For Hungary, the dream goes on.
The prospect of topping Group F on Wednesday evening is extraordinary, given that their coach, Bernd Storck, described his side making the Euro 2016 play-offs as a “small miracle”. After beating Norway over two legs, this is their first major tournament for 30 years and their first European Championship for 44.
On their arrival the script was supposed to, at best, see them squeeze into third place in the group ahead of their fellow underdogs Iceland. Storck has been straight-batting comparisons between his squad and the English Premier League champions ever since. “I would like to remain realistic but Leicester’s win is, of course, amazing,” he said.
Hungary enjoyed their finest hour with Ferenc Puskas spearheading the Magical Magyars of the 1950s but now they are cherishing a new dawn under the eyes of the German trio Storck, his assistant, Andreas Möller, and the goalkeeping coach Holger Gehrke.
“The German coach has brought the German mentality with him,” said the Hoffenheim striker Adam Szalai. Indeed, Hungary are mightily efficient, disciplined and presumably hell-bent on securing the sunbeds at the team’s base in the French village of Tourrettes, west of Nice. Until now Hungary have been unforgiving and tireless: brushing aside Austria in their group opener before digging deep to find an equaliser against Iceland.
Storck, who was sacked as the Kazakhstan coach in 2010, appointed Möller as his assistant after taking the Hungary job last summer. They are good friends and lifted the German Cup together with Borussia Dortmund in 1989. As a relative newcomer to coaching, Möller has spent time sitting in on Diego Simeone’s training sessions at Atlético Madrid, while his CV as a player is exemplary. The 48-year-old has won the World Cup, Champions League and tasted victory against England in this very competition in 1996, beating David Seaman from the penalty spot at Wembley.
Of his relationship with Storck, Möller said: “We have played together, we have both been in the Bundesliga and we have played many, many games together. We both know what you must do to be successful. Bernd is somebody who lives football 24 hours a day.”
Hungary face Portugal in their final group game after taking four points from their first two matches. The reward for his players was a half-day off on Sunday to enjoy some time with their families. “The boys have more than earned it,” said Storck. “If somebody had said that we would have four points before the tournament, I would not have thought it possible. I am damn proud of my team. After all these years without success, it is great for the fans.”
Hungary’s next test will prove a real marker of just how seriously they should be taken, with the 32-year-old Roland Juhasz, who plays for two-times Hungarian title winners Videoton, tasked with marking Cristiano Ronaldo. “We must stop the whole Portugal team – not just Ronaldo,” said the defender. “We have not come here for a holiday but rather to show that we have earned the right to be here.”
Ronaldo harbours the obvious attacking threat but Hungary are not fazed about dealing with players such as the Real Madrid forward. “We need heart and passion, most of our opponents have better individuals,” Storck said.
Hungary are yet to look out of place on the international stage – they are 20th in the Fifa rankings after all – but Storck’s preparations have certainly helped. Before arriving in France, his players underwent a three-week long training camp, during which they faced Ivory Coast at the national stadium in Budapest and the world champions, Germany, at Schalke’s Gelsenkirchen.
“At home the boys usually play in front of 2,000 fans,” Storck said. “If I brought them here to play in front of 50 or 60,000 fans straight away, it would not work. The buzz for the national team is there and our last matches before the European Championship were probably sold out. But the Hungarian league is a different story. Quite a few of the stadiums are old and derelict, the level is not always good and many people prefer to watch it on television.”
So far, Storck’s methods are very much working after three decades in the wilderness. Storck and Möller have put Hungary back on the map but the 53-year-old coach has the bigger picture in mind. “I hope this is the start of a better future,” Storck said. “I am convinced that this team can write new history. We are physically much stronger than in recent years. We also have more options tactically.
“I am aware of the great success in the past but that can act as a burden for the players now. I have the team’s progress also in my thinking. After the European Championship, the qualification for the World Cup in Russia begins. There we also want to play a good role. Our participation here should not be seen as just a one-off. It is a huge challenge for Hungarian football to permanently move out of the woodwork.”
First, they face a faltering Portugal in Lyon, where Hungary can put the gloss on sealing the once-unimaginable feat of reaching the last 16. “If we were to survive the group stage, it would be for us like winning the whole tournament,” said the one-time Liverpool forward Krisztian Nemeth. It may be best then if Ronaldo, who took offence at Iceland’s jubilation after their 1-1 draw, is not watching should Hungary be the ones celebrating come Wednesday night.
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