The Puskás Aréna in Budapest – Photo: wikipedia

EURO 2020 draw couldn’t have been much tougher

Pundits expect Hungary to die with their boots on

The month-long EURO 2020 international football tournament opens on June 11 with 24 countries vying to win and Hungary playing in the so-called “group of death” against 2014 world champions Germany, 2018 world champions France and 2016 reigning EURO champions Portugal.

Budapest is one of 11 host cities in 11 countries, and Hungary will have home advantage at the 67,000-capacity Puskás Aréna in the games against Portugal on June 15 and France on June 19 before travelling to the Allianz Arena in Munich on June 23 to face Germany. According to FIFA’s rankings, France is second, Portugal fifth, Germany 12th and Hungary 37th. No other group has three of its four teams among the world’s best dozen.

The opening match this Friday will see Italy play Turkey in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. The other venues are Wembley Stadium in London, the Olympic Stadium in Baku, La Cartuja in Seville, Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, Arena Nationalá in Bucharest, John Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, Parken Stadium in Copenhagen and Hampden Park in Glasgow. Dublin dropped out and Seville replaced Bilbao, both due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Each city will host three group stage matches and one match in the round of 16 or quarter-finals, with the exception of Saint Petersburg, which will host six group stage matches, and London, which will host two matches in the round of 16. Budapest’s fourth and final game will be a round of 16. Quarter-finals will be held in Baku, Munich, Rome and St Petersburg. The semi-finals and final will all be held in London, with the finale on July 11. It’s a decent advantage for England, still trying to throw the 1966 World Cup-winning monkey off its back.

The tournament has been postponed for a year because of the pandemic but still retains the name EURO 2020. It is being hosted in several nations for the first time as a “romantic” one-off event to celebrate the 60th birthday of the European Championship competition. The Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in extra time to win the maiden tournament in 1960.

Hungary had impressive wins over 2018 World Cup finalist Croatia 2-1 and Wales 1-0 in the eight games it played in its qualifying group but could still finish only fourth of the five nations, and then advanced to the play-offs via its Nations Cup performances.

The team needed a play-off win against Iceland to qualify and was then drawn in the “group of death.” EURO 2020 could hardly be a tougher draw for Hungary and its Italian coach Marco Rossi and the 26 players he has named in his squad. They are – Goalkeepers: Ádám Bogdán (Ferencváros), Dénes Dibusz (Ferencváros), Péter Gulácsi (RB Leipzig). Defenders: Bendegúz Bolla (MOL Fehérvár), Endre Botka (Ferencváros), Attila Fiola (MOL Fehérvár), Ákos Kecskés (Lugano), Ádám Lang (Omonia Nicosia), Gergő Lovrencsics (Ferencváros), Willi Orbán (RB Leipzig), Attila Szalai (Fenerbahçe). Midfielders: Tamás Cseri (Mezőkövesd-Zsóry),
Dániel Gazdag (Budapest Honvéd), Filip Holender (Partizan Belgrade), László Kleinheisler (NK Osijek), Ádám Nagy (Bristol City), Loic Nego (MOL Fehérvár), András Schäfer (DAC), Dávid Sigér (Ferencváros). Forwards: János Hahn (Paks), Nemanja Nikolic (MOL Fehérvár), Roland Sallai (SC Freiburg), Szabolcs Schön (FC Dallas), Ádám Szalai (1.FSV Mainz 05), Kevin Varga (Kasimpasa), Roland Varga (MTK Budapest).

Defenders Szilveszter Hangya and attacking midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai have missed out because of injury. The 20-year-old inspirational playmaker Szoboszlai is considered one of Europe’s hottest prospects but has not appeared in 2021 for club or country due to a groin injury. He is signed to Bundesliga club RB Leipzig. Hungary’s loss of its star player on the day the squad was announced was difficult to take as he is considered the team’s creative beating heart. This injury-induced absence looms large.

“Fate did not treat us well,” Rossi commented on the loss of these two players. “The other cruelty from fate is this group itself.”

Nobody, including the bookmakers, realistically expects Hungary to top the brutal group, or even qualify for the last 16, and it looks like a case of holding their own rather than causing an upset. They are the largest outsiders of all to progress to the knockout stages. The best prediction seems to be that Hungary will finish fourth but could decide who wins the group.

Still, the majority of players in the Hungary squad play in the NB 1 league, the Nemzeti Bajnokság, which finished before many other players had completed their Champions League and Europa League commitments, giving Hungary more than a month to prepare for the tournament.

The team has played two pre-tournament friendlies, drawing 0-0 with Republic of Ireland on June 8 and defeating Cyprus 1-0 on June 4, both at home. Come September, qualifying games for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will resume, against England, Albania, Andorra, San Marino and Poland.

With the constant increase in the number of teams competing in major tournaments, Hungary’s appearance in EURO 2016 in France was the first major event for which the country managed to qualify at all since 1986. Twenty-four teams competed in EURO 2016 compared to 16 in EURO 2012. At EURO 2016 Hungary beat their Austrian neighbours 2-0 and drew with Iceland 1-1 and Portugal 3-3, to top their group. Belgium then knocked out Hungary in round 16 by 4-0.

Despite the absence of Szoboszlai, the President of the Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ), Sándor Csányi, is optimistic about Hungary’s chances at EURO 2020, saying the team has evolved since its last game against Portugal in 2016.

Predictions of the International Center for Sports Studies (CIES) Football Observatory likewise reflect that picking up any points would perhaps already be considered a great achievement by Hungary. CIES’ evaluation found that France and Germany are the two biggest favourites of the tournament, while Portugal is the sixth (Spain is third and England fourth).

Hungary, on the other hand, is third from the bottom, above only North Macedonia and Finland.

The Hungarian team won’t kneel against racism before kick-offs during  EURO 2020, MLSZ has announced. MLSZ says Hungary follows international rules and norms in all cases and pays respect to everyone, be it an opponent, a fan or anyone else. The association highlights its “A gyűlölet nem pálya” (“Racism is not a field of play”) campaign.

The Irish football team expressed its shock and frustration after its players were booed and whistled at by Hungarian fans for taking the knee at the beginning of their friendly match against Hungary this week.

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