quarters having eased out Ghana & El Salvador in the group phase, going through alongside Israel.


Success would start to ease off after a loss to hosts Belgium in the Euros of 1972, & we would not see them again on a similar tournament stage until a scarcely believable 44 years later when they made it to Euro 2016 under the stewardship of Bernd Storck.


The German led them to qualification after a third place finish in group F behind Northern Ireland & Romania, and a play-off with Norway- who were dispatched 3-1. Drawn again in Group F of the tournament itself, they were paired with Austria (whom they had in a sense played alongside during the Anschluss years), Iceland & Portugal.


A win & two draws was enough to see them top- beating Austria 2-1 a great start prior to draws with Iceland & the Portuguese. That set up a last 16 tie with Belgium, who swatted them aside 4-0.


The World Cup has been minus a Magyar presence since the year prior to my own birth. Their first group match of that 1986 finals was a 6-0 hiding by the Soviets, swiftly followed up with a 2-0 win over Canada & 3-0 beating by France.


Failure to qualify for any tournaments outside the Olympics led to their lowest FIFA ranking to date by 1996, as they dropped to 87th. Not even the 1993 return of Puskás as manager lifted the gloom, as he lasted only four matches. One of his later successors, Peter Bozsik, would also walk out following a Euro 2008 qualifying campaign which saw them hit the low of losing to the minnows of Malta.


Even looking outside of the country for managers was seemingly a failed experiment as neither Lothar Matthaus nor Dutchman Erwin Koeman (Ronald's brother) could stop the slump. This then paved the way for Storck to work a minor miracle, before being sacked for failing to get to last year's World Cup in Russia, qualifying having included a loss to Andorra along the way.


Marco Rossi's subsequent (& currently ongoing) reign, assisted by former West Brom man Zoltan Gera, has latterly brought with it some encouraging results in the new Nations League. Euro 2020 qualification currently finding them top of Group E after wins over CroatiaAzerbaijan & Wales, a decent recovery from an opening loss to Slovakia. Time will, as it always does, tell whether that will be enough to wake this giant from a long sleep!


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