The Hungarians have always boasted a renownedly-respected footballing tradition due to an ineffable, and possibly quite burdensome, history beautifully carved by a host of outstanding teams from the early to mid-twentieth century.
Hungary attracts over 11 million international tourists per year and, just as people travel to gorge themselves in the country’s history, culture and terrain, the world once flocked to watch their national football team.
A Ferenc Puskas-inspired outfit famously defeated England 6-3 at Wembley, becoming the first non-British or Irish side to do so, before reaching the final of the 1954 World Cup in nearby Switzerland. While the style of play captured the imagination, the side’s tenure was unfortunately cut short due to the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the national team have subsequently failed to elevate themselves to a similar level since.
This 23-man squad, however, have already started their latest chapter in Nemzeti Tizenegy’s history books having qualified for a first major tournament in three decades. Reaching the finals, albeit of this slightly expanded European Championships, typifies progress but performing with the world watching would typify Hungary.
France awaits following play-off joy
The central European outfit are now ranked 20th in the world according to FIFA’s world rankings, which is testament to their improved performances over the years and to their more-than respectable qualifying campaign.
Bernd Storck’s men had clearly benefitted from UEFA’s decision to expand the tournament when the draw was made for the qualifying groups in Nice during February 2014. A reasonably comfortable Group F consisted of Northern Ireland, Greece, Finland, Romania, the Faroe Islands and, of course, Hungary.
Their opening qualification encounter saw Northern Ireland visit Budapest and Tomas Priskin’s goal in the 75th minute looked to have given the hosts a deserved point before Niall McGinn and Kyle Lafferty both struck late on to secure a hugely important victory for the Irish.
Manager Attila Pinter was relieved of his duties following the defeat, leaving Pal Dardai to take over despite his commitments to Hertha Berlin. The nation lost just once across all competitions under Dardai as two wins over Finland and a draw with an unbeaten Romania helped accumulate enough points to see them advance well clear of fourth place.
A further managerial change, a fourth in three years, occurred when Dardai opted to devote his time towards Hertha Berlin’s charge for European football. Bernd Storck was duly appointed in July 2015 after a spell managing Hungary’s under-20 team, having obtained international management experience with Kazakhstan in the past.
Storck’s reign started with two important draws with Romania and Northern Ireland, who once again left it late to get something from the game, before a 2-1 win against the Faroe Islands secured third place and an opportunity to qualify via the play-offs.
Hungary were top seeds going into the play-offs and duly avoided the likes of Bosnia, Ukraine and Sweden in the draw. Norway proved to be the ones standing in the way of Hungary and a first tournament since the 1986 World Cup. Laszlo Kleinheisler opened the scoring in Oslo while another goal from Tomas Priskin and an own goal from Markus Henriksen meant the latter’s strike with minutes remaining proved to be a mere consolation.
In spite of the pandemonium surrounding qualification, with journalist Istvan Hajdu of Duna Media telling World Soccer that the country is still “in a kind of euphoric state after qualifying”, the side have remained focused during the well-organised friendlies that have followed. A late Balazs Dzsudzsak free-kick earned his country a well-deserved draw against a talented Croatia while a superb defensive display shutout African Cup of Nations champions Ivory Coast in a goalless draw.
A 2-0 loss to Germany in their final friendly before the competition begins might have dampened spirits slightly but, no matter the result, the last five performances have set the bar for Bernd Storck’s men ahead of Euro 2016.
Bernd Storck meticulous in his approach
“I see this as the perfect opportunity to take Hungarian football in a new direction.”
On the face of the qualifying campaign, it might look as though Storck took to the helm of an already directed and well-organised ship, however, the German Cup winner with Borussia Dortmund has steared it in a completely new direction with his meticulous approach and confidence in his own ability.
The German, who still works as Hungary’s national sports director, has already been awarded a contract extension until 2018 for his short but prosperous time in charge. Storck replaced Dardi’s backroom staff upon arrival and replaced them with his own full-time coaches that helped get the best out of the squad he adopted. Not one to shy away from making important decisions, he even cancelled the fixtures of Hungary’s domestic league for a week's training.
The 53-year-old still heavily relied on Dardi’s defensive tactics throughout the second half of the qualifying campaign and in those two vital play-off meetings with Norway, who enjoyed far more efforts and possession across both encounters. Behind this tight back four is veteran goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly, who has kept Adam Bogdan out of the starting line-up due to the Liverpool ‘keeper’s poor season at Anfield.
A five-man midfield includes former Fulham man Zoltan Gera sitting with Adam Nagy in the holding positions while captain, dangerman and free-kick taker Balazs Dzsudzsak operates on the right flank. Young Laszlo Kleinheisler works in the number 10 role behind either Tamas Priskin, Adam Szalai or Nemanja Nikolic.
Defensive quality questionable but have talented attack
In spite of Hungary’s aforementioned defensive approach, it was evident during qualifying that this squad were susceptible to conceding goals. Although they only allowed 0.8 goals in per game during qualifying, the defense harbours little experience and none boast any sincere pedigree compared to the rest of the starting XI.
The majority of the defenders are home based and clearly benefit from Storck’s system above anything else. Attila Fiola is expected to start at right-back while Adam Lang, who scored an own goal in the friendly with Germany, Roland Juhasz and Richard Guzmics will all battle for a starting berth in the middle of the back four. Tamas Kadar, who is referred to as “Bad Boy” after Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, will start at left-back. As a unit this back-line have the possibility of performing but it still remains the weakest component of the squad.
Hungary’s strengths clearly lie in attack as Storck selected six offensive players in his final 23-man squad. While the three in behind the striker might pick themselves, the manager has quite the selection dilemma when it comes to his lone front man.
Tamas Priskin recovered from injury to make the plane and will be in contention alongside Nemanja Nikolics and Daniel Bode, all of whom scored a combined total of 55 goals for their respective clubs last season. However, Adam Szalai should be the most likely to start up front due to his style of play and strong frame.
Goals might not come easily for the 28-year-old but he should allow Lazlo Kleinheisler or Balazs Dzsudzsak to prosper as he comes deep and brings others into the game. His stature should spell a further threat from set-pieces, a real strength for this Hungarian side. Of the 14 goals netted during qualifying, five came from corners while three came from free-kicks. A number of options either from the start or off the bench, alongside possible goals from midfield, should be hugely beneficial.
Final 23-man squad:
Goalkeepers: Gabor Kiraly (Szombathelyi Haladas), Denes Dibusz (Ferencvaros), Peter Gulasci (RB Leipzig).
Defenders: Attila Fiola (FC Akademia), Barnabas Bese (MTK Budapest), Richard Guzmics (Wisla Krakow, Roland Juhasz (Videoton FC), Adam Lang (Videoton FC), Tamas Kadar (Lech Poznan), Mihaly Korhut (Debreceni VSC).
Midfielders: Akos Elek (Diyosgyori VTK), Adam Pinter (Ferencvaros), Zoltan Gera (Ferencvaros), Lazlo Kleinheisler (Werder Bremen), Gergo Lovrencsics (Lech Poznan), Zoltan Stieber (FC Nuremberg).
Forwards: Balazs Dzsudzsak (Bursaspor), Adam Szalai (Hannover 96 on loan from Hoffenheim), Krisztian Nemeth (Al-Gharafa), Nemanja Nikolic (Legia Warsaw), Tamas Priskin (Slovan Bratislava), Daniel Bode (Ferencvaros).
Dzsudzsak still the key man for Hungary
Hungary’s hopes undeniably rest upon Balazs Dzsudzsak’s shoulders. The winger has had a disappointing club career when one considers his raw talent and polished technical ability, however, the Bursaspor forward comes to life in a Hungary jersey.
The ex-PSV man leads by example as captain and will be a constant source of goals in France. The three-time Hungarian champion takes the game to the opposition with his quality, energy and skill out on the right flank. With the likes of Zoltan Gera now residing to a deeper role in midfield, Storck will be reliant on Dzsudzsak to create and ultimately score the goals that could see Hungary advance. A specialist from set-pieces, expect to see Dzsudzsak at the forefront of everything Hungary do.
Next to the captain is Laszlo Kleinheisler, who was a surprise call-up for the play-offs due to the 22-year-old’s lack of playing time with former club Videoton after an ongoing contract dispute. He shone over the two ties, running to hug his manager after his vital strike, and was subsequently signed by Werder Bremen in January. Kleinheisler, nicknamed Scholes due to his hair, will add another dimension to Hungary’s frontline.
In contrast to his Ferencvaros team-mate and midfield partner, Zoltan Gera, Adam Nagy has also impressed after his unlikely call-up. The highly-promising holding midfielder will surely start against Austria after his impressive form for club and country, form that has seen him linked with a host of big clubs.
Rivals Austria, minnows Iceland and an exciting Portugal are Group F opponents:
Hungary were placed in a competitive Group F during the group stage draw for the 15th edition of the European Championships and the Hungarian squad must travel to three major cities in France to face three sides of sincere quality.
Rivals Austria await Storck’s side in Bordeaux on June 14, with pride as well as points at stake in the south. Their neighbours harbour a vast array of talent that ply their trade across Europe’s top five divisions, something that Hungary lack within their squad. A work in progress for the Austrians, starting with “Project 12” in 2009, saw them qualify emphatically for their first ‘Euros’ since they co-hosted the tournament with Ukraine in 2008.
With manager Marcel Koller implementing a high-pressing, high-tempo and highly exciting style of play, they should not be taken lightly and will be a difficult opponent this summer. Premier League champion Christian Fuchs, Marko Arnautovic, David Alaba and Watford’s Sebastian Prodl are amongst the familiar names in the side.
Iceland have caught the attentions of many over the last three years, first when the country were on the verge of World Cup qualification for the first time in their history and when the nation of just 330,000 in population earned a place at this summer’s European Championships. A superb team spirit and a huge desire to work hard saw them qualify, although many do posses incredible technique compared to the Iceland teams of old. Gylfi Sigurdsson is without question their star player while Aron Gunnarsson, who also plays his club football in Wales, is just as integral to the midfield.
Portugal, meanwhile, will be the favourites to progress and rightly so. A fixture with the Portuguese in the brand new Parc OL should be an enticing one for the Hungary side as they face off against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Joao Moutinho. A good crop of young players complement the more experienced members of the side superbly and many view this as one of the most exciting Portuguese teams in over a decade.
June 14: - Austria in Bordeaux
June 18: - Iceland in Marseille
June 22 - Portugal in Lyon
Journalist Tomasz Mortimer discusses Hungary
Hello and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions regarding the Hungary national team! Firstly, just what does it mean to the nation and the players to qualify for a first major tournament in three decades?
"It’s an incredible achievement from a very modestly talented set of players. I don’t think the Hungarian public quite believe that they have made it after all this time without a tournament, and even though they’re not expecting miracles, they’re just delighted to be there. As for the players, many of them, including Zoltan Gera who played in a Europa League final, acknowledge that these tournament games will be the biggest of their careers."
This success comes just a couple of years after a record 8-1 defeat to Holland, how bad a place were the team in at the time and what allowed the team to improve to become the force they are today?
"It was indeed a dark day for Hungarian football, but it really was just a blip in that qualification group. Hungary had actually performed fairly well beating Turkey at home and drawing away and finishing above them in the group.
"What Hungary lacked then was steel and if they went behind in a game they often folded, like they did in the game against arch-rivals Romania two matches before the Holland disaster. That has improved markedly, first under former Hungary captain Pal Dardai and now under the German Bernd Storck."
There were three managers during the qualification period but Storck seemed to make the biggest impact, what has he brought to the national team and can you explain what his favoured tactics are?
"Dardai installed a newfound belief in the side."
"I think Dardai was the one who made the biggest impact, really. When Dardai took over, Hungary were in disarray after losing the first game of the group at home to Northern Ireland. Dardai, who has a novice at the time, installed a newfound belief in the side and in his first game in charge gained a credible draw away in Romania – 12 months on from the humbling in the previous qualification campaign. Hungary then got back to back wins over Finland and Faroe Islands before a 0-0 draw with Greece in Budapest. Hungary went on to beat Finland in Helsinki in his final game before he had to choose between Hertha and Hungary. He chose the former and Storck, who was Dardai’s choice, took over and didn’t win any of his first three games – 0-0 at home to Romania, 1-1 away in Belfast and a 4-3 loss to Greece. The playoff was extraordinary though and his all of his tactical plans came to fruition most notably the decision to play Laszlo Kleinheisler despite the fact he hadn’t played a league game all season.
"The system that Hungary will play was installed by Dardai and slightly tweaked by Storck, but essentially it’s Dardai’s team. Hungary are aggressive with their pressing and tackling in a 4-2-3-1 formation. All of the players will press including the very industrious number 10 Laszlo Kleinheisler and the slightly cumbersome Adam Szalai up front. The back four will never move from position and will hold the edge of the area and invite the opposition wingers to cross the ball, believing in their ability to win the headers. Hungary won’t be exciting to watch, but their defensive strategy gives them their best chance of proceeding through the group stages."
The preparation seems to be good with friendlies against Croatia, African champions Ivory Coast and world-champions Germany organised. How important has playing sides of such quality been before the tournament and what has Storck learned ahead of the finals?
"To test themselves against tough opposition was a must"
The boys have definitely needed it. Very few of the Hungarian players play in any of the strong leagues, and over half over the squad is actually based in Hungary, so to test themselves against tough opposition was a must to get more used to the quality to be expected at the Euro. Hungary performed admirably in all three games, and should’ve beaten both Croatia and Ivory Coast were it not for bad finishing. The game against Germany was much tougher, and though Hungary could’ve grabbed a couple of goals on a different day, the gulf in quality between the two sides was massive. Storck would’ve definitely learnt that his players can compete against the better sides, which should give the whole side some confidence ahead of the tournament."
The dangerman appears to be Balazs Dzsudzsak, who shines for his country but not for his club. What can we expect from him at this tournament, has his form at club level frustrated you and who else should neutrals look at for this summer?
"Dzsudzsak has at times been great for Hungary, but just like for his club side, he can go missing or he can be really, really frustrating. He has a superb left foot, takes free-kicks, corners and penalties so he’s always at the heart of the action, and he’s the go to man when Hungary have an attack. He’ll most likely play on the right, cutting in onto his left foot to have a shot at goal, but he can go on his right too, which isn’t a bad option.
"His club form has been poor ever since he chased the money to Russia from his glory days at PSV. It has been really frustrating to see such a talent wasted, and he could’ve gone on to become an excellent player had he gone on to move to one of Europe’s stronger leagues, but such is the way frustratingly often in modern football, he went for the monetary option and wasted a huge amount of potential."
With Storck having managed the under-20 side before he took charge of the senior side, does this give him an advantage (In this case of calling up youngster Laszlo Kleinheisler) and is the future bright for Hungary?
"Storck’s mandate since joining Hungary as youth coordinator and U20/U21 manager was an emphasis on the future and to get away from the Magical Magyar legacy, so to have him now installed as the national team boss is quite exciting and we’ve seen an abundance of young talent been given chances in recent months.
"The old guard are slowly being eased out and though Hungary’s revitalisation and relevance in world football is someway off, strategies are being put in place to change this and effects are being seen even at this embryonic stage. The fruit of the labours will hopefully be seen in the next 10-15 years, but Hungary are ahead of schedule and this tournament as seen as a bit of a bonus."
The opening match is against rivals Austria in Bordeaux before Hungary face Iceland and Portugal. Do you believe that Hungary can advance past the group stage? What will they need to do to gain points from these three sides?
"I think they’ll find it tough to get through the group stage in all honesty. All three sides Hungary will face are strong, and even though on a good day they are all beatable, Hungary will be outsiders in all the games.
"Hungary will need a bit of luck and to perform to their best. The flair players like Laszlo Kleinheisler and Balazs Dzsudzsak must be on form, that is crucial for Hungary’s creativity and whatever striker Storck goes with up front will need to be sharp as chances will be at a premium."
Finally, how far do you think they can go in France and what will this mean going forward?
"I think they’ll go out in the group stages with a two points. A draw to Iceland and draw with Portugal. I think scoring goals will be the problem. If Hungary are competitive in all three games, that will constitute success. No one is expecting anything and even the most staunch Hungarian fan realises that this crop of players aren’t the most talented bunch, but if passion and a willingness is on display, then the Magyar fan will be happy."
Tomasz is an established journalist that has written for World Soccer, ESPN and Goal amongst others. You can read his work on his own website, HungarianFootball.com, or follow him on Twitter at @TMortimerFtbl.