When the groups were drawn for the group stages of this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament, Hungary must have thought that they’d done something to anger the footballing gods. The seeding system is supposed to mean that every group is fair and balanced, with two “stronger” teams and two “weaker” teams from among the qualifying nations. Unfortunately, Group F – Hungary’s group – was anything but. To their horror, they found themselves drawn with reigning European champions Portugal, reigning world champions France, and the multi-time world and European champions Germany. In the eyes of most pundits, their fate was sealed before the team had kicked a ball.
If Hungary had qualified from their group, a lot of bookmakers would have lost a lot of money. Even with the potential of qualification from third place for teams with good records, Hungary didn’t seem to stand a chance. You’d have got more favourable odds from playing online slots than betting on Hungary with some bookmakers. What should be remembered, though, is that anything can happen when you play online slots. Wins don’t come very often, but when they do, they can be spectacular. Most people who visit Rose Slots Canada today will log off with less money than they started with, but a handful will be far richer. Victories that come against the odds are the whole point when you’re playing online slots – and it can sometimes happen in football, too.
Hungary very nearly managed to beat those odds. Until the final ten minutes of their clash with Germany in Stuttgart, they had qualification in their hands. An unlikely draw with France had given them a chance, but they still needed to beat Germany to make it to the next round. A draw wasn’t enough. They got off to the greatest start by taking an early lead against the Germans but found themselves pegged back after a goalkeeping error let Kai Havertz in to score. It was the Chelsea forward’s final action of the match. He was substituted only moments later and must have thought he’d given his team the momentum they needed to reach the next round. Havertz scored the decisive goal that won Chelsea the UEFA Champions League trophy last month; now, it seemed he’d done something just as important for his country. Fate had other ideas.
Barely a minute after Germany equalised and Havertz took his seat on the bench, Hungary led once more. A long ball straight from kick-off caught Germany’s defence sleeping. Andras Schafer fearlessly flung his head at it, leaping forward in the hope of getting there before Manuel Neuer in the German goal. He could easily have been hurt in the event of a collision. But, instead, he won the race by a matter of inches, planting his head on the ball and diverting it past a helpless Neuer into the back of the net. The impossible had happened. Hungary led once more, and Germany looked crestfallen. Psychologically, this was a hammer blow. It would take a strong team to recover from it, and for a long time, Germany didn’t seem to have the resolve to find an equaliser.
Almost everybody loves a good underdog story in sports, and this tournament hasn’t provided us with one yet. Every team that was expected to qualify for the knockout stages has qualified. Every team that was expected to be eliminated has been eliminated. Hungary represented our last chance for a genuine shock, and so we watched with bated breath. With ten minutes to go, the shock was still on the cards. Then it became nine minutes, then eight, then seven. With six minutes to go, footballing reality reasserted itself. Leon Goretzka seized on a loose ball at the edge of the Hungarian box and aimed hard and low. Cruelly, his shot took a tiny deflection off the toe of a Hungarian defender on its way through the box, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance of keeping it out. The ball went in, the Germans were level, and the Hungarians were distraught. From that moment on, it was never likely they’d score again. They’d given everything in defence of their lead, and they were exhausted. Six minutes later – plus the further agony of five minutes of stoppage time – Hungary’s tournament came to an end.
Hungary never expected to get through, but as so often is the case in sport, it’s the hope that kills you. For most of this match, Hungary’s fans dreamed of qualification and the prospect of a knockout tie in the last sixteen. With knockout football, anything can happen. An average team on a good day can beat a good team having a bad day. Sometimes, that’s enough to win the whole tournament. If you’ve been following football for a long time, you’ll probably remember Greece winning the European Championship in 2004. Those of you who’ve been watching for even longer might remember Denmark doing the same in 1992. If Hungary had been able to hold out for just a few more minutes, perhaps they could have added their name to the short list of unlikely winners. They go home with nothing to be ashamed of but every reason to regret that momentary lapse in the 84th minute.
For Germany, a familiar task awaits them in the last sixteen. The history of international football is littered with significant matches between Germany and England. Now there’s to be another one, and it happens at Wembley Stadium – the symbolic home of football. Unlike Germany, England won their group comfortably and haven’t yet conceded a goal. That being said, they’re also yet to face a team of Germany’s quality. The fact that these two sides are meeting so early in the competition means that one of the favourites is going to make an early exit. Both teams will be determined to avoid that fate, so this has all the makings of a fascinating fixture. Let’s hope it provides us with as much entertainment as the game between Germany and Hungary did – although that might be too much to ask for.
Memories are short in football, and so the almost-heroics of Hungary are doomed to be forgotten in a few months’ time. For now, though, let’s salute them for the courage and ambition they showed in this group. Nobody gave them a chance, but they so nearly took it anyway. If they can learn from this, they might go further next time around.