After a cagey start to a European Championships that is becoming marred by unsavoury events away from the pitch in Marseille and Lille, it was over to the two unfancied teams in Group F, the last quartet of sides to get underway in France, to breathe a refreshing air of surprise.
Iceland dug deep to hold a profligate Portugal to a 1-1 draw, drawing Cristiano Ronaldo’s chagrin enough to call them a “small team”. He was quite right too, with a population of 335,000 the volcanic island is just over half the size of Lisbon, but while Ronaldo was largely kept muted by the 33 year old Kari Arnason, a veteran of Plymouth Argyle, Aberdeen and Rotherham, Birkir Bjarnason earned a point for the underdog in their first ever European Championship game.
Perhaps Lars Lagerback’s Icelanders took heart from earlier proceedings in Bordeaux as Hungary earned a convincing 2-0 win over their central-European neighbours Austria. Again, the superior names of the opposition counted for little. “If you look at the teams these Austrians play for, it’s clear who was the favourite,” said Hungary’s manager Bernd Storck, who added that his team had “played out of their skin”.
David Alaba may have been the “god” of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich but the midfielder would leave southwestern France ruing his country’s inability to take advantage of the opening period, in which he struck the post early on before 40 year old Gabor Kiraly, becoming the oldest player ever to take the field in a European Championship, and complete with his infamous grey jogging-bottoms, made a string of saves of to deny the Austrians.
A lot of Austria’s moves went through Stoke’s Marko Arnautovic who was typically sporadic with his threat, in-turn isolating Marko Janko who ran an increasingly desperate race in attack. Hungary gradually grew into the game in the second half and duly took control, with Laszlo Kleinheisler, the “Hungarian Paul Scholes” indicating why his likeliness to the former Manchester United midfielder is more than his red hair, dictating Hungary’s rhythm with a fine array of passing.
Kleinheisler offered a glimpse of his threat by threading a ball through for Balazs Dzsudzsak just before the interval, however the winger dragged his shot wide of the post. The warning signs were there though and with Alaba and Julian Baumgartlinger beginning to lose control of midfield to Kleinheisler and his promising young sidekick Adam Nagy, Hungary took the lead after a sliding finish from Adam Szalai, scoring his first goal for either club or country since December 2014, concluded an intricate move that had Kleinheisler at the middle of it.
That goal sparked delirium as Szalai thrust himself into a crowd that was littered with shirts bearing the name of Ferenc Puskas, the stalwart of the Magical Magyars that illuminated the 1950s but whose failure to win the 1954 World Cup still scars the nation. Hungary have reached just 8 major tournaments in the following 62 years and having been absent since the World Cup of 1986; Szalai’s goal provoked a cathartic euphoria they have been waiting so long to unleash.
And who better to do it against than their old historic rivals, with whom they shared the central-power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War in 1918, and whom they had to witness become a prosperous part of Europe during the Cold War as Hungary fell behind the Iron Curtain. Investment and interest in the sport continued to dwindle after the fall of the Soviet Bloc in the early 90s and it wasn’t until the conservative government of Viktor Orban won back power in 2010 that a concerted effort was made to change the country’s footballing landscape.
The Albert Florian stadium in Budapest was demolished in 2013 to make way for the Groupama Arena, a 23,000-seater UEFA category 4 stadium which cost $53.3 million to build, while a similar renovation has taken place at the Nagyerdei Stadion in Debrecen. By January 2015 Orban’s government had spent over €500 million on stadium renovation, sparking a backlash from a majority of the population who would rather see such resources spent on healthcare or education, in a quest to grow average domestic attendances from 3,000 to 10,000 by 2018.
Orban would have been delighted to the scenes that followed Szalai’s opener and would be aware that a successful tournament for Storck’s men in France would give credence to his chronic investment in improving football infrastructure in the country.
There is still a relative dearth of fresh talent available to take-over from the elder statesmen Kiraly and Zoltan Gera, the 37 year old who was so influential in midfield for Hungary on Tuesday he made the most passes (55), the most clearances (3) and most tackles for his team (3), but the 20 year old Nagy and 22 year old Kleinheisler have both shown they are of huge potential.
The imaginations of a nation would have certainly been captured by the way they put the game beyond an increasingly desperate Austria who had a goal chalked off for a foul that resulted in the dismissal of Aleksandar Dragovic. Buoyed by the man advantage Hungary reeled Austria in before Zoltan Steiber ran clear and sumptuously dinked the ball beyond a hapless Robert Almer in the Austrian goal.
We needed a “miracle” said Storck before the tournament and for anybody who witnessed Hungary’s nadir of a 2-1 defeat to Malta in qualifying for Euro 2008 a decade ago, the islander’s only win in the competition for 34 years, would have said they had got one in Bordeaux. Many however, like their optimistic football-fanatic government, would believe Hungary’s miracle has many more chapters to run this summer.
Now it is on to Iceland, another nation daring to dream after an eye-catching opening night in Group F.