Glittering football histories do not often come with such drab current circumstances. Three Olympic titles, two World Cup runner-up medals, and three of the top six international goalscorers of the 20th century, yet Hungary’s national soccer team struggles to qualify for major tournaments these days. When they defeated Norway 3-1 on aggregate in the European Championships qualifying play-off, Hungary qualified for their first major tournament since 1990 (other than the ’96 Olympics).
Soccer in Europe often carries political implications that echo far beyond the pitch. Doubly so for a country like Hungary that has seen its national team reach the peaks and valleys of international competition.
Aron Gyorgy was born in Hungary, and moved to the United States to play college soccer at Saint Peter’s University. He now coaches soccer in Washington, D.C., and follows soccer avidly. He characterized the mixed feeling about the national team in Hungary: “Careful optimism,” he repeatedly stated.
However, Gyorgy said, “generally in Hungary the national team, soccer players and the domestic league are the butt of many jokes.” Nevertheless, soccer is by far the most popular sport in Hungary, though not the most successful.
Perhaps this is one of the residual effects of boasting one of the world’s best teams ever. The “Magical Magyars,” as the 1950s Hungarian side was called, featured perhaps Europe’s greatest-ever goalscorer in Ferenc Puskas. They were unbeaten from 1950-1954, a run comprising 33 games and which ended in the 1954 World Cup final.
In 1953, the Hungarians travelled to England’s famous Wembley Stadium and humbled the Brits with a masterful 6-3 victory. The team played a tactically innovative 4-2-4 formation, and pulled England apart with their flexible movement and dynamic passing.
In the World Football Elo Ratings, a ranking system that calculates by individual results, similar to chess’s person-to-person ratings, the 1954 Hungary team is the second-greatest team of all time.
Fast-forward fifty years, though, and the Golden Generation is nowhere to be found. Gyorgy considers the 1986 World Cup in Mexico the team’s “Pearl Harbor”; in the first match of the World Cup, Hungary lost 6-0 to the Soviet Union. As a result of the humiliation, Gyorgy says, “all the players were labeled failures, and that team was never allowed to play together again.” q
Most football fans mark this moment as the beginning of Hungary’s decline. In 1996, Hungary fell to 87th in its FIFA ranking, and the collapse of Hungary’s government forced major clubs like Ferencvaros to declare bankruptcy.
In some ways Hungary’s strong footballing history burdens the current squad. “Hungarians always compare the national team to the ‘golden team’ of the 1950s,” Gyorgy says. It can be hard to live up to that standard, especially these days when, as Gyorgy recounts, “many people are very upset that the government puts tax money towards building stadiums and sponsoring teams.”
However, onlookers would be mistaken to think that Hungary’s footballing passion has been dampened. Hungary’s soccer culture is as strong as ever: many Hungarians watch domestic games and UEFA club competitions at home or at bars.
In Budapest, Ferencvaros’s new Groupama Arena has just been completed, and the stadium’s 22,000 seats were filled for Hungary’s qualifier against Greece. The club drew an average of 7,640 for its domestic matches. The average attendance for the league is lower, but especially Budapest clubs have seen rapid growth in attendance this year.
On November 12th, Hungary debutant Laszlo Kleinheisler blasted a goal past Norway goalkeeper Orjan Nyland in the first leg of the European Championships playoff.
Kleinheisler is the youngest in a strong contingent of domestically-based players. Zoltan Gera plays for Ferencvaros; Kleinheisler and Roland Juhasz play for Videoton; Grabor Kiraly players for Haladas. Although the Hungarian league is not considered a European powerhouse, these are some of the players that have powered Hungary to European success.
November 15th saw Hungary welcome Norway to Budapest in pursuit of their first international tournament since 1990. The road there had been difficult; Hungary struggled through group qualifying, conceding late goals in both legs against Northern Ireland and losing on an 86th minute winner on the last matchday to Greece.
These details were left behind. Tamas Priskin scored a pearler, chasing down a direct pass, cutting back and firing into the top-right corner. Hungary forced an own goal, and although Markus Henriksen scored for Norway, the Hungarians claimed the victory to reignite the historic passion of the Hungarian fans.
“Quiet optimism,” Gyorgy reiterates. They’re no “Magnificent Magyars,” this Hungary side, but they carry the weight of history to France in 2016. Facing a wide-open group F in the form of Portugal, Iceland and Austria, and with the top four 3rd-place teams qualifying, there’s a chance some of that old magic could sparkle again.