By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - When Hungary qualified for its second straight euros after a 30-year absence from major tournaments, fans were overjoyed even though they suspected their team's run may be unremarkable against three of the best nations in the sport.
In the end, though, they got far more: After a 3-0 loss to Portugal, they took a halftime lead in an eventual draw with World Cup holders France, followed by an electrifying 2-2 draw against Germany on Wednesday in which they twice took the lead.
Each time Hungary scored they were set for the last 16. Each time Germany equalised, Hungary were homeward-bound.
In the end they are going home, but many will say that Hungary put up more than a fair fight in what was rightly dubbed the "group of death".
Meanwhile, Europe has reverberated with another Hungarian football-related scandal instead, one which the players did their best to ignore.
The European Commission, several European countries and personalities have protested about Hungarian premier Viktor Orban's ban on discussing homosexuality and gender change in schools and the media.
To show their displeasure, the German hosts of Wednesday's match had wanted to illuminate the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours, a move that European soccer body UEFA blocked.
But Hungary's coach, Marco Rossi, and keeper Peter Gulacsi they pledged to ignore the politics and focus solely on the football.
"We were really close to something really special, so it is a big disappointment," Gulacsi said after the match. "Our team has a lot of heart, we have shown that for sure."
EXTRA EFFORT FOR LOYAL FANS
Before a training camp bubble closed on players in May, Hungarian Football Federation Chairman Sandor Csanyi had visited them and told them to be proud just to be in the competition.
Advancing from their group was not a reality, Csanyi told the Wednesday edition of the Hungarian sports daily Nemzeti Sport.
"We already won by being here," he said.
Hungary played in front of the competition's only capacity crowds, with the fans creating a wall of sound to give their team a boost.
Even when the team played in Munich on Wednesday, tens of thousands of supporters back in Budapest drowned out the Portuguese and French fans around them watching their own 2-2 draw unfold live in the Puskas Arena.
"The fans created one hell of an atmosphere," midfielder Laszlo Kleinheisler said after the Hungary-France match. "It is an incredible feeling to be here."
The newly built Puskas Arena may have been the closest resemblance of the atmosphere that has been lost since the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic.
If not for the row about the LGBTQ law, the Hungarian team's success might have been some vindication for the populist Orban, who forced through a multi-billion euro upgrade of the country's football infrastructure, including building the Puskas.
Either way, despite their early exit, the Hungarians leave the tournament with their heads held high and their country's presence firmly stamped on the map of European soccer.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai in BUDAPEST; Editing by Hugh Lawson)