History and goal-shy hitmen could hamper Hungary’s appetite at Euro 2016
Holly Thackeray | April 26, 2016
In a similar vein to England, Hungary’s proud footballing past oft casts a heavy shadow over current crops, with understandable endless comparisons.
Of course, nobody expects (unlike with the English) that the present can match memories of the Magical Magyars vintages that sparkled skilfully across the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Way back when, finishing at the business ends of the European Championship (third in 1964 and fourth in 1972) and World Cup (runners-up twice in 1938 and 1954) was commonplace but, unlike other former footballing powers, Hungary have fallen down the pecking order rather dramatically since.
The prestige and flair from that golden era, when the likes of Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis graced the pitch, is yet to come remotely close to being recreated, with Euro 2016 the first time since 1986 that the Magyars will take their place at a major international tournament.
Bernd Storck’s boys have, then, achieved something rather outstanding and theirs is a qualification, admittedly via the third place play-offs, that should rank alongside the lauded progression of ‘lesser’ prestige nations Iceland and Albania, who stormed to France automatically.
Perhaps their far from glamorous qualifying group of Northern Ireland, Romania, Finland, the Faroe Islands and Greece has seen them discounted, with the Hungarian squad widely considered one of, if not the, weakest links this summer, but they can certainly prove stubborn.
So, after this magnificent Magyar revival of sorts, what is eating at Hungary ahead of Euro 2016?
Attacking inspiration needed to build on backline
A revolving door of three coaches during Euro qualifying, one sacked after a disappointing defeat (Attila Pinter) and another spirited away after impressive results by surprise Bundesliga performers Hertha Berlin (Pal Dardai) before German-born youth gaffer Storck was thrown into the role has not been profitable for stability.
Yet, Hungary (odds-on at 8/15 to be eliminated at the Euro 2016 group stage) still overcame the lack of coaching cohesion to ultimately sweep to a successful campaign. It is no surprise that their style and team identity may still need a little tinkering, however.
Like any boss that wants to stay put in his seat for sometime, Storck first and foremost has ensured his side are solid and stable at the back, giving the Magyars something solid to build upon. With clean sheets kept in five from 10 qualifiers plus the first leg of the play-off with Norway, it is difficult to denigrate the focus on defence, and a surprisingly youthful one at that, with 23-year-old Thomas Lang tipped as one to watch in France.
Though, credit must be given to former Crystal Palace keeper and cult hero Gabor Kiraly (now 40), for pulling off more than his share of sensational stops to push Hungary on, baggy trouser bottoms and all.
Yet, in Group F, they will face the prospect of Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo to stop, which may paint their reliable rearguard in a less romantic light. In addition, just like qualifying foes and neighbours Romania (although they are even more staunch defensively), stopping the shipping of goals is all well and good, but to win matches and not just frustrate a team needs potency too. So, despite historically boasting some of football’s most brilliant attacking talent, this is where the Magyars may find they come up short.
Fresh and familiar faces
Indeed, to secure safe passage from Group F, Hungary need to record more strikes, of which they recorded just 11 from 10 in qualifying – an admittedly measly return by any standard.
Of course, it seems unkind to focus attacking ire solely on the far from incisive sharpshooters, as creativity requires a team effort, but between them most recent frontmen on the roster Adam Szalai (of Bundesliga fame), Krisztian Nemeth (once on Liverpool’s books), Nemanja Nikolic (Legia Warsaw) and Daniel Bode (Ferencvaros) are yet to hit double figures for their nation.
One net threat exception is Tamas Priskin, who has hit a respectable 17 in 55 caps, and is remembered for his stints in England with Watford and Ipswich Town. Propelled back into favour after starring for Slovan Bratislava, but featuring intermittently in the qualifying campaign, Priskin repaid Storck’s surprise faith by being a goal hero against the Norwegians; so his personal story may have more mileage yet.
Still, the lack of goal gluts up front is a concern, though as the group have grown together a dusting of familiar faces, may have one last shot at delivering, having failed to live up to early promise. These notable names are attacking midfield duo Zoltan Gera (last seen in England with West Bromwich Albion and Fulham) and Balazs Dzsudzsak (one for fans of PSV Eindhoven and Dynamo Moscow).
While guileful Gera is 37, skipper Dzsudzsak (29) certainly still has a spring in his step and has by all accounts been Hungary’s heroic cornerstone, with displays of both playmaking precision and dazzling width out wide for his nation. It is here where the Magyar’s magic can emerge.
Though, undoubtedly the protagonist of the play-off legs was relative unknown youngster Laszlo Kleinheisler (now of Werder Bremen after his rapid international ascent), who hit headlines and catapulted himself to continental fame with a cracking effort against Norway, with his long-range stunner seeing perhaps rather too flattering comparisons to Paul Scholes furthered. A threat from the middle and a sprinkling of determination and dynamism he just might bring, however.
Looking forward to France
This collection of components – a defence which can be resilient, a goalkeeper with experience, midfield talent old and new – are promising, but may not be enough for Hungary (11/8 outsiders to qualify from Pool F) to be more than the sum of their parts.
The Magyars must just enjoy the moment, as France holds plenty of threat to their re-emergence on the big stage, with not only the Navigators lying wait, but also the more compact and impressive underdog outfit of Iceland and regional rivals Austria.
Having recently held another neighbour, and a much more fancied one at that, in star-studded Croatia to a draw there is hope that a little magic could happen in France. The Magyars did after all defeat the Austrians in their last encounter in 2006, and anything could occur against Iceland. Still, another warm-up wrangle with world champions and heavyweights Germany awaits and could bring the Hungarians down to earth with a resounding bump.