When Hungary qualified for their second consecutive UEFA European Championship after a 30-year absence from major tournaments, fans were overjoyed even though they suspected that their team’s run might be unremarkable against three of the best nations in the sport.
However, in the end, they got far more: After a 3-0 loss to Portugal, they took a halftime lead in an eventual draw with World Cup holders France, followed by an electrifying 2-2 draw against Germany on Wednesday, in which they twice took the lead.
Each time that Hungary scored they were set for the last 16. Each time that Germany equalized, Hungary were homeward-bound.
In the end, they are going home, but many will say that Hungary put up more than a fair fight in what was rightly dubbed the “group of death.”
Meanwhile, Europe has reverberated with a Hungarian scandal related to soccer that the players did their best to ignore.
The European Commission, several European countries and personalities have protested about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ban on discussing homosexuality and gender change in schools and the media.
To show their displeasure, Germany, the hosts of Wednesday’s match, had wanted to illuminate the Allianz Arena in rainbow colors, a move that European soccer body UEFA blocked.
However, Hungary manager Marco Rossi and goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi pledged to ignore politics and focus solely on soccer.
“We were really close to something really special, so it is a big disappointment,” Gulacsi said after the match. “Our team has a lot of heart — we have shown that for sure.”
Before a training camp “bubble” closed on players last month, Hungarian Football Federation chairman Sandor Csanyi had visited them and told them to be proud just to be in the competition.
Advancing from their group was not a reality, Csanyi told the Wednesday edition of the Hungarian sports daily Nemzeti Sport.
“We already won by being here,” he said.
Hungary played in front of the competition’s only capacity crowds, with the fans creating a wall of sound to give their team a boost.
Even when the team played in Munich, Germany, on Wednesday, tens of thousands of supporters back in Budapest drowned out the Portuguese and French fans around them watching their own 2-2 draw unfold live in the Puskas Arena.
“The fans created one hell of an atmosphere,” midfielder Laszlo Kleinheisler said after the Hungary-France match. “It is an incredible feeling to be here.”
The new Puskas Arena might have been the closest resemblance of the atmosphere that has been lost since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
If not for the row about the LGBTQ+ law, Hungary’s success might have been some vindication for the populist Orban, who forced through a multibillion-euro upgrade of the country’s soccer infrastructure, including building the Puskas Arena.
Either way, despite their early exit, Hungary leave the tournament with their heads held high and their country’s presence firmly stamped on the map of European soccer.
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