Worst of both worlds

Hungary came close to qualifying for the World Cup, only to spectacularly fall at the last hurdle. Simon Evans chronicles their humliating play-off defeat

Hungarian fans belong to an elite group who have earnt themselves the prefix ‘long-suffering’. Having watched their national team and domestic league get steadily worse over the past decade, a uniquely silly Finnish own goal gave their team a point in Helsinki and a final chance of making it to France 98.

One Hungarian fan confided in me that he secretly hoped his team wouldn’t make it to France. “We will be destroyed in front of the world,” was his explanation. Well a 7-1 home defeat to Yugoslavia and a 5-0 reverse in Belgrade in the two play-off matches accomplished that without any need for a trip to Paris.

What exactly do you do as a fan when your national team is 3-0 down, at home, inside the first ten minutes? How do you react when they are five down at half-time?

There are parts of the world where a game like that would never be finished. Others where the ground would just empty. Violent protest or voting with your feet seem to be the most common reactions to total humiliation. But the Hungarians stayed in their seats and produced 45 minutes of surreal support.

The sixth Yugoslav goal was greeted with a roar from the home crowd and a Mexican wave followed. Was this a pointed reference to Hungary’s last great disaster, the 6-0 defeat by the Soviets in the 1986 World Cup? Or were they just keeping warm? They were simply taking the piss. The whole stadium was gripped by the kind of nervous laughter that covers fear or shock.

The standard chant at national games in Hungary is “Ria! Ria! Hungaria!”, but on that night it became: “Dia! Dia! Tragedia!” Coach Janos Csank, who had just celebrated his 51st birthday, was treated to a Magyar version of Happy Birthday: “May you have so many happy days like this.” Then came the ultimate response to their team’s performance, “Yugoslavia! Yugoslavia!” and the seventh Yugoslav goal was greeted with a roar. When Hungary got a consolation goal there was simply laughter. After the game one Hungarian player, Florian Urban, announced that he was quitting the game, citing the reaction of the fans as his reason.

When I arrived in Belgrade for the second leg I expected to witness support at its best. Yugoslav fans have had five years in the football wilderness and were now back in the big time. Carnival time, smoke bombs, flares and partying on the streets.

As the Yugoslav national anthem began, a good third of the ground whistled and booed. There were no visiting supporters. A strange start to a national celebration. My Serb mate next to me remained seated and silent throughout. “That is the national anthem of a country which died five years ago,” he explained. “I am a Serb, it has nothing to do with me.”

When the chants began, I listened closely, hoping to pick up the local phrase for “Come on You Blues”. From behind one goal come the roar: “Partizan! Partizan!” Whistles came from the other end of the ground followed by “Crvena Zvezda!” (“Red Star!”)

Seventeen minutes into the game Savo Milosevic scored the opening goal for Yugoslavia. The Partizan fans chanted his name. So did the Red Star fans, “Savo you are a monkey” they yelled. The Partizan fans then produced some song about how all Red Star supporters are gypsies. At no time did the chant of “Yugoslavia! Yugoslavia!” ever reach the volume the Hungarian fans had produced for it two weeks earlier.

After the game a furious Milosevic, who had been substituted to protect him from further abuse, revealed that his roommate Zeljko Petrovic had received a death threat prior to the game. Petrovic, who once played for Dinamo Zagreb before the war, has been the victim of a whispering campaign that claims he once played for Croatia in an unofficial match before the country had been officially recognized by UEFA. He denies this. The caller gave him twelve hours to leave the country or be killed.

The state of war between Partizan and Red Star used to be put aside for national team games. At one time even the Croats and Serbs managed to support the same team. These days the Serbs themselves can’t put aside their disputes for 90 minutes. During the five years of enforced exile from international football they have forgotten how to support their national team. God knows what they would do if they were 7-1 down at home.

From WSC 131 January 1998. What was happening this month