6 November 2009 ~ During Debrecen's 1-0 defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League in September Clive Tyldesley referred to the Hungarian league as "the 35th strongest in Europe". Given that the 15 or so countries below Hungary in the UEFA co-efficient included Albania, Armenia and Liechtenstein (who don't even have a league) "strength" is perhaps a misplaced word. Sadder perhaps is that Hungary is by some distance the lowest ranked country on the list to have appeared in a World Cup final. Given this weakness it is perhaps with some irony that September 2009 was anticipated more than almost any month since Hungary last appeared in a World Cup 23 years ago.
The national team were in second place in their qualifying group, ahead of Sweden and Portugal, with four games to play. Debrecen had taken advantage of the lack of seeding in the qualifying rounds and had reached the Champions League group stage, the first Hungarian team to make it since 1995. Finally, a talented Hungarian team was taking part the World Cup Under-20 tournament in Egypt. Predictably it all went wrong. Sweden scored a 94th-minute winner in Budapest, the Portuguese woke up enough to scrape a narrow 1-0 victory four days later and managed the same trick in Lisbon in October. Debrecen leaked four goals at home against Lyon and the U-20's lost bravely in the semi-finals to eventual winners, Ghana.
There is some light on the horizon however. Hungary has not been overlooked by the huge scouting networks set up by the major European clubs – there are three Hungarians at Liverpool, for example. The U-20 tournament was considered hugely important in Hungary with large numbers watching the games and there were great celebrations when the team got past Italy in the quarter-finals. Vladimir Koman of Sampdoria was the second highest goalscorer with five goals in six games. The development of young players can only be helped by the new technical and training centre, based in a village near Budapest, which was opened by Sepp Blatter earlier this year.
Debrecen are proving a model for other Hungarian clubs to aspire to. Champions for the first time in 2005, they have now won the title in four out of the last five seasons and were runners-up in 2008. The club have that rare thing in football, a sensible financial model underwritten by support from the city council, which has enabled them to retain their best players from year to year. Unfortunately their stadium, a roofless, barbed wire-surrounded, decaying mess was never going to pass UEFA's stadium criteria. Instead they play the Champions League matches on the other side of the country at the 42,000-seat Ferenc Puskás Stadium in Budapest: still the only really viable stadium in the land.
The current league leaders are another provincial club, Videoton of Székesfehérvár, who last came to international notice when losing the 1985 UEFA cup final to Real Madrid. Although not in disarray, the Budapest teams are in a lull. Ferencváros have been bought by Sheffield United owner Kevin McCabe but are still struggling due to a finance-related relegation a few seasons ago. The capital's football doldrums can be best illustrated when only 12,000 could be bothered to show up for the recent Ferencváros v Újpest derby.
The national team is perhaps the hardest to spin a positive story about. Hungary has experimented with famous coaches – Lothar Matthaus was in charge for the previous World Cup campaign and was not a success. The current coach is former Dutch international Erwin Koeman, older brother of Graham Taylor's nemesis Ronald. The general opinion is that Koeman is not brave enough to set his teams up for victory. The crucial Sweden game saw Hungary take the field with no recognised attacker. Nevertheless, even this tiny glimpse of a chance of a World Cup final made the team popular again.
The widely-held opinion is that they still can't defend crosses and refuse to play for the first and last ten minutes of the game but at least they now beat the teams they should beat. What Hungary really needs is one brilliant player, a talisman to build a team around – he is long overdue. Ray Dexter