By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - Hungarians have spent over half a century wondering if they would ever have a national team to be proud of again but as their players stood in front of their supporters, singing the national anthem with tears running down their faces, it was clear that long wait was over.
The record will show that Hungary finished bottom of Euro 2020 Group F without a win in their three games and were eliminated from the tournament.
But another way of looking at Hungary's results is that, despite being written off as no-hopers in the toughest group, they held world champions and tournament favourites France and were six minutes away from qualifying with a victory in Germany -- until Leon Goretzka's late equaliser.
Were it not for the final six minutes of their opening game against Portugal, when they conceded three goals, they would have been unbeaten -- and as far as their loud and proud supporters were concerned, they might as well have been.
Hungary's greatest team, with Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti, suffered their darkest day with a defeat by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final -- a loss which the country never truly came to terms with.
This one will hurt too but unlike that loss in Bern might prove to be the start of brighter days rather than the end of a dream.
The team will head home to Budapest to be received as heroes after a third game of passionate and determined football, matched with the tactical discipline imposed by their hugely impressive Italian coach Marco Rossi.
Against France, they rode their luck at times and had 'Les Bleus' been sharper in front of goal, the praise would have been more muted but against the Germans they showed not only greater solidity at the back but swift effectiveness on the break.
Adam Szalai's diving header from a brilliant cross from deep by Roland Sallai had put Hungary in front early and they looked so determined to hang on to that advantage.
The wing backs, Loic Nego and Attila Fiola, powered up and down the flanks. Laszlo Kleinheisler was again relentless in his harrying in midfield alongside the calm organiser Adam Nagy.
Endre Botka blocked and battled at the back with Willi Orban organising in the middle but what was most impressive about Hungary, compared to so many of their teams of the past, was their self-belief.
Even when Germany levelled through Kai Havertz in the 66th minute, Hungary heads didn't drop and within two minutes they had regained the lead through Andras Schafer.
"We told each other at half-time that for 50 minutes we are going to fight and run for our lives," said Schafer, who was in tears at the end as he sang the anthem with the fans.
A deflected shot six minutes from time was the final blow for a team of little-known players battling against some of the continent's top stars.
In those long years of decline, Hungary too often looked over-awed by big-name opponents but this side relished the chance to make their mark against world-class opponents.
"We decided before the first game that we weren't going to talk about the opposition and just focus on ourselves," said goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi.
It worked and their modest coach, who in his homeland was limited to the lower divisions, was in no doubt about what his team had achieved.
"They’ve fought like lions throughout in all three matches, and they’ve made the whole country proud. We never feared the big names with whom we met; we stood shoulder to shoulder against everyone."
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond)