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Hungary Euro 2024 team guide: Solid foundations and Szoboszlai magic cause for hope

Written by on June 3, 2024

There is cautious optimism in Hungary that a solid side with a sprinkling of stardust can make a splash at Euro 2024.


The manager

“He could be filmed knocking over grandmothers in front of parliament, and people would still love him,” says one supporter, summarising the popularity of Hungary head coach Marco Rossi.

The 59-year-old Italian has been in charge since 2018 — making him the country’s longest-serving coach since the legendary Lajos Baroti in the 1960s, who was the final manager of a golden generation known as the Mighty Magyars.

A journeyman career took Rossi to every level of the Italian pyramid, before coaching at the lower levels in both his home country and Hungary. After taking unfancied Budapest club Honved to the 2016-17 title, the national team came calling. Having qualified for just one major tournament in the previous 32 years, Rossi helped Hungary reach two of the next three.

They impressed at the rescheduled Euro 2020 — drawn in the tournament’s ‘Group of Death’ with three previous champions in Portugal, France and Germany, they were unlucky to bow out before the knockout phase after drawing with the latter two teams.

Going right back to his time at Honved, Rossi is known for the ability to produce a team who are more than the sum of their parts — always starting from a solid foundation, which features three centre-backs, wing-backs, and a pair of No 6s. A 4-0 away win against England in the UEFA Nations League in 2022 is arguably the high point of his tenure.

In Hungary, the view is that he understands the nation’s collective psyche — a desperation to become a major player on the European stage once more — and has the public and personal skills to embrace those hopes, rather than downplay them.

“He’s like our Jurgen Klopp,” was the view of another fan. “We stopped being doubters, now we are dreamers.”


Marco Rossi is a hugely popular figure in Hungary (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The household name in waiting

Liverpool’s Dominik Szoboszlai is this squad’s clear star — but several other talents may raise eyebrows.

Kevin Csoboth is their fastest player, and hugely dangerous in transition. When Hungary come up against opposition who want to dominate the ball — both Germany and Switzerland are likely to in their group matches this summer — watch out for the 23-year-old forward from Ujpest, another Budapest side, to pop up with a goal, most likely off the bench.

The other player worth mentioning, like Csoboth, is not a guaranteed starter — but Bournemouth’s Milos Kerkez had a hugely encouraging debut season in the 2023-24 Premier League. His front-foot, aggressive style is very watchable — think Ezgjan Alioski under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United — and he loves to progress the ball by dribbling.

That said, he did lose some of Rossi’s trust after a rash red card when Hungary were locked at 1-1 against Bulgaria in qualifying, needing only a draw to go through.

“We told Milos in three languages ​​not to be so stupid,” a relieved Szoboszlai said after qualification.

Strengths

Hungary have a team based on solid foundations, before then relying on Szoboszlai to create. The epitome of this occurred last November in their final qualifying game, when they were trailing to lowly Montenegro.

After 65 minutes, Szoboszlai picked up the ball near halfway and beat four players before rifling a shot home — and just two minutes later, received a pass in the same position on the other flank, beat two, and played a one-two before putting Hungary in front. In the final minute, he almost completed a hat-trick with a top-corner free kick pushed away by the goalkeeper — but team-mate Adam Nagy was there to volley in the rebound.

Their other strength is a source of fierce debate. Rossi can boast two high-quality goalkeepers in Denes Dibusz of Budapest’s Ferencvaros and RB Leipzig’s Peter Gulacsi — his main task is choosing which of them should start. Gulacsi has been the historic first choice, and played at Euro 2020 — but after he tore an ACL in late 2022, Dibusz got the gloves.

Performing excellently in qualifying and well-known to domestic supporters (Gulacsi has never played a senior game for a Hungarian club, having signed for Liverpool as a teenager in 2007), there is a groundswell that believes Dibusz should retain his starting position. However, Gulacsi has bounced back from his knee injury in career-best form — after returning to play the second half of the season, he recorded the second-best goals prevented statistics in the German Bundesliga.


Gulacsi has recovered from an ACL injury and is thriving again for Leipzig (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Weaknesses

There are concerns over the make-up of Hungary’s defensive midfield, where they play a double pivot. Though there is talent in the country’s age-group sides, those prospects are not yet ready for senior international football, while stalwart Nagy has not been in good form, and was loaned out by his Serie B side Pisa this season.

MTK Budapest’s Mihaly Kata or Callum Styles of Championship side Sunderland (he qualifies via his grandparents) are in line to start alongside him, and there are questions over whether their strength and positioning will be exposed at the elite level.

Thing you didn’t know

When 22-year-old striker Krisztofer Horvath makes his first appearance at a major tournament, it will cap a remarkable personal story.

At 13, Horvath was diagnosed with lymph gland cancer, and was close to death. After a four-month battle, he pulled through — and four years later, his football talent had been noticed by Serie A side Torino, who took him to Italy. He made his debut for the national team last year, and is known for his bravery in the air.

“I had to grow up very fast, when the doctors diagnosed the illness, it changed me and the way I look at the world,” he has said. “Beating cancer made me more determined, defiant and tenacious — it made me think any obstacle could be overcome.”

Expectations back home

The mood is one of cautious optimism — although externally, the Hungarian FA have explicitly attempted to dampen the expectations created by that famous win over England two years ago this month.

An experience from their last appearance at a World Cup still lingers. In 1986, they were seen as genuine potential winners entering the tournament in Mexico but, paralysed by the pressure, slumped to a humiliating 6-0 defeat in their opening game against the USSR, and only beat minnows Canada.

The retirement of captain and long-time striker Adam Szalai since the previous Euros is a blow — but with their solid defence, organisation and Szoboszlai’s ability to conjure something, Hungary have all the hallmarks of a team who could surprise in tense, knockout football.

In Hungary, supporters have been speaking of the opening game against Switzerland on June 15 as crucial to their chances — they are anticipating a loss to Germany in match two and hoping to beat Scotland in the finale, so getting anything against the Swiss will see them well-placed to progress to the last 16.


Hungary’s squad

Goalkeepers: Denes Dibusz (Ferencvaros), Peter Gulacsi (RB Leipzig), Peter Szappanos (Paks)

Defenders: Botond Balogh (Parma), Endre Botka (Ferencvaros), Marton Dardai (Hertha BSC), Attila Fiola (Fehervar), Adam Lang (Omonia Nicosia), Willi Orban (RB Leipzig), Attila Szalai (Freiburg)

Midfielders: Bendeguz Bolla (Servette), Mihaly Kata (MTK), Milos Kerkez (Bournemouth), Laszlo Kleinheisler (Hajduk Split), Adam Nagy (Spezia Calcio), Zsolt Nagy (Puskas Akademia), Loic Nego (Le Havre), Andras Schafer (Union Berlin), Callum Styles (Sunderland)

Forwards: Martin Adam (Ulsan Hyundai), Kevin Csoboth (Ujpest), Daniel Gazdag (Philadelphia Union), Krisztofer Horvath (Kecskemet), Roland Sallai (Freiburg), Dominik Szoboszlai (Liverpool), Barnabas Varga (Ferencvaros).

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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