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Rising Nations: Hungary in pursuit of the impossible

Hungary have been in the shadows of their predecessors for decades. But a new generation might change that.

In 1953, on the turf of the hallowed pitch in the ‘home of football’, England were taught a lesson by the Mighty Magyars. In the game of the century, a fluid Hungarian side ran rings around England’s overweening stars.

Ramsey, Wright and Matthews watched in awe as Puskas, Czibor, Hidegkuti and Kocsis sprayed passes around them like they were mere practise cones.

We thought we would demolish this team – England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the pupils. It was absolutely the other way,’ Bobby Robson recalled later.

The game shocked the world and it heralded the golden fleeting years of Hungarian football.

In the 1950s and 60s, when Barcelona’s front three was made up entirely by Magyars, Ferenc Puskas had scored four goals in the European Cup final, Ferencvaros had won the Cup Winners Cup and Florian Albert received the Ballon D’or, it was impossible to think the next 60 years would sow so little.

The downfall

With Hungary’s greatest stars defecting from the regime in the 1950s and 60s, the communist party’s interest in football started to wane.

Investment was gradually decreased and facilities neglected.

Hungary’s downfall was gradual, in the 70s and 80s, there was still some success. Hungary made it to the European Championships in 1972. They qualified for three World Cups in a row between 1978-1986 and beat El Salvador 10-1 in the 1982 finals which is still a World Cup record. On the domestic front Videoton finished runners-up in the 1985 UEFA Cup succumbing to Real Madrid in the final.

Yet in the 1990s as the last vestige of elite Hungarian professionals started to hang up their boots, Hungary became footballing minnows.

Domestic football lost much of its funding upon the end of the communist era and in the changing and perpetually evolving new world, football got left behind.

By the early 2000s Hungary had spent over a decade away from major international competitions.

The nation lacked elite stars. In the 70s and 80s, players like Tibor Nyilasi and Lajos Detari were still regarded as world-class talent but by the 1990s and 00s, Hungary had no one to rely on.

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In 2006, renowned Hungarian journalist Gyorgy Szolosi coined the term the ‘Filkor age.’ That year Szolosi made the point that Hungary’s biggest footballing achievement was one of their 17 year olds playing half an hour in two games for Inter’s first team in the Italian Cup.

It was a dire indictment of the state of football in Hungary.

Something had to be changed.

Behind the scenes things were already evolving. Hungary had fallen behind their European rivals.

The first state of the art academy was only built in 2001 in the form of the Sandor Karoly Akademia of MTK.

Meanwhile the national team implemented the ‘Bozsik programme’ at youth level in 2005. Named after one of Hungary’s mighty magyars and run by Jozsef Bozsik’s son as well as Jozsef Both, the programme was intended to bring Hungary into the modern era.

It reaped relative success at youth level. In 2007, Hungary’s U17 side qualified for the European Championships for the first time. In 2009, the same generation finished third place in the 2009 U20 World Cup.

The nation’s success elicited hope, the likes of Peter Gulacsi and Krisztian Nemeth ended up playing for Liverpool.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Koman, who was voted the Player of the Tournament at the 2009 World Cup, played regular football in the Serie A as a 20 year old for Bari and Sampdoria.

In the same period for the first time in 50 years, Real Madrid had a Hungarian in their Champions League squad in the form of Adam Szalai.

Political Influence

Enter Viktor Orban in 2010.

Hungary’s prime minister had been an avid supporter and played at an amicable level in the Hungarian fourth division for his hometown club, Felcsut. He had initially intended to become a footballer before opting to pursue politics.

Orban’s influence in Hungarian football started three years prior to his term. In 2007, he co-founded Puskas Akademia in his hometown with the intention to create a new academy designed to bring through Hungary’s next generation of talent.

Upon taking office, the football crazed prime minister began to invest more and more in the game.

Puskas Akademia were one of his beneficiaries. Two years after taking office, construction begun on a new state of the art stadium for the Felcsut based side. Its capacity is twice that of the population of Felcsut and the medieval styled megalithic arches stand out jarringly in the small town.

Incidentally the stadium is located right next to Viktor Orban’s home. Only a road separates the two.

Puskas Akademia are not the only club to have benefited from Viktor Orban’s influence. In 2011, Viktor Orban introduced a controversial tax relief scheme called TAO. The scheme enables corporations and large firms to divert a small portion of their taxable profits to sports clubs.

With the TAO scheme, a total of 9 new modern stadiums have been built for clubs like Debrecen, Ferencvaros, Honved, Videoton, MTK and Mezokovesd.

The scheme has also allowed club’s to invest in modern academies which has accelerated the development of Hungarian footballers.

Since 2014, Hungary have qualified for two youth World Cups (U20 in 2015 and U17 in 2019), and have participated in a total of four European Championships ( U19 in 2014, senior in 2016, U17 in 2017 and 2019.)

Compared that to just three tournament qualifications between 1986 and 2010 and the signs of improvement are clear.

New emerging stars

One of the biggest stars of the U20 World Cup in 2009, was Peter Gulacsi. The Hungarian goalkeeper produced stellar displays in two penalty shoot-outs to secure a medal for the Magyars at the tournament and he is now one of the country’s most integral pillars.

Sadly, his fellow co-stars, Krisztian Nemeth and Vladimir Koman did not fulfil the hype and potential they were endowed. For much of the 00s and 10s era, some of Hungary’s brightest talents endured similar fates. Players like Balazs Farkas, Attila Filkor, Krisztian Adorjan, Gergely Bobal and Matyas Tajti all excelled at youth level and represented clubs like Liverpool, Inter, AC Milan, Wolfsburg and Barcelona, but could not translate their talent into the senior game.

The next generation of youngsters are on the mission to change that. Many have learned for the errors of their predecessors. While previously Hungarian youngsters struggled to say ‘no’ to the lure of gigantic clubs, more and more are opting to move to academies with a philosophy for developing talent and where they have a more feasible chance of making it into the first team.

Dominik Szoboszlai was pursued by many high profile clubs but instead chose Red Bull Salzburg, and the benefits are eminent.

23 year old Roland Sallai, a product of Puskas Akademia, moved to Palermo, and then strangely to Cyprus before earning himself a transfer to the Bundesliga.

22 year old Attila Szalai has followed a similar path, and is too being linked with a Bundesliga move but opted to stay in Cyprus this summer for guaranteed first team football.

Hungary’s best academy prospects now ply their trade at clubs where they are expected to be given a chance. 18 year old Botond Balogh was recently given a start for Parma against Inter in the Serie A. Daniel Csoka (19) is a regular for Wimbledon in League One. Krisztofer Horvath (18) debuted in Serie A last season and is now at Torino.

Meanwhile recently turned 18 year old Andras Nemeth is on the cusp of making his debut for Genk – a team renowned for giving youth players a chance. Csaba Bukta (19) was one of Liefering’s best players and could follow Dominik Szoboszlai’s footsteps. Likewise, his teammate Samuel Major (18) is also a regular for Salzburg’s second string side.

Hungary have also done well to neutralise domestic players and lure Hungarian ethnic stars to the national team. Willi Orban who had the choice between Poland and Germany as well as Hungary was a major coup and him alongside his club teammate Peter Gulacsi have solidified an often leaky Hungarian defence.

Loic Nego was another astute addition. One of the best players in Hungary’s domestic league, Nego was an U19 European Champion with France alongside Antoine Griezmann, but will now face his old teammates as an opponent at the Euros after scoring a crucial goal in Hungary’s play-off victory against Iceland.

The likes of Filip Hollender of Partizan Belgrade and Adrian Szoke of Heracles both of Serbian descent were also solid additions. Hollender has played a particularly key role for the national side over the past year.

Another one to keep a close eye on is Marton Dardai. The 18 year old centre-back and Germany U17 captain is the son of Pal and has recently debuted for Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga.

It is clear that the Hungarian FA (MLSZ) have learned from their errors in the past losing out on players such as Gyorgy Garics and Laszlo Benes who were both Hungarian ethnic players. Now MLSZ have a wide-scouting system to ensure the best talent doesn’t slip away from their grasp.

Almos Kalafat of Besitkas is more proof, the Turkish born winger and U19 top-goal scorer has been called up for Hungary’s U19 side after discoveries were made of his Hungarian ethnicity last year.

Domestic League improving

Ferencvaros’ qualification to the Champions League group-stages was proof the level of quality in Hungarian football has evolved in recent years.

Beating opponents like Celtic and Dinamo Zagreb as well as drawing with Dinamo Kijev in the group stages has already made Fradi the most successful Hungarian side in Europe in this century.

Ferencvaros’ arch rivals Videoton have also enjoyed relative success qualifying for the Europa League in two occasions since 2010.

In the past three seasons Hungary have had consecutive appearances in one of Europe’s top two elite competitions with Videoton in the Europa League in 2018/19, Ferencvaros in the Europa League in 2019/20 and now in the Champions League in 2020/21.

The amount of young players getting their opportunity in Hungary’s first division is slowly starting to grow.

This season U21 players have already made 24 goal contributions after just 10 rounds. Compared that to 34 in total last season and the signs are encouraging. It’s even more impressive considering some teams have only played 8 rounds.

Teams like Puskas Akademia, MTK and Budafok are largely to thank for this increase. It has seen 18 year old Gyorgy Komaromi of Puskas, 20 year old Szabolcs Schon of MTK and Alen Skribek of Budafok thrive.

Last season only ten U18 players featured in the Hungarian first division, this season that number has already gone up to 17. It has seen 16 year old Barnabas Biben become a regular for MTK and Noel Keresztes become the third youngest debutant in the league since 1990. Meanwhile 15 year old Zalan Vancsa is already training regularly with MTK’s first team and a debut is on the horizon.

With the impact of the pandemic clubs have been forced to turn towards youth and it could hugely benefit Hungary in the long term.

Bielsa’s desciple

In Marco Rossi the Hungarian national team are guided by a principled and innovative man.

A former footballer for Sampdoria and Eintracht Frankfurt, Rossi’s initial stint in Hungary was not of any major success. His two year spell with Budapest Honved between 2012-2014 ended in his resignation.

However he returned to the club less than a year later.

And in the 2016-17 season, playing a counter-attacking defensive approach, Rossi miraculously won the league with the financially inferior Honved. It was the club’s first title in the 21st century and it ensured Rossi a hero status in Hungary.

After a short and successful spell for DAC, a football club in Slovakia but situated in a Hungarian ethnic majority town, Marco Rossi was appointed as the manager of the national team in 2018.

Under Rossi’s tenure, Hungarian have often deployed a three-man defence, with Willi Orban dictating proceedings alongside two fellow centre-backs usually, Attila Szalai and Endre Botka.

The emphasis is on attacking on the wings with two rampant full-backs and a solid midfield three joined by two attackers. The pivot in the midfield is 25 year old Bristol City midfielder, Adam Nagy who often dictates the play with his short passes and astute reading of the game.

It is a fluid system which Rossi has deployed since his time at Honved and it has been largely successful.

With Rossi at the helm, Hungary have earned promotion to the second division of the Nations League in 2019. Beat World Cup finalist’s Croatia, successfully qualified for the Euros and are currently just one point away from winning their Nations League group which could help them qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Rossi learnt much of his philosophy from Marcelo Bielsa as a player during his time with Club America.

Speaking to Mondo Futbol, Rossi recalled his memories of Bielsa as follows.

‘People already called him “loco”, crazy, because he was so obsessed, almost paranoid, with his attention to detail. He had a private office in the América sports centre and he would watch football games on VHS night and day.

For sure, I’m a maniac as much as he is. After games, I can’t sleep due to the adrenaline, so I generally watch two or three matches of our next opponent to prepare the work for the week.’

Marco Rossi, Mondo Futbol

Rossi’s counter attacking football will be tested to the maximum at the 2020 Euros in the summer. Hungary’s opponents will be the last two World Champions and the European Champions in Portugal, Germany and France.

With the likes of Dominik Szoboszlai, Peter Gulacsi and Willi Orban, Hungary have players who have played at the highest of stages and their experience could be crucial in the tournament.

One thing is for certain, Rossi and co are desperate to herald a new golden age for Hungarian football. The legacy of the Mighty Magyars has been a hefty burden to carry and the time is now for a new chapter.

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