Hungary triumph against the odds vs. Austria, Euro 2016's first shock result
BORDEAUX, France -- Hungary's players linked arms, ran as one toward their supporters and bathed in the ecstasy. If one or two broke ranks a little too early, leaping out from a giddily grinning pack, nobody cared. They had barely been given a chance by anybody heading into Euro 2016, not least against newly in-vogue historical rivals whose virtues had been extolled in most pre-tournament forecasts. Yet here they were, windswept and rain-flecked in south-western France but relevant once more, leaping into the arms of supporters who may not have been born last time they made a tournament appearance.
Returns to the top level of international football do not get much sweeter than this.
If the much-debated expansion of Euro 2016 needed some justification, here it was. Hungary were pretenders, makeweights, play-off arrivistes. They were deemed consistent disappointments who would not have stood a chance in these climes had Michel Platini not bequeathed a 24-team competition. This was supposed to be an affirmation of Austria's strengths but instead Hungary were excellent, growing into the game after a slow start and, in the final hour, proving comfortably the better side.
"We played out of our skins," said their coach, Bernd Storck. Nobody could disagree. Hungary were orderly and tenacious at the back but they showed a flair for expression, too. Perhaps a period of play just after the 20th minute, when they had ridden out a scruffy opening spell in which David Alaba rattled the post for Austria, held the key to their control.
For the first time in the game, Hungary strung 15 passes together between defence and midfield, each greeted by an "Ole!" from the red mass behind their goal. It didn't seem like much but they became noticeably less hurried and, with the central midfielder Laszlo Kleinheisler outstanding throughout, began to buzz with menace further forward.
Kleinheisler, who combined slickly with Adam Szalai to break the deadlock, deserved his man of the match award and has quickly become the poster boy for a team that on paper looks as if it has been cobbled together from spare parts. The 22-year-old only started one game for Werder Breman after joining the Bundesliga club in January and he was nowhere close to the national team a year ago. He has since become indispensable and brimmed with invention, creating Hungary's best first-half chance for Balazs Dzsudzsak before his 62nd minute piece of subtlety sent Hungary on their way.
There are others who stood out for their unexpected performances. Szalai, a gangly centre-forward who battled gamely, hadn't scored in 41 games for club or country before poking out a long leg to beat Robert Almer. Hungary's second goalscorer, Zoltan Stieber, was playing on loan at English minnows Yeovil Town from Aston Villa eight years ago.
Then, there are the remarkable cases of the veterans Zoltan Gera and Gabor Kiraly. The former, dictating from deep here, still looks effective at 37 while Kiraly, his unmistakeable tracksuit-bottomed self, made history on a night already steeped in meaning. At 40 years and 75 days, the goalkeeper became the oldest man to play at a European Championship and showed no sign of creaking, making a particularly important first-half stop to deny Zlatko Junuzovic's bouncing effort.
It is not a combination of players that should trouble the best, but the collective triumphed here. "If you look at the individuals in the Austria team and then you look at ours, it was clear who was favourite," Storck said. "But my team worked very hard and were rewarded for it.
"We have a great team spirit. It wasn't just about the 11; it was about the entire squad. The team has a great harmony, they work together and tonight we were able to create opportunities as we had done in training."
Particularly impressive was Hungary's sureness of step after going ahead. They were aided by a harsh-looking second yellow card for Austria centre-back Aleksandar Dragovic but kept flooding forward and when it came, Stieber's delicate chip was an accurate "cherry on top of the cake" (as Storck put it) for their endeavours.
Austria coach Marcel Koller had expected far more than the fitful performance his side produced. They were not short of opportunities but never really managed to gain a stranglehold on the game and enjoyed few concerted spells of pressure. He put their slackness down to nerves but there was time to pay Hungary their due, too.
"We knew that they know how to play football, that they could combine their play -- they've always showed this," he said. "Today we got confirmation that they are a good team in defence, have attackers who can play and that they are patient. So, for me, it wasn't a surprise."
It was for almost everybody else. Nobody will take Hungary lightly from now on and even in a group stage that makes it hard to fail, it seems unthinkable that any result against Iceland on Saturday will virtually guarantee them a place in the last 16. Group F has been blown wide open and after five matchdays, Euro 2016 has delivered its first legitimate shock.
Yet Storck would not be led into predicting any more ripping up of the form book. "We'll just focus on our own game," he said. That may not quite match the standard of the "Magical Magyars", their storied predecessors from the 1950, but it could just be good enough to take them further than anyone could have dreamed.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.