Football: Signs of revival in a country of fabled heritage

Paul Newman sees a new generation attempting to breathe fresh life into Hungary's footballing tradition

WALKING THROUGH the centre of this beautiful city yesterday you would not have guessed that this was a country with a wonderful football heritage. The only supporters to be seen were a handful of England followers, while only one shop in the main precinct was selling replica football shirts. Even there pride of place in the display went to the kits of Manchester United and Real Madrid rather than Ferencvaros or MTK.

Even on the approach to the historic Nepstadion the streets were so quiet it was hard to imagine that the modern-day successors to Puskas, Hidegkuti and Kocsis were preparing to take on the country they famously humbled 46 years ago. By the end of the night, however, this Hungarian team were taking their bows in front of an enthusiastic crowd, who responded warmly to the efforts of a side endeavouring, with some success, to revive the country's football fortunes.

Considering Hungary's rich football history, their recent decline has been dramatic. A 7-1 defeat at the hands of Yugoslavia in a play-off for a place in last year's World Cup brought humiliation to a country which has produced at least three great national teams this century.

The most acclaimed were the "Golden Squad" of the 1950s, who ran rings around England at Wembley in 1953. Since quarter-final appearances in the 1962 and 1966 World Cup finals, however, Hungary has rarely made a mark on the world game. There has been little private investment since the end of Communism and most of the country's leading football administrators were sacked recently by the government, which is investigating claims of corruption. Hooliganism is on the increase, many stadiums are in decay and public interest in the game has plummeted.

Yet there are signs of a revival, led by Bertalan Bicksei, the coach, who has put faith in a promising crop of youngsters. His side went into last night's game having lost only once in more than a year.

What a young side often needs more than anything is luck, but after a promising start Hungary must have felt that fortune was not on their side as two incidents in the space of a minute changed the game.

The home team had already threatened several times down the wings when Attila Korsos got the better of Wes Brown on England's right. The young defender brought down Korsos outside the penalty area but Hungary were unable to take advantage of the ensuing free-kick. Less than 60 seconds later, at the other end, Alan Shearer's run into the penalty area was ended by a clumsy challenge from Gabor Halmai, and the England captain stepped up to score from the spot.

Playing with only one striker, Bela Illes, Hungary regularly put men forward from midfield, Tibor Dombi and Kosos provided width on the flanks, while Istvan Pisont prompted intelligently in the centre. For all their methodical approach play, however, Hungary rarely threatened in the first half.

Bickskei had promised to take the game to England and in the second half, Hungary were true to his words as Kevin Keegan's side spent long periods in their own half. In the opening 10 minutes Dombi, whose skills were a small reminder of another era, brought two fine saves out of David Seaman.

Illes was then thwarted by a superb tackle in the penalty area by Martin Keown, but the home side were not to be denied. Janos Hrutka's exquisitely struck free-kick after 76 minutes brought Hungary deserved rewards for their efforts and at last sparked a vociferous response from what was a promisingly large crowd in the Nepstadion. The golden days may never return for Hungarian football, but after the years of decline better times would appear to be here.

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