Hungary plan to get stadium rocking and make France feel the heat

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: László Balogh/EPA</span>
Photograph: László Balogh/EPA

Hours before the European champions, Portugal, checked out of their hotel on Margaret Island on Thursday, bound for Munich and a potentially defining encounter with Germany, the world champions, France, checked in to the Budapest Marriott a few kilometres south along the Danube. There really is no let-up for Hungary at Euro 2020.

There is no despondency inside Hungary either, it would appear, despite the misfortune to be drawn in a group alongside three heavyweights, in the role of supporting punch bag, and the manner of Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat by the holders. As Cristiano Ronaldo and company basked in victory before 4,500 Portugal fans in one corner of the Puskas Arena, Hungary’s players put their arms around each other on the 18-yard line at the other end of the pitch. Facing their hardcore support behind the goal, and in tandem with them, they bounced up and down while singing songs that had reverberated around the stadium for 84 minutes until Raphaël Guerreiro’s deflected opener pressed mute. It was an impressive show of unity and defiance given the eventual, unfortunate scale of defeat. France will feel its force on Saturday when Hungary have the backing of a raucous home crowd for the final time at the Euros.

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The captain, Adam Szalai, gave an eloquent, inspiring speech to his teammates before their play-off victory over Iceland but struggled to articulate what these home games mean to him. “I still remember the vibes from the stadium opening against Uruguay,” he said. “That night was one of the best of my career but participating in a European Championship that we are co-hosting is a dream come true for every player in the squad. If you’d told me I’d play in two Euros and one of them would be in Budapest I could not have begun to describe my emotions.”

Budapest is the only one of the 11 host cities to allow full-capacity crowds and Hungary one of only three countries – Russia and Azerbaijan are the others – to make quarantine exemptions for visiting fans. But with curfews in place, a large police presence ready to enforce it, vaccination certificates required to eat indoors and many businesses remaining closed, it is not a capital city leaping back into normality or with the feel of a football festival. The notable exception was the buildup to the Portugal game. Thousands of Hungary fans congregated in Heroes’ Square, where social-distancing measures were abandoned in favour of merchandise stalls and even face-painting. They descended en masse to the stadium, chanting all the way, having had to provide proof of a negative Covid test before collecting their tickets. Access times to the stadium were staggered to avoid congestion.

Hungary fans march towards the Puskas Arena on Tuesday.
Hungary fans march towards the Puskas Arena on Tuesday. Photograph: Zoltán Balogh/EPA

Uefa said: “The organisation of the match was successful and there were no major issues reported.” But Uefa has received an official report on homophobic banners at the game from the anti-discrimination group Fare. Banners stating “Anti-LMBTQ” (using the Hungarian abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) were displayed in the crowd on the day Hungary’s parliament voted to ban content in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change.

As for Saturday, the Hungarian Football Federation (MLSZ) has issued a warning over temperatures forecast to reach 33C at kick-off. “When it’s that hot it is difficult for everyone to play football so it will be tricky for France as well,” said Hungary’s head coach, Marco Rossi.

Adam Szalai

The heat of a crowd can work both ways and in the first half against Portugal, as every Hungary tackle, foul or forward punt sparked a wild ovation, the hosts played with too much emotion and little control. A reversal in the second half brought a vast improvement that Didier Deschamps will no doubt have noted, although Hungary’s composure lapsed again after Szabolcs Schon’s 80th-minute disallowed goal. Rossi, a refreshingly honest coach, who managed a host of clubs in Italy’s lower tiers before his career ascended in Hungary, took the blame in an attempt to shift criticism from his players.

“We came apart at the seams,” said Rossi, who labelled Hungary “a historic national team” having qualified for two successive European Championships. “That was my fault. I made too many changes that didn’t work. We were trailing and we needed to do something. I did that and clearly I got it wrong. Occasionally you can hold your hands up and saw you made a mistake.

“I’ve got absolutely not problem at all with saying I was wrong. Now we need to rest up physically and mentally for France. We are all familiar with how great the French players are.”