Hungary probably can’t be considered dark horses to win Euro 2024, but their recent rise suggests they could cause some more fancied teams some difficulties.

Existing in a mode of survival does much to the human psyche. It activates hyper vigilance. It spawns distrust. It inspires struggle.

Hungary, as a nation state, has been in survival mode for almost its entire existence. Culturally and linguistically isolated in central Europe; beleaguered by Ottoman, Habsburg, Nazi and Soviet Union occupations. As Hungarian President Tamás Sulyok put it in March, Hungarians have “learnt how to dance with their legs tied up.”

But learning how to dance isn’t straightforward. Before you do anything you firstly need to get the foundations in place. Then you need to pick a style and learn the technique.

That becomes even more difficult when your oppressor has your limbs bound together. To get to any kind of coherent sequence you need to find ways to covertly manoeuvre despite the shackles. You need to find ways to scheme to maintain both your inner and outer dance.

After relentless, seemingly unending turmoil, the Hungarian schemer is now centuries old. This scheming way of life has bled in every direction. Including in the direction of football.

When Hungary were world leaders in football, the Mighty Magyars were schemer extraordinaires. Their football was majestic, but it was unorthodox: it was built on problem-solving, deception and radical thinking.

But when the Hungarian revolution came and took the Mighty Magyars with it, Hungarian football began to lose everything it stood for. It became so bad that the national team found itself languishing at number 87 in the FIFA world rankings in 1996.

The revival started in 2014, but the first step was mere survival. Hyper vigilance was the main characteristic they needed to tap into. The scheming had to be relearned and they embraced the underdog nature Hungarians had built over centuries.

This was evidenced in all its glory in their performances at the last European Championship where, pitted in a group alongside Portugal, France and Germany, Hungary claimed two credible draws and almost, against all odds, made their way through the group of death. Their displays were full of intensity, chasing survival by any means possible against much greater powers.

Hungary 1-1 France Euro 2020

There was something very Hungarian about it all. An ‘us against the world’ mentality. It’s a mentality stoked and capitalised on perniciously by Hungary’s fiercely nationalistic Prime Minister and Hungarian football’s biggest supporter, Viktor Orbán.

There’s no doubt that Orbán’s populist outlook is abhorrent by any measure. His government’s othering of anyone not a white Christian, his treatment of refugees, his anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, his lack of solidarity with Ukraine, his dismantling of the institutions within Hungary. All stomach churning.

But you cannot divorce Hungarian football in 2024 from Orbán. His government’s part in its transformation has been enormous and it’s no coincidence his lavish outlay of near $3 billion on Hungary’s number one sport has coincided with their rise.

But it’s also more than just money. That money has been combined with a refuelling of Hungarian nationalistic pride.

This pride isn’t just some intangible characteristic. It has been enforced through policy, through a restructuring of the Hungarian football federation, the media landscape and the Hungarian football system. Again, you can question the motives for every one of these moves, but you can’t question the results.

This pride has created a love for Hungarian football again – for both the supporters and the players. For years, neither cared much for their national team. Games would be sparsely attended and Hungary’s biggest stars largely never performed. But now that’s all changed, and it’s had a mighty impact.

Because when you look at this Hungarian team on paper, you still don’t see megastars who’ve come through a contemporary, world-class academy system – that outlay hasn’t borne fruit. Instead, you see a potential superstar in Dominik Szoboszlai and a disparate collection of colleagues who play anywhere from Ulsan in South Korea to Philadelphia in the United States. You see players born in England, France, Germany, and Serbia. You see players on the books of Premier League and Bundesliga sides and players on the books of Cypriot first division and 2. Bundesliga sides.

It’s a random assortment. It’s not a team most would look at and say, “Ooof, these lads look like contenders.” But they are much more than the sum of their parts.

Hungary’s coach Marco Rossi is a big reason for that. Though an Italian by birth, Rossi gained Hungarian citizenship in 2023 and has spoken about Hungary being his second home.

From day one, Rossi has bought into Hungarian culture – not every foreign manager of an international side does that. Before taking over as, Rossi had managed Honvéd to a Hungarian league title and managed DAC in the ethnically Hungarian region of Slovakia. He knows what it means to be Hungarian despite not being one, and he’s set up his team in the same way. Gritty, intense, proud, survivalists.

That intrinsic survival quality goes a long way, it inspires Hungary to play at a level beyond their means. Yet being in survival mode can only get you so far. If you’re just surviving, you’re just looking for that next meal, you’re only looking to the immediate future. To progress, you need to open your eyes a little wider, and sometimes, divert those eyes backwards.

In January, in an interview with the tactics website, Spielverlagerung, the match analyst at the Hungarian Football Federation, István Beregi, spoke about this, saying “I think we can only live in the present well if we understand the past of who we were, giving us the cultural context.”

Beregi has been a part of the Hungarian national set up since 2020. His appointment was evidence of a move to the sophisticated. Rossi is a coach who likes to play on the transition – his club sides all played a similar way – and at international level, this has worked to great success against sides Hungary are expected to lose to.

They picked up draws against France and Germany at Euro 2020, and beat England and Germany in the Nations League. But one of the main criticisms from the domestic press throughout Rossi’s tenure has been their attacking build-up against teams of a lesser or similar quality. This was something that needed to be addressed.

Hungary open-play touches Euro 2020

Therefore, revamping the analytical department of the national setup and bringing in someone like Beregi was a real step forward. Tactically, Beregi is renowned around Europe as a formidable brain, and though you can’t attribute all Hungary’s success to him, it’s no coincidence Hungary have become more tactically astute in attack since he came in.

During qualifying for Euro 2020, Hungary averaged 49.9% possession and during World Cup 2022 qualifying, had 43.7% of the ball if you exclude games against minnows Andorra and San Marino. During Euro 2024 qualifying, their average possession jumped up to 58%, and they won their group for the first time in European Championship qualifying history.

Since the beginning of 2023 in particular, Hungary have become a very fluid football team. Playing a 5-3-2 formation, they still use some positional logic, but players have licence to improvise much more. For example, you’ll often see the wing-backs on either side of the pitch get close to their teammates and link play. The back three will often find themselves in the final third.

At international level, when you don’t have that much time to implement structures, this methodology works well. The system is not overly structured, you don’t have to be as precise with every detail like many club teams are. Instead, the setup allows for the players to adapt based on what comes naturally to them.

Roland Sallai is a big beneficiary of this. Vital to this Hungarian side with his work rate, and also acting as a trigger for the press, the attacking midfielder is hugely influential and drops in to get on the ball regularly. For Hungary, he averaged 51.8 touches per 90 in European qualifying compared to 43.9 in the Bundesliga this season for Freiburg. He also passes more in the final third (12.4 vs 9.0) and attempts more dribbles (3.4 vs 2.5).

For a coach, allowing this system puts a lot of trust in your players as the power ultimately lies with them, but Hungary’s unpredictably makes them much more difficult to face.

It also gives Hungary’s star man, Szoboszlai, freedom to do as he pleases. He isn’t told to specifically occupy certain spaces, but just to go wherever he feels right. In the March international break, Szoboszlai was receiving the ball from the goalkeeper at goal-kicks one minute and being a menace in the final third in the next. The responsibility this carries is enormous, but Szoboszlai is Hungary’s finest player by a long stretch, so to get him on the ball as much as possible makes logical sense.

It’s a role that’s very different to what he’s asked to do at club level. Throughout the European qualifying campaign, Szboszlai averaged 94 touches per 90 for Hungary compared to 80.9 in Premier League games this season with Liverpool. He also attempted 5 dribbles per 90 for Hungary compared to just 2.4 for Liverpool.

Dominik Szoboszlai open-play touches euro 2024 qualifying

It’s largely worked, too. Since Szoboszlai was made captain in November 2022, Hungary have lost just once, albeit that was the recent friendly against the Republic of Ireland. Szoboszlai and Sallai were both been given more responsibility in a tactical sense, and Hungary began to implement their new attacking shape and philosophy based on problem-solving.

“As a nation, we don’t like to be systemised. We often go around the system to find unique solutions – why would we do differently on the pitch?”, Beregi said.

Hungarians are world-renowned for their ability to problem solve. In the early 20th century, Hungary produced so many scientific and mathematical Nobel Prize laureates that the academic industry began labelling it the ‘Hungarian phenomenon’. The great mathematician Peter Lax, himself an Abel Prize laureate, once chimed: “you don’t have to be Hungarian to be a mathematician, but it helps.”

The phenomenon was loosely attributed to competition and a high level of teaching. Maths, for example, is taught differently in Hungary. Procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, logical thinking and problem-solving are emphasised to a higher degree. It’s one of the reasons why Hungarians in general rarely get flustered, there’s a kind of “relax, my friend, we’ll solve it” attitude.

The Hungarian language lends itself to this, too. In Hungarian there are 18 different noun cases, 18 different ways to express how one can exist with or relate to an object or another person. In English there are five. This leads to a different, more nuanced, fluid way of thinking.

And all this has been factored into the way Hungary play on the pitch. They don’t have the best players on paper. They’re likely to start with a centre-back who plays in the Cypriot league and a central midfielder who plays in Serie B. Yet it’s the sum of their parts that makes this team so tactically intriguing and also so successful.

A group containing hosts Germany, Scotland and Switzerland is tough, but there are many out there tipping Hungary as dark horses. That may be a stretch, Hungary will need some real luck for that. But for an international team to have such a distinct identity and gameplan puts you at a different level.

And that’s not even considering the survival instinct this team has. Those foundations, that grit, has been essential for Hungary’s survival as a nation. It’s also been vitally important in a footballing sense as well.

Hungary passes at Euro 2020

At Euro 2020, Hungary averaged the fewest passes per game of every team at the tournament (286.3) and the fewest final-third entries (30.3 per game). In those three games, Hungary drew two of them and were only behind for six minutes in any of them.

That will to survive when under pressure has not gone. But now with greater tactical sophistication and a re-tapping into that problem-solving nature, Hungarian football is dancing once again. This summer, we’ll see how far that dance can take them.

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