Photo: MTI

2020 was good, 2021 could be better

Year of cheer for football

Hungarian football fans will be hoping for a 2021 as successful as 2020 when the national team rose above expectations, qualifying for the Euro championships for the second time in a row and overcoming strong rivals to top its Nations League group. Add to this a mouthwatering FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign against England, Poland, Albania, Andorra and San Marino, and an exciting year is in prospect.

As 2020 dawned, few would have predicted that Euro 2020, with Budapest to be one of the 12 host cities, would have to be postponed in March from mid-2020 to June 11 to July 11 2021, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

The draw has seen Hungary placed in Group F along with Euro 2016 champions Portugal, World Cup 2018 winners France, and Germany. Hungary will play Portugal on June 15, France on June 19 and Germany on June 23. The first two games will be at the Puskás Aréna and the third in Munich. Portugal will play France at the Puskás on June 23.

The top two in each of the six groups plus the four best third-placed teams go through to the round of 16 on June 26. One game in this round will be played in Budapest on June 27, ending Hungary’s hosting duties. The quarter-finals will be played in St Petersburg, Baku, Munich and Rome on July 2 and 3, the semi-finals in London on July 6 and 7, and the final in London on July 11.

It is the first time a UEFA Euro Championship, held every four years, has been divided among so many host cities, to make it a “romantic” one-off event to celebrate the 60th birthday of the European Championship competition. Wembley Stadium in London has the largest UEFA capacity of the 12 stadiums, at 86,00-87,000.

Hopefully, COVID-19 allowing, a packed Puskás Aréna, capacity 68,000, will welcome Portugal and France before Italian coach Marco Rossi’s Hungarian team travels to Munich.

Work began on the new stadium, named after the country’s most famous footballing export, in 2016 and the arena opened in late 2019. The old Ferenc Puskás Stadion made way for the new arena, the one-time Népstadion (Peoples Stadium) having been inaugurated back in 1953. Euro 2020 will be the first large-scale football event of its kind to be held in Hungary.

To qualify, Hungary came only fourth of the five teams in its group, which put it into a play-offs pathway, and then enjoyed its biggest success of 2020, defeating Bulgaria 3-1 in Sofia, and managing to overcome Iceland 2-1 in the empty Puskás Aréna (the ban on fans went into effect only two days earlier due to the spread of the coronavirus), thus qualifying for the tournament for the second time in a row.

Hungary has benefitted from the expansion of the Euro championship to 24 teams in 2016 from the 16-team format used since 1996. Before that, eight teams competed.

In the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, Hungary will play against England for the first time since 2010 and for the first time in a competitive match since the 1984 European Championship qualifying campaign. The two nations last met in a World Cup fixture during qualifying for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Poland, meanwhile, last faced Hungary competitively in Euro 2004 qualifying. Albania last took to the pitch against Hungary in a friendly in Budapest in 2014, while San Marino were rivals in the race to reach Euro 2012 and Andorra in qualifying for the most recent World Cup in Russia in 2018.

Hungary head coach Rossi was philosophical about the draw, saying: “Once again, it has been proven that I am generally out of luck with such draws, although it’s true that we could have been drawn in a more difficult group. “I think we’ve been drawn in a moderately difficult group of six. One noteworthy point is that the group includes three teams led by Italian head coaches.

“Although both of our stronger group opponents only finished third in their Nations League groups, this should not deceive us, as England were semi-finalists at the last World Cup and are currently fourth in the world rankings, while the Poles, who are in 19th place, have Robert Lewandowski, who holds the record for most goals scored in a World Cup qualifying campaign with 16 strikes.

“Albania, I think, is one of the stronger teams to come from the fourth pot of seeds. Andorra are ranked 151st and San Marino are not in the top 200, but it is precisely in the case of Andorra that we should remember these smaller teams can be terribly dangerous if we do not take them seriously enough.

“We must prepare for every match thinking in the same way – we can’t think for example that it will be easy against Andorra as we know from the past that this is not the case. If we do this and we go on the same run as we did in the autumn series of fixtures, everything is open.

“This time, again, we are not the favourites to win our group, but we have managed to overturn form on paper several times in recent months, and we will do our best to be able to do it again,” Rossi concluded.

The World Cup qualifiers will begin in March 2021 and end in November. There will be three fixtures in March and September and two each in October and November.

Thirteen teams from Europe will qualify for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Of these, ten (the winners of each of the ten World Cup qualifying groups) will progress automatically and three via play-offs.

In addition to the ten group runners-up, two national teams will take part in the play-offs based on their Nations League results (the two teams with the best Nations League finishes, and who aren’t amongst the World Cup qualifying group winners or runners-up).

The European World Cup qualifying play-offs will be comprised of three branches, each with four teams, in a semi-final-to-final system in March 2022.

Hungary’s Nations League success, coming only six days after the win over Iceland, was the icing on the cake last year. In a group that many previously labelled a nightmare, Hungary managed to stun Turkey, Serbia and Russia to come out on top. Thanks to the triumph, the team will have the chance to clash with Europe’s top teams in the next edition of this new UEFA tournament.

Perhaps more importantly, Hungary moved itself into a better position for the playoffs (if needed at all) both for the 2022 World Cup and the 2024 European Championships.

In 2020 (or rather in the three months when national team games could be held), Hungary only lost once, drew twice and won five times while it exclusively clashed with similarly – or higher –ranked teams. As a result, the Hungarian national team emerged the one to bag the most ranking points (44) among FIFA’s 210 members in 2020, thanks to which it could step forward 12 places, the second most after Burundi, in the world ranking.

The other major highlight of the football year was reigning champion Ferencváros’ qualification for the continent’s top club competition, the Champions League. The green-whites managed to do so ten years after Debrecen and 25 years after their last qualification, marking the third ever occasion a Hungarian side gained admittance among Europe’s elite.

After knocking out the Swedish, Scottish, Croatian and Norwegian champions, Fradi eventually managed to grab one point in a thrilling tie with Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv in the group stage, which also included Juventus. Unfortunately their last home game against Barcelona was affected by the strict coronavirus regulations and no fans could see it in person, nor travel abroad for the games.

In addition, MOL Fehérvár was one match away (only defeated by Belgian Standard Liège) from the Europa League group stage.

In 2020 Hungary also got closer to once again finally “delegating” a world-class player in international football. After the last such player Lajos Détári, Dominik Szoboszlai‘s star is constantly rising, and he not only proved himself this year in the Austrian championships (playing for Austria’s best club RB Salzburg) but in the Champions League and the national team too, where he scored the decisive goal against Iceland in the 90th minute.

He has recently signed with top Bundesliga side RB Leipzig for EUR 20 million, the highest amount ever paid for a Hungarian player. And remember Péter Gulácsi, steady goalkeeper of RB Leipzig who, together with defender Willi Orbán reached the Champions League semifinal with the German club, emerging the first ever Hungarians to do so.

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